It has been three years this past August since I have felt the pain of needle to skin. And it will be four years this November that I will have felt the seething pain of grief and loss, the ripple effect of watching my sister die in front of me.
I have always been a person of outward expression; I blame it on the artistic spirit that runs in the veins of all of my family. See, after watching my sister go through doctor visit after doctor visit, radiation, then procedure after procedure, watching her fight for her life, sitting in the corner of the room as her screams filled the space in the room and in my mind, I knew I had to do something.
She was so brave, so beautiful through it all. And I loved her so fiercely. Emilee was my confidant, my best friend, the one I giggled with the most, who understood me the best. Who she was and is to me, combined with the story I carry inside of those hospital images I cannot shake, needed to manifest itself, and it did, in the form of a tattoo.
I never imagined that something as simple as ink on skin could carry such a depth of meaning, but the images, down to the tattoo process, have meant everything to me.
Fyre Body Arts is where I walked in alone, talked to an artist about the design and came back later for my appointment. It is this tattoo parlor that Emilee had chosen for her tattoo.
The placement for the design was on my back, close to my right shoulder. It was this area, closer to the neck and spine, where Emilee’s cancer was found. I remember that day clearly. I remember watching a girl getting tattooed before me squeezing her friend’s hand from the pain. But me, I focused in on it.
I wanted to feel the pain, feel a little of what Emilee had felt. As the needle reached close to my neck and spine the pain ignited, my skin on fire, as though the pricks were somehow deeper, as though the strokes were rattling my bones.
Three hours later and I had two monarch butterflies on my back and the words “I love you always & forever Emilee” carefully laid out around them.
The monarchs were our symbol. We spent that summer after her diagnosis walking in the park, and though we had spent many summers there before, this one was different.
We began to see monarch butterflies fluttering everywhere, almost always at key moments in our conversations. They brought a lightness to our walks amidst our talk of life, questions and fear. It was later, at the Baltimore Harbor where we arrived for the surgeries that were to take place at John Hopkins Hospital, that we were stopped by the sight of two monarchs fluttering and chasing each other. Even when I had to return to school in Pennsylvania, leaving my family behind, I began to see monarchs on my walks between classes, where I found myself worrying and fervently praying.
That December, following her death, was when I received the words for my tattoo. My mom entered my room with a balloon, in tears. She said she had been checking out of the nearby grocery store when this Disney princess balloon had bumped her in line, and she had heard the words, “I love you always and forever.” It was my birthday.
The pain, the placement, the black edges and splash of orange and yellow, the scripted cursive, are all permanent. As permanent and beautiful as the pain and love I will always carry for my sister.