Dressed to share her body tattoos with the world, the teenager shot me a glance, challenging my not so subtle stare with her eyebrows,"What’re you looking at?"
I wanted to say … If you must know, I’m thinking if I tattooed my chest at your age with that butterfly, it would now resemble a pair of beached manatees. I’d probably wind up spending my children’s braces money having it removed. You’ll never get a corporate job sporting that tat.
But I held my thoughts. As my eyes surveyed her body, I noticed words covering her calf. Pointing, I asked, “What does it say?”
“It’s a poem.” She closed her eyes for just a moment, then read aloud the sorrowful ballad, pointing to each of the dozen lines inked between her knee and ankle. At the last word, she looked up, her eyes challenging me to ask.
Although I wondered what would prompt a young woman to choose such a tattoo, I returned only her gaze, leaving her in a wake of silence.
Her stare dropped to the ground between my feet as she filled the quiet with her story. Pregnant in high school, her family kicked her out. The baby’s dad, a much older boyfriend, gave her shelter. But, after the child was born, he declared the baby too much – too much work, too much noise – and kicked them both out. “We had nowhere to go,” she said raising her head and making direct eye contact. “We had to live on the streets … my baby got sick … my baby died.”
She took a deep breath, pointed to a colorful date inked on her arm and said, “This one is for how happy I was when he was born.” Motioning toward a date on her other arm, she whispered, “This one is when he died.” Her fingers paused on the delicate butterfly covering her chest. I noticed it trailed a wispy vine connecting to her son’s death inscription. She forced a smile. “This one is to remember he's in a better place.”
She was navigating the world without her son, without a partner, without a family, without a home. My life is surrounded by friends and family. My children are healthy. The walls of my home are lined with favorite quotes and photos. New paths of empathy surged where opinion and judgment previously clogged my thoughts.
Looking back through her eyes, I released my biases. Her body art is not a youthful indulgence, not an act of impulse to be regretted over time. Her body is the only vessel she controls. She lined her walls with love and memory.
Becky Berens Koop, PhD, is a freelance writer, travel chronicler and overzealous photographer. A former information systems professional, she shed her technical skin in pursuit of a creative encore career. Becky lives in Centerville, Ohio, with her husband and travel partner, Bill. She launched two children into adulthood and is learning how not-to-be a hovering mother-in-law. Becky journals her ongoing recovery from helicopter parenting (CopterDetox.com, @CopterDetox), shares .001% of her travel photos (@BearEndsCoupe), and struggles daily to view the world through nonjudgmental eyes.