Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Different Kind Of Memorial

Not long after Ethan's funeral, his sister said that she wanted to get a tattoo to remember him because he always liked them but never got around to getting one.

"I've always liked the inner wrist tattoos," she said. "I think I'd like it there because I can't see most of my tattoos and I want to see it to keep him with me. Something like his name in a neat font. Do you want to go with me?"

In a moment, the idea was born for a different kind of memorial to the young man we love and miss.

She went to Pinterest to look up memorial tattoos, I went to a small stack of letters I received from Ethan while he was in jail one summer. I can't bear to read them yet, but I could glance at them. They were signed "Love, Ethan," and I didn't need Pinterest to tell me what I wanted.

Both his sister and I already have tattoos. Some are meaningful, some purely decorative. Earlier this year I had monarch butterflies with my granddaughters' names tattooed down my right arm. A few summers ago, a circle of paw prints went around my ankle on the day Otis, the best dog in North Carolina, died. A new tattoo wasn't an entirely foreign idea.

Then there was the fact that we both knew Ethan thought our tattoos were, in his sister's words, "bad ass." He wanted to get one, but had trouble deciding what to get. Then there was the obvious lack of finances, since any time he had money it went to video games or the purchase of his favorite cough suppressant. Tattoos aren't cheap.

In talking with Ethan's best friend, who has become part of our lives, not quite as a surrogate Ethan but because we're all hurting together, the idea expanded to include all three of us. A coordination of times and a couple of calls to our favorite part-time tattoo artist and we were committed.

So a few days ago the three of, an unlikely group with a bit of hurt still lingering in our eyes, gathered at the tattoo studio with photocopied bits of some letters and half formed ideas.

I had not waivered from my original idea, so I had the pleasure (if you can say that of a tattoo application) of going first. A copy of Ethan's familiar signature was applied inside my left wrist and I watched as the tiny needle made the handwriting part of my flesh. The pain I'd been warned about for that location was nothing compared to the last two weeks' mental anguish. I knew I didn't need it to remind me of him, or even to carry a physical scar of his life since he was a c-section birth, but after the work was done, looking at did give me a sense of comfort. It was though Ethan had written on my arm.

By the time I was finished, my daughter had ironed out her own idea. Also pulled from one of his letters was the phrase "I love you all," which she followed with his name. With more words, the preparation and application took a bit longer and the words themselves were a bit smaller.

During her time under the needle, his friend who had been like a brother to him most of their lives waited his turn and the two of us talked.

We talked about their relationship which had been so close until Ethan turned 16 and jumped the tracks to live with another friend and severed his ties with the real world, but which had resumed after Ethan moved back home and lasted until about a year ago. That was when Ethan's drug use and his friend's decision to get clean drove them apart. We talked about how we had both encouraged him to get clean, how he'd offered to help him and they could do it together. How Ethan just couldn't turn his back on the drug.

We talked about how smart Ethan was and how he changed. How there was possibly some chemical imbalance or mental illness such as so many truly gifted people carry that helped drive his addiction. How I wished that I or one of the counselors he had dealt with in school or after had seen through his brilliant bullshit to recognize the problem.

We talked about the drug itself, (dextromethorphan) which they both had used, and how it affected the way he thought and acted. "I'm not an angel," he said, "but the high from that was so intense. There's nothing like it." We talked about the rages it would induce, which he had also experienced and which had made me fear my son at the same time that I loved him. How his mom and I had both been forced at some point to "call the law" on our own children and his agreement that was all we could have done. How hard it was to get straight and how the drug still haunts him, despite a full life with a job, a wife and two small children.

"When he was straight, he loved us and he knew we loved him," I said. "When he was high, I don't think it mattered."

"No," he said. "When you're high all that matters is you and dealing with the feelings you have. No one else matters."

I told him for the umpteenth time how much he meant to me and that having him as a small part of my life now helps, just a little, to hold on to what I no longer have.

By then it was his turn and we'd also, somehow, managed to talk about designs. He took the "E" from Ethan's signature, had it enlarged, and added the dates of his birth and death. We had all agreed that "Love, Ethan" in any form wouldn't go over too well in his regular life -- at least not without overmuch explaining, regardless of how comfortable he was in his sexuality.

As he took his turn, we waited again with a different pair talking. We hugged and said our goodbyes before heading out in different directions.

Afterwards, I realized that in sharing the common bond of the experience, the common loss of someone we all loved and wanted in some small way to hold on to and remember, we had held our own small memorial service. I was surprised to find that doing so, that saying goodbye in a very personal way beyond society's expected way, brought me another measure of peace. I found out we all three got more from the experience than inked.

We left scarred at last with a mark the world could see, nowhere near as painful as the ones on our hearts, but one that will be just as lasting. It wasn't enough, but it was something and there was comfort in doing it together.

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