My husband Gary lived for 7 months after his Stage IV cancer diagnosis. When he died, I was so angry. I didn’t want to accept any
life story that didn’t include him. I saw a grief counselor, exercised, and started eating more healthily, but I stayed angry for over two years and felt disgusted that I was alive.
A cousin and I were talking about tattoos at Thanksgiving and during our conversation, I determined to get a memorial tattoo with owls’ wings in memory of the owls’ wings Gary had given me when he proposed. And he had always wanted to get a thunderbird and a turtle as his first tattoos, so I decided to get them for him.
On my first day in Daemon and Raven’s home, I passed by a wall hanging with the quote:
“In the end, what matters most is
How well did we live
How well did we love
How well did we learn to let go.”
I remembered all the times people encouraged me to “let go” when they really meant “forget.” I actively avoided looking at the quote. But it stayed with me.
I had planned to honor Gary’s memory by playing the recordings of the shakuhachi flute music he’d made for me between chemotherapy sessions. I never intended to use the tattoo process as a way to face my grief. I wanted to keep my emotions buried as deeply as possible, but the moment I sat in the chair to be inked, I surprised myself by starting to cry.
After I calmed down, Daemon asked me a question about Gary’s life. This triggered what could have been a lengthy rant as I remembered some of his emotionally painful experiences. But I caught myself and calmed down again. I started playing Gary’s recordings, and at times it seemed as if the needles were merging with the piercing notes. I marveled at how I could endure the process without chanting as I had done while getting my three previous tattoos from Daemon. I had always relied on chanting for pain management while getting tattooed, but I had turned my back on my faith and obstinately dismissed chanting’s beneficial effects.
Later that night while having a conversation with Carl, a man who was working at Castle Rowanchilde, I suddenly realized that letting go of my anger didn’t mean I would ever stop missing and loving my husband. The more we talked, the more I wanted to start chanting again. And I needed to keep it simple: just open my mouth and repeat the words.
During the second day of tattooing, I decided to chant so much that the anger would be forced out of me and replaced by the chanting itself and loving memories of Gary. At first I was rusty. I hadn’t chanted since living with Gary in hospice during his final weeks. My voice sounded weak, and I could barely repeat “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” twice in a row without taking a breath. But as the tattooing process continued, I began to chant with greater determination and fluidity.
Suddenly, Daemon shifted to tattooing the owl’s eyes. The sting of the needles immediately triggered a flashback: the moment I had to brace myself and enter the room to see Gary in the coffin for the first time. As I approached the room, the entranceway undulated as if made of water. Like the needle of a record player skipping repeatedly back to the same point, each time I made it to the threshold, I was bounced back so that I was a few feet away. I suddenly entered the room and saw the two empty chairs and soft light from a lamp on a table. And I remembered the certainty that his coffin was to my left although not in my field of vision. Daemon stopped, and I tried to explain what was happening, but my brain refused to cooperate. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself speak.
Daemon kept repeating, “You’re in a safe place. You’re in a safe place.” Finally his words sunk in, and I noticed I was sitting in the chair. He got some tea and brought back a card with a reproduction of Nori Peter’s “Northern Lullaby.” We discussed how the mother could be interpreted as my higher self embracing the part of me that was in pain. I definitely saw myself in the child.
I resumed chanting and looked at the picture from time to time and, from that point on, the session changed. I started harmonizing with the sound of the needles. Although at times the physical pain was difficult to endure, I began to depend on it to focus on chanting clearly and with all my might.
After the session, I felt exhausted and exhilarated.
Several weeks after Gary died, I had a dream in which I was a spirit and had no memory of who I was or where I’d come from. I was standing at the edge of a river when I looked up and on the other side I saw a stranger wearing a hat, cheerfully walking down a hill towards the river’s edge. I felt compelled to drift across the water and watch him. I thought I was invisible and was shocked when he stopped in front of me. With great deliberation and ceremony, he waved a feather in front of me and placed it on a large flat rock. We didn’t exchange any words, nor did he look directly at me. Then he continued on, just as cheerfully walking down the path next to the river. I woke up suffused with joy as I realized who he was. Every day since the completion of phase one of my tattoo, I experience that joy when I look at our photographs. And I feel so much love for him. My beautiful man.