Warm Ink

Warm Ink

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.

She nods.

“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).

Photo: gettyimages.com

My First Tattoo

My First Tattoo

By Amanda Rose Adams


I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.


For years I joked I would never get a tattoo because I wouldn’t pay someone to poke me with a needle unless it was medically necessary. I’d never considered spiritual necessity might lead me to a tattoo.

My friend Heather had one word, “Worthy,” tattooed on her forearm, and I admired it as a bold declaration in a world that conditions girls to question our own worth until we doubt it entirely. Heather died on November 30th; she was forty-one. While I’d considered copying her tattoo for some time, losing Heather made me commit to it. Yet I wanted the tattoo to be unique to me. On January 1, 2015, I had my first and possibly last tattoo placed on my left upper arm. It is the indelible word “Worthy,” with the addition of one yellow and one pink rose.

Twenty-six years ago, I was fourteen. In the glare of a pink reading lamp I discovered some small bumps on my left shoulder and upper arm. Several hours later, my arm felt like my skin had been massaged by thorns. This began a lifetime of self-harm.

My self-harm escalated to include needles, pins, tweezers, and nail clippers. It spread like an infection to my chest, legs, face, neck and even my stomach. While I inflicted injury, I never hurt. The poking, picking, digging, and scraping was all relaxing. The pain only came when I stopped. I was trying to excavate the thing inside me that made me wish for death. I never found it, but I left a landscape of scars, like strip-mines in the surface of my skin. I’m extremely pale, so most people don’t see my ancient scars, but I see every flaw in my skin, whether I’m looking or not. Each mark is like a glowing diode, a pixel of imperfection.

It all began in my upper left arm, so that is where my tattoo went, covering some of my deepest and widest scars. “Worthy,” shouts bold and dark against my pale skin and scars. My middle name is Rose. My yellow rose symbolizes my friend Heather, but yellow roses were also my mom’s favorite flower during her marriage to my father. Dad always bought Mom yellow roses, but he died almost eighteen years ago when he was forty-eight and I was twenty-two. My yellow rose represents memory and loss.

A pink rose (according to many tattoo websites) stands for healing, among other things. Traditionally pink roses represent gratitude. My pink rose is entirely centered on healing. I’m healing from my self-harm and the ancient pain of sexual abuse and isolation that led me there. I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.

Yet, I still am healing in the present, and trying not to pick at my skin at all, but especially in front of my kids. Leaving a pimple alone is nearly impossible for me, and I’m ashamed to admit my children have seen me pick at my skin. Now they are entering adolescence and getting their own pimples, and I’m terrified that my actions will teach or worse—have already taught them to be violent against their own bodies.

My beloved husband doesn’t understand my tattoo or how I could question my own worth. I know he loves me, just as I know my children love me, but the lies we tell ourselves as children are insidious. They haunt us well into adulthood. My tattoo is a rebuke to my doubts and reminds me that I was as innocent as my own children are when other people harmed me and when I began harming myself.

The tattoo reminds me to be honest with my children about their own self-worth and about my own. This tattoo, easily covered by a t-shirt, is not a declaration to the larger world, it is an affirmation and a pledge to myself in the second half of my life to set an example of self-care and self-respect that I deserve and want my children to inherit. Some people think tattoos are mutilations, but mine is the conscious art of reclamation from the true mutilation I did to myself out of self-loathing. My tattoo is the final word on the question of my self-worth.

I may never get another tattoo, but I might have the word “Loved,” with a deep red rose added beneath “Worthy.” In Latin Amanda, my first name, means, “Worthy of Love,” and I am worthy, I am loved, and so are the people I love in return, including myself.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.