When I was young I would wait until it was unavoidable to admit my dad was dead. I wouldn’t correct the plural on “parents” but if someone asked directly about my father, well, I wasn’t about to lie, evade, or reenact the Monty Python parrot sketch.
I didn’t avoid talking about it to avoid my own pain. I was 10 months old, not yet a sentient being, when he died, so I felt an absence more than a loss. My reticence was to avoid the discomfort of others. When a child tells you her dad is dead, if you’re like most people I encountered you react as if you have just killed him yourself. My protestations that it was ok, I was too young to remember him, you haven’t picked the scab off a wound, didn’t erase the regret from faces. At a certain point I’d worry that protesting how little talking about it bothered me would make me seem freakishly cold.
In general us WASPy type people don’t like talking about death and aren’t good at it. About a decade ago I lived in Mexico for a couple of years and admired their openness and playful sense of the macabre, but whatever lessons I learned were mostly as an outsider who wished my own culture had less of the “do not disturb” attitude of talking about death.
Dealing with a loss that has rocked my foundations over the last few years has meant being more open about my brother’s death. Also? I’m an adult, and death is far less rare among acquaintances than it seemed as a fatherless child, and I buy into the philosophy that we’re all adults and we can handle a little discomfort in the service of showing our humanity to each other.
I still wondered how I would answer the first time someone asked me about my tattoo. I’d meant to get it in a place only I could see, but an aversion to pain and desire to be able to easily see it myself means it’s exposed when my ankle is. If only we lived in Victorian times I wouldn’t have had the fear of many awkward conversations to come.
I can’t remember who asked about it first, just that it was someone I didn’t know well. But I remember it being a lot easier than expected to say a simple: “It’s a memorial to my brother who loved robots.” I didn’t feel awkward, I felt relief. Since then, I answer with as much or as little detail as the situation warrants. Closer friends (and complete strangers on the internet) get the “everything’s better with robots” story.
It turns out I don’t mind being asked about the tattoo because I like being able to share in a very small way who Steve was and what he meant to me. If people regret asking, they generally don’t show it and honestly? I generally don’t care. We’re adults. Discomfort is not the worst thing we face.
Some people have made comments before asking – my realtor laughing at it, people expressing their distaste for tattoos in general. I learned that I don’t want them to feel badly, any more than people should have felt badly for talking about fathers in front of Little Diane.
I’ve also learned that I don’t care. I hadn’t considered before getting mine how personal and meaningful many tattoos are to their bearers. I hadn’t considered how welcome the question “what does it mean?” might be to someone who was showing their heart on their skin, even if they originally meant it to be on hidden skin. The tattoo is for me. It’s part of me. And I appreciate people who let me share myself with them, awkward bits and all.