I got my first tattoo in January of 2017. Visiting Greg in the hospital and spending an hour trying to coax him to wake up had left me frustrated – I knew I needed something to focus on, some symbol that would help me stay sane. I left the hospital, headed south to my friends’ tattoo shop, and got my first tattoo: a small dragonfly on my inner wrist.
I had been thinking about a tattoo for years but felt strongly that any tattoo I got should hold some sort of meaningful symbolism, something that would inspire me not for a day or a week, but for my entire life. Dragonflies symbolize change, mental and emotional maturity, and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life. They symbolize the depth of character we develop by enduring significant life events, and they are meant to remind us of the virtue of living in the moment. This symbolism resonated with me, and that tiny dragonfly on my arm was just what I needed for moral support.
“They’re addictive, Mom,” my son texted me. “You’re going to get more!”
I balked at his suggestion – until I got my second one less than three weeks later. I had been silently repeating the phrase poco a poco ever since Greg’s collapse in Spain. It was what his doctors used to say to me about his recovery – he can get better, just little by little. But this tattoo means more to me: as someone who tends to get ahead of myself, someone who struggles with patience, poco a poco is a message I need to hear over and over. It’s been handy to have it right there on my arm, and it helps keep me grounded. And when I sometimes spin, one of my best friends reminds me, “Just look at your arm.”
I got my third tattoo in June of 2017. It was six weeks after Greg’s passing, and I was filled with gratitude for the friends who had carried me through the crisis of his illness and were now supporting me as I grieved over his death. So, one of my best friends and I got matching Celtic friendship knots on our feet as a symbol of the phrase “anam cara” or friend of the soul. Seeing it every day has helped remind me that even though Greg is gone, I’m not alone in this world. It reminds me every day how very lucky I am to have the support system that I do.
On my birthday of that same year, the first birthday I would spend without Greg, I returned for my fourth tattoo. Shortly after Greg’s death a good friend told me a story that helped me think differently about loss. While we will all lose people we love deeply – grandparents, parents, friends, siblings, spouses, children – just because their physical presence is gone doesn’t mean their love is gone. Love never dies. I searched for the perfect symbol for this concept and settled on a large heart that swoops into an infinity symbol. This tattoo gave me strength during what turned out to be the months of my deepest grieving. When I look at it now, I think of all of my friends and family who have passed, and I feel their love.
After getting four tattoos, I began to understand what my son had originally said to me, even though I think of it a bit differently: it’s not that I’m addicted, but rather once I had gotten one, it removed the barrier to getting more. Still, I’ve been adamant from my first tattoo that any tattoos I get must have a deep meaning that will stay with me for life. So after the fourth tattoo in September of 2017, I didn’t get another one until May of 2019. I had spent two weeks that March in India with my daughter, both of us deeply touched when we visited Dharamshala, home to the Dalai Lama and Tibet in exile. The current Dalai Lama is said to embody compassion, something I always think the world needs more of, so for my fifth tattoo, I decided on a small symbol that represents compassion. I joke that it’s to remind me not to be an asshole, but really it’s a subtle nudge to me to be compassionate with everyone.
I recently got my sixth tattoo, a fancy script number 4. The number 4 is believed to be the number that connects mind-body-spirit with the physical world of structure and organization. To me, it also represents the four seasons, and reminds me spring is coming when I’m frustrated by winter. It represents the four directions of north, south, east and west, symbolic of my love for travel. Some people believe that seeing the number four is an indication that angels are offering love, support, encouragement, and inner strength, a notion I find comforting.
And then, of course, there is Number Four himself. While I didn’t get this tattoo specifically to represent the new man in my life, the number 4 obviously does make me think of him. And that reminds me that in order to find happiness and peace, we need to take some chances, to risk that we might be disappointed or hurt. I took a leap when I decided to date again, and I’m so very lucky that I found someone like him.
I know tattoos aren’t for everyone, but they are important to me. Now I just need to figure out what the next one might be!