With their permanent body-changing effect, tattoos are a uniquely powerful way to remember and commemorate. Here, Catherine Ryan '06 writes about an especially meaningful tattoo. A longer version of this essay, titled "Indelible Ink," first appeared in Etude, the online journal of the literary nonfiction program at the UO School of Journalism and Communication; a shorter version appeared in the October 2009 issue of Self. Ryan (second from left in photo) is entering the literary nonfiction program this fall.
I heard it before I allowed myself to look—a threatening buzzing sound, like a dentist’s drill or an angry hornet. I glanced up and took in Splat, the dreadlocked and heavily inked tattoo artist, and the humming tool he held. I was terrified, but I nodded my head and closed my eyes as the needle broke my skin.
My mom, older sister Beth, younger sister Amy, and I—along with Splat and another tattoo artist—were crammed into an attic room in Eugene, Oregon’s High Priestess Piercing. We had decided to get matching pink ribbon tattoos to celebrate my mom’s tenth year of remission from stage three breast cancer. Despite my deep fear of needles, I couldn’t deny my excitement. A decade after being given a 5 percent chance to live, my mom was cancer-free and still with us, laughing and cracking jokes and going under the needle with her daughters.
In August 1995, my mom, Jan, mentioned a hardness in her breast to her doctor during a visit to treat a sprained ankle. Her nipple had begun to retract as well. She hadn’t thought much of it because she’d gotten a mammogram the year before, she was only thirty-nine, and breast cancer didn’t run in the family. The doctor was not so unconcerned. A biopsy confirmed the physician’s suspicion: A grapefruit-sized tumor grew in my mom’s right breast, an aggressive and fast-growing cancer that would nearly claim my mother’s life.
The year that followed was, for me, a sixth grader, an amalgamation of the tumult of early adolescence and the jolting changes that accompanied my mom’s battle. I fidgeted next to the wall at my first school dance; unknown neighbors and my parents’ colleagues arrived at our door bearing an endless stream of lasagnas. I read about how to kiss a boy in Seventeen; my grandma, who moved from Illinois for several months to help, comforted me when a neighbor boy made fun of my playing in the school band. I bought my first padded bra; my mother lost her Ds that she claimed had always gotten in her way anyway.
Amid the blur of that year, this moment stands out: One overcast day after her second round of chemotherapy, my mom and I were driving through Eugene’s south hills, returning from our weekly trip to a discount grocery store. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but she ran her fingers through her hair and came up with a handful of strands. She rolled down the window and tossed them outside. I stared at her. “It’s for the mama birds to make nests for the baby birds,” she explained, and continued on with whatever we’d been talking about.
Although she always had a smile for us, the days of grocery shopping and driving herself around were short. My dad shaved my mom’s head at the dining room table that November, shaking the remaining strands and Barbasol from the razor into a stainless steel bowl of warm water. A few weeks later, the day before her fortieth birthday, surgeons removed both of her breasts—even though cancer was found in only one—because the kind of cancer my mom had was notorious for spreading. When 20 of 25 lymph nodes sampled turned out to be cancerous, the doctors prescribed the most radical of treatments, an autologous stem cell transplant. My mom moved into Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, two hours from home, to undergo the month-long treatment.
We visited on the weekends, and that time we spent in the hospital has left me with an automatic and violently physical response to all things medical. This past spring, I attended a class at a Kaiser Permanente hospital for women with a high risk of breast cancer, and I fought off a panic attack while sitting in that Oakland, California, waiting room. I did not want to be in a place where terrible things happened, where women were told that their bodies had betrayed them, where they removed the most obvious signs of their femininity. I willed myself to keep my eyes trained on the tropical fish serenely swimming in their aquarium, but I inadvertently glanced at the women around me. Did she have cancer? I wondered of a middle-aged blond across the room. Was she wearing a wig? Would she survive?
At the tattoo parlor, the vivacious woman by my side barely resembled the emaciated, pale patient I remember from those months. This woman, my healthy mom, maneuvered around the cramped room, taking photos and asking Splat questions like “Where is the most painful place to be tattooed?” and “What’s the weirdest design you’ve ever inked?”
I smiled at my mom’s trademark inquisitiveness and tried to breathe evenly as the hollow needle worked on my chest. I had chosen to place the design Beth, now thirty-two, had drawn, right above my heart—or on my boob, as Beth joked. Both interpretations suited me.
My mom, now fifty-four, had talked of getting a pink ribbon tattoo for years. A colleague had once given her a gift certificate to a local tattoo parlor, but she never made the appointment. So several years ago, I broached the subject.
We were all lucky: Despite a few scares, her cancer never returned. My mom applauded as I graduated from middle school, high school, and college, and she saw me get married two years ago—milestones that, in the most hidden nooks of my twelve-year-old heart, I had feared she wouldn’t see.
After the four of us had been inked, bandaged, and advised of how to care for our tattoos, we returned home, chatting excitedly. Downstairs in the bathroom with the door locked, I pulled aside the gauze covering my raw skin and stared at my newly altered reflection in the mirror. The ribbon made visible a kind of inheritance from my mom, as indisputable a fact as the hazel eyes and thin wrists we share. It showed on the outside what I knew to be true on the inside: That the grueling year of my mom’s treatment shaped who I am today.
I would never say that my sisters and I were scarred by my mother’s illness—the gouges and radiation burns on my mom’s chest keep me from using that expression so lightly. Yet impressions, both big and small, from that time still hold sway in our lives.
And although my mom’s story has a happy ending, I still fear a more sinister sequel. Every health issue she faces—a lingering stomachache, numbness in her fingers—thrusts me back to my frightened adolescent past, when I felt I could lose her at any moment. And now that I’m older, my mind occasionally plays out worst-case scenarios with me as the breastless protagonist, playing war games against renegade cells.
I can’t say that I’m glad my mom got cancer, or that I wouldn’t change her diagnosis. I would. But I have come to appreciate what the disease—or rather, my mom’s courage—taught me. Although, like my mom, I can be stubbornly independent, I have learned to ask for help and rely on those closest to me when I need support. I have learned to value and fight for that which is most precious to me. The little pink ribbon I see every time I shower, get dressed, or make love to my husband will never let me forget this.