By Marie O’Brien
“I want to get a tattoo,” says my 16-year-old daughter Marina.
Careful how you respond. Don’t talk too much, don’t be judgmental, don’t freak out, and don’t overreact. Just. Don’t. Feel. After countless conversations addressing her coming of age questions about periods, mean girls, God, sex, pregnancy and more, I have learned that listening with NO REACTION, while repeating what I’ve heard is the best route.
“A tattoo.” I drone in my best unemotional, non-committal voice. “So you want to get one?”
“A lot of kids are getting tattoos the second they turn 18,” she offers before I can tell her she’s not old enough and 18 is still too young.
Images of websites that beckon “Epic Tattoo Fails, click here!” are flashing through my mind as I struggle to repress the urge to expound upon tattoos with misplaced apostrophes and bad spelling.
Her deliberation continues. “And I wouldn’t have it in a location that’s easy to see.”
As if that would be the ticket to get me to say okay.
I start to tell her about poorly chosen tattoo locations and efforts to cover them during job interviews. I know I’m not supposed to react, but I can’t help myself.
“All of them,” I say as I curl my fingers to mimic quotations, “thought it was a great location at the time.”
Marina tilts her head in that way that says, “OK Mom, I GET IT.”
But her voice is conciliatory. “I know, I know. I’ve thought about that too. It would be somewhere that could easily be covered up—except maybe in a swimsuit of course.”
She persists. “And I don’t want anything trendy, I would think about it a lot before getting one.”
“Have you thought about it?” I ask.
“What would your tattoo be?”
I don’t know what I’m expecting her to say, but what she says next makes my breathing stop for a moment.
She twists a ring on her finger and looks down.
“Two hearts linked together.”
And now I know where this is going.
“I want something to remember Matthew.”
The familiar lump catches in my throat.
Matthew is her twin brother that she never got to know—at least not in the way that we define getting to know someone. We gave Marina the ring the year before, engraved with two hearts linked. It reminded me of how at one time their hearts beat, side by side for 9 months, while bumping knees and elbows making space for each other.
She loved it.
Matthew and Marina came crying one-by-one into the world via C-section. We were told before the birth there was a heart problem with one of our twins, but doctors were going to do everything they could to save him. That day, excitement and innocent hope eclipsed my fear. As I lay on the operating table, I heard two hearty cries that buoyed my hopes and dreams. The nursing staff quickly placed Marina and Matthew in my husband’s arms. The four of us posed for a picture—my husband holding each baby, leaning close to my oxygen-mask covered face. Even his surgical mask could not hide the joy in his eyes. I didn’t realize at the time—that would be our only family photo. Medical staff swooped in and whisked brother and sister apart—Marina to a nurse’s arms, a warm sponge bath and swaddle in the nursery and Matthew to a lighted table, cold stethoscopes and probing tubes. He was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital to a team of specialists. The hours ticked by, doctors came and went, the news, once hopeful, took a sharp turn the next day.
Matthew died 28 hours after saying hello to his twin sister, his family and the world. These memories of their birth come to me in a rush and tears prick at the corners of my eyes but Marina is waging a debate and is at the pinnacle of her argument.
“I wouldn’t get it right away; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”
I walk over to her and hug her close.
Matthew is permanently etched on me, on my soul, through my memories, however brief. Somewhere in the far reaches of Marina’s infant memories are his touches and his birthing cry.
As we hug, I am no longer bursting to share my opinion on tattoos. All my arguments have fallen away.
Perhaps she needs a retrievable memory—her own etching.
“You still have to wait until you are older,” I gently admonish with a smile, “but that sounds beautiful.”
Marie O’Brien is a freelance writer and recently started a blog (runnermomma.com) to share stories about her experiences as a recreational runner and full time mom of three teenagers. Her essays have been heard on Milwaukee’s Radio Show Lake Effect (WUWM-Milwaukee).