My first tattoo

My first tattoo

              I got my first tattoo for my 76th birthday. In a nursing home. Drinking margaritas.

              Why?  Why not?

              I guess it all started when my youngest sister, Ginger, called to say she’s in a nursing home with stage four breast cancer that has metastasized in her brain and spine.  What do you do with that? 

      I drove the 1,600 miles from Arizona to be with her in Northwest Florida – in the small town where we were born and raised.  Where our parents lived and died.  The place Ginger wants to be buried.   I’m living in my van here, and I’m parked in a RV park about 5 miles from her nursing home.

Ginger is paralyzed from the waist down; she has trouble with her vision and sometimes sees four of an object.  Yet I can ride my Ebike back and forth to see her. What do you do with that? 

She likes for me to bring her a cup of Starbucks. I get her a cup every morning.  

In response to my sister’s cancer, my world has changed.  My desert view of cacti and mountains suddenly morphed into live oaks and azalea blooms.  Ginger and I have spent hours, days, weeks, and now months together.  We’ve laughed, reminisced, and imagined.  We’ve played “what if” and “why not.”

              Rowan, our great niece and a tattoo artist, flew in from Colorado.  Ginger and I laughed, “Why not?”  “Of course!” was Rowan’s 22-year-old response.  

              Ginger and I agreed to use the same tattoo, each slightly altered  – mine is a horse with a wolf at her feet. Ginger’s is a zebra with a wolf. 

              After dark, Rowan came to the nursing home and shut Ginger’s door. Ginger made me go first.  Something about me being the oldest.

I didn’t know much about tattooing   After scrubbing my forearm – a lot – Rowan put a stencil of the design above my wrist using something like old-time carbon paper. Rowan stopped joking round when she put on her headlamp; she was totally focused as she dipped what looked like a Dremel into a small vial of ink.  I learned that the proper name is rotary tattoo machine and there are many needle choices.   The sharp point vibrated as it pierced my skin.  Not deep.  But deep enough to lay down ink that will be there when I die. As Rowan tattooed the crown of the horse’s head near my wrist, I remembered when I was pregnant with my son – all excited, up to the point my water broke.  Then I questioned what I’d gotten myself into though I knew it was too late to change my mind.   Same thoughts about getting this tattoo.  Too late now. Yep, it hurt a little in a couple of spots but not as she worked away from my wrist and towards my elbow.  

              Rowan is a great artist, one who enjoys skin as her medium   Ginger checked out my arm and was happy to go next. When we were both tatted, Rowan brought out the margaritas that she just happened to bring with her inks. We toasted Rowan and laughed – probably too loud – as we wondered if anyone else had ever gotten a tattoo in the nursing home.

              The next morning, Ginger got busted by the Infectious Disease/Wound Control police.  They stood around her bed, clucking concerns about her getting her skin pierced by someone from the outside, while receiving radiation for brain cancer.  Ginger was not happy that they came when she was alone; she was certain I should have been there to take the heat with her. The fun police didn’t have a sense of humor. But they can’t erase the memories we have tattooed on our hearts.

              Today when I walked in, Ginger rolled her head on the pillow and said, “Look at this.”  On the side of her head were globes of hair that looked like it had spent the night in the shower drain. I asked, “Are you going for the dread lock look?” She laughed and said “No, I woke up from a nap, and this is what I found.” I said, “Would you like for me to brush it?” She smiled.  I gently pulled and worked with the hair she’d worn long since high school;  skeins fell out – onto the pillow, the blanket, my shirt, filling the brush over and over. She was quiet as the pile of long grey locks filled the garbage can by her bed, and then she said, “Thank you for being with me.”  

Today she still has some beautiful hair; tomorrow, her hair may be all gone.  What do you do with that?  I don’t know, but we’re sisters.  Hair or no hair.  Cancer or no cancer.  And we have the tattoos to prove it.

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