I was recently reminded that although I have told this story to friends, in three weeks I’m going to encounter a lot of people (at the Congress) who haven’t heard it, and there will be those who ask about the tattoo on my wrist.
And after reflection I decided to post the story here, too, since I’ve used this platform for other parenting discussions. And also since I don’t want to repeat this, all or in part, multiple times.
Twenty years ago last month (on 3/16) I attended a Jesus and Mary Chain concert in Detroit; opening for them was Nine Inch Nails – I came in mid-set. I was 19 and burning out in art school and it was a fucked-up evening fucked-up by interpersonal fuckwittery—suffice to day, one I would have been happy to forget (and looking back, it was probably the opening death knell of an engagement that was through less than a year later). Except not quite… I came in, slunk against the wall and cold and pissed and looking like something the cat dragged in (with freckles) …and I was transfixed.
It seemed like a good date to get this, my first tattoo.
16 March 2010, immediately after tattoo was finished. (Pardon the lousy cellphone photo.)
The line is taken from a NIN song, but this isn’t about NIN nor about Trent Reznor (not really):
Lights in the Sky
She’s mostly gone
some other place.
I’m getting by
in other ways.
Everything they whispered in our ears
is coming true.
Try to justify the things
I used to do.
Believe in you.
Watching you drown.
I follow you down.
I am here,
right beside you.
The lights in the sky
I am staying,
right beside you.
I tried to stay away,
just in case.
I’ve come to realize
we all have our place.
Time, time has a way you know,
to make it clear.
I have my role in this.
I can’t disappear,
or leave you here.
Watching you drown,
I’ll follow you down.
And I am here right beside you.
The lights in the sky
are waving goodbye.
I am staying right beside you.
Listen… it’s a quiet one, just piano:
There are a lot of NIN songs, through the years, that have resonated with me for one reason or another. Some still do, and others simply remind me of the time they did (and which I am happy not to be living, anymore).
When I first heard this one I sobbed. Still do, actually.
To understand why I need to tell you a story.
You see, I was a first-gen university student. There was the weight of expectations and the weight of culture-shock and the weight of a total lack of understanding by my parents of this different planet, this academia. I had Responsibility to Do The Right Thing and Make Them Proud (even in the face of being, personally, a pretty odd damn duck). I started in art but switched to humanities double majors/ double minors, got my BA, I stayed for an interdisciplinary MA… I had plans, potential… I gave conference papers, I worked hard (I worked through both degrees, at one point simultaneously half-time university staff, student, and teaching as a grad assistant). I applied for Ph.D. programs; I was accepted into my top choice. But. But it was without the funding needed to move a family out of state. I had money… enough to move just me. But. But I had two children, one of whose impairments we were just beginning to plumb the depths of. And I had a clear choice, one I had to make that I considered one that I could not un-make and I’d better fucking get it right the first time.
Work to reach my full potential, or sacrifice my dreams so Em could have any chance at reaching hers.
Let everyone down—my family, advisers, friends still in the field… even and especially myself—or let her down. All or one.
Watching you drown. I follow you down.
I am here, right beside you.
My choice was for the one.
Time, time has a way you know, to make it clear.
I have my role in this. I can’t disappear, or leave you here.
And as we’ve learned more and she’s worsened in so many ways and the way before us is clearer (but with information comes a lack of room for hope, sometimes) I remind myself that I made a decision. A choice. What happened to her chromosome might have been random, but nothing I could—can—do can be. I was not tricked, I was not trapped, I do not sit around feeling sorry for myself (although I deeply wish she didn’t have these challenges and limitations, and I certainly have days that make me wonder if I have the strength and emotional wherewithal to do this), I made a choice.
I chose her.
And now in addition to that imprint on my heart and mind, it’s on my skin as well.
Certainly there are other layers of meaning for this line I now have on my wrist… in my marriage there has been some very bad, very trying times—times that are past and that we are stronger for having survived. I have another child who struggles for a sense of normalcy in the face of instability, a shortage of ‘normal’. We all have our place.
And yeah, there is this band (this guy who is this band), whose music lent me sanity when I needed it, was the screaming I couldn’t vocalize, was hope (yes, I said hope) that is only possible after recognizing Things Are Very Wrong and, once recognized, opens a way. Who makes me cry, in whose instrumentals I find peace (in the inner landscapes they invoke), whose own journey was so clearly and painfully mapped from album to album (not the same road I was on, but the two sure ran parallel a lot of the time)… and so when I needed out of the bad places I had built inside myself to convince me of my own lack of worth there was a song, a line, a chord to lead the way, shine a light, kick me in the ass. I am loyal, long-term, to very, very few things… so when I realized that very nearly all of my adult life has had this one—one—constant I had to honor that.
And that is my tattoo.
Maybe for my birthday (40!) I’ll do the other wrist – for balance.