I wish I could say I saw it coming, that I had experienced some kind of warning or premonition or bad feeling. But as tragedy often does, it struck suddenly–much like a cobra waiting for its prey–the surprise leaving me open for a dose of paralyzing despair.
The news found me in the summer of 2013, a blissfully boring couple of a months following the bustle of my first year of high school. I was babysitting my elementary aged sister and her friend when my mother came home with heavily slumped shoulders and bloodshot eyes. She told the kids to return to their game in the living room while she directed me to our stairwell, joining me in a seated position on the carpeted steps. I can’t remember her exact words now – in truth, the only three which stuck were “godmother” and “found dead.” My mother rarely cries, but that day we bawled together – her mourning one of her best friends, me mourning the woman I’d considered a second mother my entire life.
Physically, I could still feel the stairs beneath my thighs, a tenuous tether to reality, but mentally I was drifting, drowning in a sea of memories. First it was the foggy, fuzzy-at-the-edges memories of childhood. These played like a slideshow of screengrabs rather than continuous video footage: a purple and yellow dinosaur themed cake for my third birthday, a road trip to Disney in elementary school, weekend rides in her red convertible, spending New Year’s Eve wearing her fancy dresses as the clock struck midnight.
These were followed by the more concrete memories. I remember learning how to play dominoes in her condo living room. We sat on plump cushions set up around the black lacquered coffee table, the game pieces continuously clacking together as we laid them out in a haphazard line. I remembered Beyoncé’s melodic voice booming from the Bose speaker while a second grade me made up choreography to the song “Déjà Vu.” I remembered always picking the same movie–The Lion King– when we watched one together, and rewinding the VHS as soon as it finished just to do it all over again. I remembered the anger and betrayal she felt – emotions which mirrored my own – when my family decided to move when I was nine years old.
After the move, the memories had become as sporadic as the communication between me and my godmother. I recalled my mother divulging what information she thought I was mature enough to know over the years. She told me of my godmother’s divorce, her ailing health, and her inability to work because of her diminishing health. After the first few years when they finally did talk, after slights had been forgiven, my mother spoke to my godmother more often than I did. As child I did not understand how we had made this transition, why it seemed as if my godmother no longer loved me as much since I was farther away. It wasn’t until I was almost a teenager that it became apparent, through reflection and discussions with my mother, what was happening: my godmother was embarrassed. The strong, independent, lively women I’d grown up with was ashamed of her diminished health and marital struggles; she refused to let me see her hardships.
Everything from that day gathered like a tsunami wave, sweeping me up and pulling me under, burying me beneath swells of emotion until it was a labor to draw breath. My body begged for air but it was like I had forgotten what it meant to breathe, as if the concepts of inhale and exhale were foreign to me. For the first time ever, I had experienced the crushing weight of grief. It was a riptide, snatching me up and dragging me out to sea. I had never been a strong swimmer and I was sure I would disappear beneath the whitecaps.
Almost three years later, the tsunami has faded into the routine crash of waves against the shore. They lap at my heels often, as is the case right now as I venture into the shop with Brittani at my side. My body feels more alive than usual, as if a live wire has threaded its way inside me, replaced every nerve beneath my skin. I can’t tell if it’s anxiety, the combination of the two liters of Mountain Dew and the Hershey’s chocolate in my stomach, or both working in tandem. Either way, Britt grips my hand with a reminder to breathe and I take her advice because she’s been in my position before. I settle into the worn and weathered leather couch, taking in the amazing art around me in an effort to calm my nerves.
I don’t have to wait long. I have an appointment so Bobby is expecting me. I carefully unfold the printed sheet of paper, doing my best to smooth out the symmetrical folds before handing it over. He takes it and returns moments later with his approximation of the script I have chosen. He directs me to move my tank and I do, lifting up the hem of the left side and tucking it securely into the band of my sports bra. He shaves the expanse of my ribcage to clear a space for his work; a cream is applied, followed by the stencil, and right before my eyes the temporary purple ink is left on my skin, ready to become a permanent fixture on my body. The climb onto the table is awkward because of my short stature but I do not feel embarrassed; it is hard to feel this way in a shop bursting at the seams with so much positive energy. It leaves no room for judgment. I get comfortable – as comfortable as one can get balanced on their side at the very edge of a table – and Bobby begins working.
Before, the sensation of the stairs beneath me grounded me, this time it’s the hot scratches dragging along my ribcage. I can’t help it as the tide rises and the memories come crashing farther up on the shore: the tears shed as I shopped for prom dresses, the realization she will never witness my high school graduation, or any other graduation for that matter. She has missed the entirety of my senior year and will continue to miss milestones as I grow older. This time there is no drowning beneath raw emotion, but rather a kind of wading through it, floating until the tide rolls back out to sea. I will find my footing again in the ankle deep waves. The needle etching a design across flesh and bone helps. I can feel the connection forming as each stab of the needle head pushes black ink in the layers of my skin. My mother loathes tattoos but she understands why I am getting one, why I am offering up my body as a memorial. The pain reminds me of the grief, the buzzing of the machine drowns out the roaring of the waves. I have been told the ribs hurt the most, but I have found a place of comfort in the ebbing. The whirring of the machine mingles with the crashing of the waves until I hear nothing but white noise. I have not only known pain, but survival. And I will survive this, too.
Edited by: Zach Iezzi & Sabrina Loftus