Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've noticed a new thing lately and it's got me thinking about those big questions of life. I first came into contact with this new thing on an airplane. A young woman, probably no more than 21, had on a spaghetti strap top (which caught my eye because I couldn't help but think she was going to absolutely freeze on the plane). Across her back was a large tattoo, all one color, that bluish color that seems to reign, and it was quite elaborate. Luckily, I had time to stare as she was in front of me in the line to get back to our seats. It was a memorial to her mother. There was a name, birth date and a death date. There was a message: "Mom will forever by in my heart." There were frolicking dolphins and curlicues and flowers. I was faintly repelled--here I was, getting on an airplane and I find myself in the cemetery. Two things that should never go together.
But no matter. Just an anomaly. Someone who felt she needed to do something since her mother died so young and she was at a vulnerable age. Then a few months later, in those few minutes while the students are coming into the classroom and we're just chatting about things, I noticed one of my students had several tattoos. We talked about them--what they were, how she picked them, how she picked where to put them--when I asked the assembled students how many of them had tattoos. More than half did, both male and female. When I asked in general why and how they picked them out--and this is just me. I can't think for the life of me what image I want on my body or where I would want the thing. A flower, a heart, a butterfly? No way. Too girlish. A Chinese symbol? Yeah, because I'm not Chinese. A vine or a design around my wrist or my ankle or going up my foot? I love wine but I don't know that I want to share that with the world at all times. Hmmmm....what do I love? Boxers! (I'm not putting my husband's name on me--too much like branded property). I love boxers (that's the canine variety) and have always had one. Ok, so where would it go? My shoulder? Kind of ruins those occasional formal evenings with lovely barely there gowns. My ankle? Still ruining lovely evenings even if it would look cute at the beach. On my hip or lower back? What's the point of that? No one but me, Bill and the doctor see those areas and none of them would be particularly impressed by this artwork. My upper arm then. Yeah, still ruining those lovely dresses. And let's not even think about what that fabulous tattoo would look like in ten or twenty years. I'm already seeing the signs of aging in all those places.
OK, so I don't want a tattoo, but my students do. As I asked them questions, one student piped up and showed everyone her arm, which bore, in that same bluish ink, a tombstone with dolphins on it, her mother's name above it and the death date below it. "My God!" I exclaimed before that inner censor kicked in that usually works much better than it did that day. "You are a walking tombstone!" thanks God she wasn't offended by this--responded with, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
After that, I have noticed more tattoo memorials, all of them on younger people. Then last month, the latest thing. Memorials on vehicles--well, so far, pick-up trucks. Three of them. On the back windows in that white stick on lettering. One was just lettering--the name, the birth date and death date (very young child of about two) and a slogan something like "We will always love you," but I didn't know who the "we" were. I would presume the parents, but it could have been an aunt and uncle--i doubt it was the grandparents. Too old for that. One truck had the tombstone with name and dates. Another had two deaths to record. One on each side of the back window--simple, just full name and birth and death dates. Different last names, one boy, one girl, different birthdates, different death dates, one five-year-old, one teenager. I'm thinking, who were these children to the driver? Was he in a car accidents and killed these two and this is his way of feeling better? Were they members of his family who had died of the same mysterious illness? Were they just two unrelated incidents and he just happened to know both of them? Maybe his wife was their babysitter at different points in their lives? Whatever it was, it was bizarre to me.
Which brings me to the big question--why are people beginning to feel the need to advertise their dead loved ones on their bodies and their possessions? What's next? Billboards? Or the cheaper route of t-shirts? The family could just pass those out at the funeral, probably in black at first, but venturing into the whole array of darker colors--navy, hunter green and maroon. Ok, so it's easy to make fun of this, but really, why are people doing this? I have to think that our rituals surrounding death have become so truncated that people aren't getting satisfaction out of the two days we generally spend on death. You have your calling hours (visitation, wake, viewing--whatever you call it) on one day and the funeral the following day which is often a service of less than an hour followed by a drive to the cemetery and another short, few words around the grave. For many, there's not even that ritual anymore as people choose to be cremated. Two days to celebrate, remember, mourn a lifetime. I can see how that wouldn't be enough.
For all our life milestones, we expect something. A wedding is a huge event even if it is only 4 to 6 hours long. There's lots of things leading up to that and following that that mark it as the life-changing event that it is. Engagement parties, bridal showers, shopping, planning, writing out invitations, visiting florists and bakeries and caterers and venues for the reception, choosing a band or dj, trying on dresses and looking for the least hideous bridesmaid gowns. There's rehearsal dinners and choosing the people to read or sing at your wedding, to watch over the guestbook and escort people down the aisle. And when it's all over, you get a week long honeymoon to bask in the glory of your wonderful day. Even when you get back to reality, there's still presents to open, and a new household to set up (or not, but you still get to put all those presents into the existing household). And now your status has changed and your new life begins. Sigh. How wonderful.
But a death is nothing like that. It's silent and lonely. If sickness, there's hushed tones and many people dropping by with food and well wishes, but they don't stick around very long. At the end of the day, you go to bed alone and think thoughts you have avoided all your life. And afterwards, you are left with cleaning out the closets, the drawers, the detritus of life of a life that no longer is. Sure, maybe a friend or another family member helps out, but you are alone, making those decisions of what to keep and what to give away and what to toss. And soon, everyone is gone and you feel like you didn't do enough, or say enough, or love enough--and the brilliant idea of tattooing the deceased's name onto your arm or back seems very appealing. See? It would say--See? I did love you. I have not forgotten you. But most importantly, I need everyone else to realize this. I need everyone else to ask about you, so I can talk about you and tell them how much you mean to me.
And I guess that's the thing that creeps me out about this--the need to show that this person was important to you. Have we lost the assumption that our family members are important to us to the point we need to prove it to others by advertising it? I just find that juvenile, like a child jumping up and down, tugging my sleeve, saying, "Notice me! Notice me!" I notice my friends and family, the people I care about. I don't need to see a memorial on their arm or their truck to know how they feel because we actually share those things anyway. What does it have to be so public that strangers are left wondering what the heck is going on with this person?