I stand outside a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles, my hands trembling, as I try to summon up the courage to go inside. This won’t be my first tattoo, but the last one I got was in 2008, which may have been a lifetime ago. I had no children at the time, but my husband and I were trying and failing to conceive. I chose to tattoo one word on my right forearm: Hope. It served as a reminder. Three years and many losses later, our first daughter was born. Then a year later his sister.
As I enter, I am greeted by the smell of smoke, and the buzzing and ticking of electric tattoo needles. It’s a sound that I immediately remember and associate with the piercing pain.
Every inch of wall space is covered with all the art you could possibly imagine on your body: anchors and hearts with swords through them and half-naked women and roses and snakes and more swords. So many swords
I walk to the front desk, dig through my purse and prepare a sheath of paperwork I filled out, along with directions to the place. The heavily tattooed and pierced artist laughs at the fact that I’ve printed the directions, which strangely comforts me. I can guess how he sees me: a 45-year-old mother, prime in my shell and cardigan set.
I show him my art: the last full words of my dad, spoken many years before his death, before he could no longer speak.
I decided that they should be in my dad’s handwriting, so I traced and redacted his words using a piece of vellum he had on old letters and cards he sent. I did this for weeks, trying to fix his writing.
Now, in the parlor, I pay the fee and the artist transfers a copy of my design onto my arm, and after my approval, it begins. I had forgotten the pain of my last tattoo. It feels like a vibrating bee sting. I start sweating, then start feeling dizzy. I am feeling nauseous from the nerves.
So, I close my eyes and remind myself of the meaning behind this tattoo.
I was visiting my dad in his nursing home in March of 2019. Till then he was in a wheelchair. Parkinson’s disease and dementia had already robbed him of his ability to stay steady on his feet.
“How is your father?” My father asked me.
I began to say, “I don’t know,” then asked him, “How are you? You are my father.” He immediately shook his head, as if we were suddenly playing a chariot. It was the first time he had his eyes on someone or something in my entire journey.
“But how is your father?” He said very quietly.
“I don’t know,” I said, embarrassed that I didn’t have a better response. “I think he’s having a hard time,” I said.
He nodded and looked straight at me, saying clearly:
“You go ahead.”
At first I thought he was asking me to leave. I wondered if he was saying that I talked too much, although it was unlikely, as I am often a supervisor and sometimes remain silent to a fault. Then, I knew exactly what he meant. I had been thinking about his regular phone calls for decades that he made to my siblings and me whenever he was about to board a plane.
“Listen to me now,” he’d say to an airport payphone on his calling card. “If anything happens to your mom and I—if our plane goes down and we die—know that you must move on. You’ll be insulting us by not carrying on with your life.”
The message was different for each of us. My sister recently told me that her message to her was always: “You honor us together with your brother and sister after we’re gone. No fighting. You stay together for dear life, Got it?”
In his phone call, he insisted: “Staying well and taking care of yourself and each other is in a way that makes you respect us.” He was an estate-planning attorney and in his line of work, he had seen it quite often: the patriarch or patriarch of a family died and their children went through a variety of reactions to grief. Perhaps alcohol or drug abuse, profound depression, or even suicide.
My siblings and I had come to expect these phone calls, and would often turn a blind eye when he called each of us. “Lord, Dad, you’re so sick!” I said once. And, “We got it, we’ll move on with our lives.” I remember often telling him to take xanax, and that his flight would be fine.
Now, he repeated to himself in the nursing home: “You go ahead.” He said it the second time in a diligent manner. It was clear that it was hard work for him to say something specific through all the ills and crossed the strings in what was once a beautiful mind.
The same mind that once knew every word of American Pie and would sing at the top of its lungs on the long family car ride from Wisconsin to Iowa; After 40 spring break spent in Florida with and without my kids, but always with firepower and my partner in life, my mom, the brain that can retain the name of every seashell, even the rarest Too.
My father died over the course of a long five years, so the goodbyes spread, not centered in one final farewell. Nevertheless, his death in February broke our hearts again.
In the first days without him on the planet, I felt numb. Then remembered what he had always wanted for us: to go on with our lives. to live well.
Of course, I’ve allowed myself to feel the pain of his loss, but I’m letting myself do what I know he wants for us: breathing easy, laughing hard, spending time with family, the ocean. Walking ashore, and singing over my lungs on a road trip.
As the needle buzzes its second pass over “You Go On” on my inner wrist, my shirt is soaked with sweat. I see that the artist carefully loops the “o”.
Tracing my father’s handwriting for weeks made me feel connected again. His handwriting is just like mine: messy cursive with letters going down a bit toward the end of every word, as if our hands and pens are too tired to stay up.
My hand goes numb as the artist finishes the tattoo. My wrist is red and raw, but my father’s handwriting reads: You go.
Words I will always carry with me in my heart and now, on my sleeve.
Carrie Friedman is a writer in Los Angeles. Learn more about his work carriefriedman.com,
All views expressed in this article are those of the author.