As the needle began piercing my skin, I wondered how the hell I was going to deal with this for the next hour.
So this is what it feels like to get a tattoo.
None of the descriptions I’d heard from other people really fit the sensation — it wasn’t like a cat scratch at all. Not to me. Someone also once told me, “If you can handle menstrual cramps, you can handle a tattoo.” This is probably true, but the type of pain is totally different. It would be like comparing falling off your bike to a stomach ache. Not to mention, a tattoo is choice, while cramps are not.
I decided to get a tattoo when I was about fifteen, but the choice about what to get and where to get it took about six years to narrow down. I’d had ideas before, mostly about Shakespearean lines or how I could make a bunny look classy on my body. But this was the only idea that made me decide to book an appointment and walk into a tattoo studio on Good Friday of 2015. Alex, of course, was there to hold my hand.
“It’ll be fun,” the tattoo artist assured me. I think he was biased.
I had decided I wanted a Celtic knot design on my leg. Not right on the ankle (which I heard could get pretty painful), but several inches above. When I expressed to my mother I wanted a tattoo to honour Dad, her suggestion was the Chinese symbol for “father.”
“Mom, we’re not Chinese,” I said, to state the obvious.
“I know we’re not Chinese,” she snapped.
Not only that, but I didn’t speak any of the Chinese languages and I certainly didn’t know how to read the calligraphy. What if I got the incorrect symbol and had something that meant “herfat” permanently inked into my skin?
I started researching Celtic knots that winter, because my white-as-Wonder-bread family is of Scottish descent on my dad’s side. We were Dingwalls back in the day, but I guess someone messed up when our particular cluster of Dingwalls came off the boat in Newfoundland. Despite a lifetime of living in Nova Scotia and having people call me “Rebecca Dingwall,” I’ve generally kind of enjoyed having Scottish heritage. From having our own tartan to a cameo in Disney’s Brave, it has its perks.
A Celtic knot, I figured, was simple and pretty enough for a first tattoo. I wasn’t fussy about the religious roots many of them had, but eventually I came across attached to a story that moved me:
Brighid sat close to her dying father as she weaved a knot from rushes. Her father noticed and asked her what she was doing. She explained how each loop, although individual, is not able to be separated from the whole, just as their relationship was interwoven.
I concentrated on that as the needle continued.
“Talk to me about something,” I told Alex.
“Like what?” he asked.
“I don’t know!”
I could feel the sweat gathering on my forehead, but as the adrenaline kicked in the pain became a dull sensation. The discomfort only became sharp again when the needle got close to my calf muscle, and I squeezed Alex’s hand at every twinge.
Seven months had passed since Alex and I agreed the world wouldn’t end if we started calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Throughout that time, he had never been one to shy away from my pain. It’s easy to judge how a relationship, romantic or otherwise, will turn out based on how the person reacts to you crying. I am arguably the most tearful person in the world. I could cry during a particularly beautiful sunrise or a Humane Society commercial, no matter how corny. I have an unbridled resentment for those who shy away from people when they are crying; people who just need to be held. Alex, thankfully, was a hugger. His only real downfall was his empathy, which meant he cried just about every time I did.
Alex accepted what was going on with Dad without hesitation, but I also wondered if that was because he never met a completely healthy version of Ron. I couldn’t help but feel as if things would be different if Alex had eaten a meal cooked by Dad, or if he had gone for a drive with him or seen him help me move. But things weren’t different, because Ron was Becky’s dad and Becky’s dad had ALS, and that meant he couldn’t cook or swim or drive. I don’t know if I would have gotten that tattoo had Dad still been able to cook or swim or drive, because I would have been taking for granted that Dad could do those things. I never really imagined he wouldn’t be able to do them; that those things would become memory instead of reality. If the past several months had taught me anything, though, it was that nothing is permanent. The tattoo wouldn’t even be permanent, because I was not. I am not. The aching of my back and shoulders from sitting on a table with no back rest and the grip the artist had on my ankle was not permanent, either, but I was getting tired of both after half an hour.
“Can I have some water?” Alex asked.
“Are you okay?” the artist said, stopping the needle to look up at me.
“No, it’s for me,” said Alex. He was getting tunnel vision, which was his telltale sign of overstimulation.
At the time, Alex already had three tattoos, all of which had made him black out or at least come close to it. This isn’t due to a low pain tolerance or a fear of needles, Alex told me. He has an overactive vagus nerve. The nerve extends from the brain stem, and when it gets over stimulated it can cause fainting. I knew Alex had this problem when he got his own tattoos, but we didn’t realize watching someone else being tattooed would have the same effect. Apparently, it did.
A woman at the front desk brought a glass of water and a few pieces of chocolate. I was a little worried, but the situation was more humorous to me than anything else.
“What is this?” I joked. “You were supposed to be my moral support, but here we are and it’s the other way around.”
Alex laughed, as much as he could manage in his state. Once his tunnel vision passed, I suggested he step outside. The artist was finishing up the shading on my new Celtic knot, and the pain had become increasingly underwhelming. I felt almost detached from my leg and could actually watch the artist now. It felt like he was inking someone else and I was just an onlooker.
When Alex came back, the tattoo was just about done. The places where the artist had shaded the knot grey appeared red, as skin generally does when it’s poked at for almost an hour. I wished I had asked for red ink there instead. I stared at the image, which now felt like irritated sunburn, until the artist covered it with a bandage. I knew was sentenced to many years of aunts and uncles asking me why I would do something like that to my body. I would tell them it was simply because I wanted to. More than anything, though, it was a way to fight the forgetting. Forgetting Dad’s voice and what it felt like to be lifted or held by him.
Remember, damn it. Remember.