Death of a Grandparent
There’s a reason why so many choose to symbolize loss with a tattoo. When it comes to death, many of us try to forget, so that we can forget the pain … only to remember years later, that what we fought so hard to move past and “forget” is something we should really remember.
It’s an innate desire for humanity to remember what we can forget with symbols. It’s an innate desire for us to remind others with symbols.
In Judaism, observant Jews wear a phylactery around their heads and their wrists. It’s both for themselves and for others … in order that they (we) might remember.
Religion has always used symbols. And these symbols are often deemed as “holy” because of what they represent and what they remind us of.
Like religious symbols, there’s a sense that when tattoos are used to remember the dead, those tattoos are holy … maybe even just as holy as religious symbols. Memorial tattoos symbolize our heritage, our love, our loss in a way that we and others must remember what we too easily forget.
Here’s some examples of holy tattoos:
I can’t remember anything but her underwear.
I can’t remember the day or even which convalescent facility we were in. I can’t remember what my mom was telling me or what I was wearing.
What I can remember is her underwear. They were big, literally granny panties. Soft cotton. Conservative white and new baby pink. No lace or ruffles.
I can remember how they folded softly in my mom’s hands. She caressed them absentmindedly as she spoke.
We were moving my grandmother into a new facility.
We were in the repeat-the-same-question-every-five-minutes stage of her dementia, not yet to the frantic wheelchair racing or the evergreen season of suspicion. She hadn’t yet looked desperately into my eyes and asked if I could find her mother.
But still, we were scared, my mom and I. Missing the mother and grandmother we once knew. The woman who remembered her legendary spaghetti and meatballs recipe and walked loops around her apartment complex with friends bearing names like Petey or Marge.
The fear hung silent between us as we unpacked her clothes, a few books, some pictures of toothy grandchildren for her bedside table.
Henri Nouwen talks about patience as one of the cornerstones of the compassionate life; impatience the deterrent that keeps us tapping our feet, checking our watches, and missing the glory of God.
By this point in the story, (like you I venture to presume) I should have been tapping my feet, checking my watch and writing off another summer afternoon as “empty, useless, meaningless.”
But I didn’t.
The counterpoint to impatience, Nouwen describes another rendering of time when we experience the moment as “full, rich, and pregnant.” When “somehow we know that in this moment everything is contained: the beginning, the middle, and the end; the past, the present and the future; the sorrow and the joy; the expectation and the realization; the searching and the finding.”
This was one of these moments. Watching my mom delicately fold my grandmother’s underwear. In this moment I was gripped by the thought that love need be nothing more than this simple, intimate act.
It became an unempty moment.* A moment I didn’t want to get away from. A moment filled with the glory of God.
To this day, this afternoon represents a rupture for me. A rupture that signaled not a fracture, but a deepening. A deepening love for my grandmother. A deepening respect for my mom. And a deepening gratitude for every humdrum moment-turned-miracle I had left with both of them, together in one room, folding underwear, in an unempty moment.
*Precious moments was already trademarked.
Aly Lewis is a twentysomething writer from San Diego, Ca. When she’s not writing ridiculously witty and yet still thoughtful and inspiring copy for the international non profit Plant With Purpose, you can find her roller blading, showing off her dope hip hop moves, or overanalyzing her quarter life crisis. She has a passion for social and ecological justice, anyone who speaks Spanish, and experiencing the God of the unexpected. You can check out her mismatched musings on life here: http://memoirsofalgeisha.blogspot.com/.
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