Not long after her 18th birthday, my daughter appeared in the kitchen and pulled down the straps of her camisole to reveal a fresh tattoo on her right shoulder blade.
“I like?” She asked.
“It’s swollen,” I said, “and red. Is it supposed to look like this?”
I had turned away from the cutting board where my younger daughter and I were slicing peppers and bok choy for dinner to examine my older daughter’s broken skin. As I adjusted my glasses, I saw a woman’s body fall through space.
I hated it but kept my mouth shut. With a sharp grimace, I turned back to the vegetables. The banging of stainless steel on wood became an audible substitute for what I wanted to shout: How could you be so inconsiderate? Why would you make such a damaging, irreversible decision?
My older daughter didn’t seem to notice my distress as she turned her body to the mirror to admire herself. “It didn’t even hurt that much,” she said to my younger daughter, who had given up cooking and was fainting with envy. I grabbed two carrots and a bunch of spring onions and waved them in the air. “Anyone for dinner?” I had lost my appetite, but we still had to eat.
The burn mark on my daughter’s back shouldn’t have upset me – she’d been chatting away about different tattoo options for months. And legally I was no longer required to worry. Now my “grown” child not only got to vote, skydive, serve the meat cutter at a deli, own a pet, become a real estate agent and book a hotel room, but also step into the Mooncusser Tattoo and Piercing Studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts (motto). : “Take it to the grave”) and pay a man to stick a bunch of oscillating, ink-laden needles into her skin.
The mere fact of the tattoo wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was the tattoo’s nod to Seth, my husband, her father, that made me unsteady and clutch my knife tightly. Seth had jumped to his death from a bridge near our home in Cambridge when the girls were 11 and 8 years old. He was a devoted father, a popular robotics professor, and was never diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Then, one warm summer morning, Seth was gone.
That evening, as our home filled with stunned family and friends while a steady stream of chocolate babkas and macaroni and cheese pans poured in on our doorstep, my daughter had asked, “Will we ever be happy again?” I had I said yes, but I didn’t believe it.
I spent the following years restoring a lost sense of security and balance. In the course of these day-to-day hardships, my daughters and I became a unit that adjusted to each other’s moods and needs. When either of us needed a break, we’d settle down on the couch with sweet tea to watch Gilmore Girls, wallowing in the enchanting scenery and enjoying mother-daughter frolics. In the summer, when we longed for that missing fourth towel on the beach next to ours, I would point to the bay: “We’ll dive in.” We all believed in the healing powers of cold salt water.
Somehow, be it through our tight threesome or anyway, they’ve grown up, from elves climbing to the top of monkey bars to teenagers stuffing deodorant in their backpacks and hiding text messages from me.
I believed that my daughter must have known that her falling figure tattoo would trigger my old sadness and renewed my fear that suicidal impulses could be passed down through generations. But she seemed surprised when I asked her if she was thinking about jumping from the sky herself anytime soon.
She shook her head at my apparent ignorance. “It’s just a story,” she replied. “It’s Icarus, but a woman. Dad always read it to me. I think it is cool.”
Cool? Maybe someone else’s child. Not mine.
In my opinion, Seth’s suicide had affected all types of falling: jumping, diving, flying, climbing, and even landing. Since then I haven’t even been able to bring myself to cross the Tobin Bridge. I also couldn’t understand why, given the freedom of adulthood, my daughter would choose to mark herself with an upside-down figure whose melting feathered wings she couldn’t keep aloft.
“There must be a reason why you made your choice The Tattoo,” I said, unable to let it go.
Her eyes, dark and sparkling like his, rolled. Then she shrugged and left the kitchen. “I’ll eat later,” she yelled. “I go from.” My younger daughter also got involved before leaving. “It’s her body,” she said. “Your choice.”
As dinner simmered, I stood alone at the stove, feeling our familiar unity unraveling, as if the band we had formed was falling apart.
In a few weeks our breakup would be official. The three of us drove to New York to drop my older daughter off at college with tattoos, eyebrow tints, and piercings on an anatomy I was unfamiliar with—was it the rook or snug, tragus or antitragus, septum, rhino, nasallang, or a other body part would i need a penetrating dictionary to figure that out?
In her freshman dorm, she told me she was ready for me to go. A moment later she changed her mind, “You can stay a few more minutes.” I tucked the baby blue sheets into her single bed, then unrolled the brand new mattress pad. “Comfortable,” I said in an upbeat voice. There was so much more to say. But I knew better. Instead, I left a handful of protein bars on the battered desk. “I’ll take you out,” my daughter said.
On a Manhattan street corner, the three of us pulled together, drenched in sweat. We are the same height, five feet tall, and when we huddle together like this, we are in one line, like in classical architecture, face to face, hip to hip, as if we belong to the same body. When we finally break up, the distance between us will be even greater, as if we were falling apart. “I love you,” we said at the same time.
My younger daughter and I got back in the car to drive home, singing show tunes that the three of us used to sing together. I hear losses in the patchy harmonies.
A few days later I called my daughter at college to let me know. She didn’t answer my calls or my texts. I was taken back to the day Seth died. At first I thought he was in an accident and that’s what I’m thinking again. Something happened to her, I’m sure, at the park or at a party, on a fire escape, the drink was misplaced, one misstep too many. Suddenly I was sweating, breathing irregularly, trying to calm the voice that said my child must be dead. I was certain that the tattoo had taken over.
A sleepless night. Then a text message. “Alive,” she wrote. She’d been to a private view downtown, eaten 99-cent pizza on Bleeker Street, and sat on a porch until three in the morning, talking politics with a new friend
I wrote her a long email about my difficulties with our breakup, why the falling woman’s tattoo led me straight to her father’s jump off the bridge, and how I feared it might be a warning sign. She wrote back while I was walking the dog, “I wasn’t thinking about the context but now I see how you did it.”
She had never wanted to think about the details of her father’s death. Although my youngest kept asking, “How did Dad die?” and dutifully attended her children’s grief group and made works of art out of pipe cleaners and polished stones to honor the dead, my older daughter wanted none of it. She mourned him in her own way, by the way: a passing lyric in a ukulele song; channeling him as he plays the bullied, suicidal girl in the musical.heather”; filled the wall of her bedroom with “before” photos. She knew, but she also turned away from knowing – as we all know and don’t know so much: our partners, their secrets and our own.
As I pulled the dog behind me at a fast pace, I realized that the small influence I had had on my daughter was now gone. She had figured out on her own how to deal with it and find the good. The tattoo made her feel more comfortable and reliably covered her body like a soft favorite sweater.
That gave me some consolation too. A tattoo of falling is not falling, I thought. It is a realization of the fall. Proof that you haven’t fallen. There is soap, my father, a philosopher, told us when we were kids, and there is the idea of soap. The tattoo helps keep him alive, a new facet of her story – a story different from mine.
I tried to let go like mothers have to do. I read Kahlil Gibran foolishly hoping that words on one page might ease that separation: “Your children are not your children…they are with you and yet they do not belong to you.”
To emphasize this, my daughter soon sent me a new picture – a second tattoo, Ignatz, the mischievous mouse from the old Krazy Kat comic. Seth, an avid comic book collector, had the same tattoo, although he had it removed years before we met.
“What do you think?” She texted.
“It’s cool, honey.” Now I just wanted to stay in their 18-year orbit.
My new task as a mother of a grown child is to separate loss from loss, death from images of death, idea from implementation. The line is slim. Whenever her number pops up on my phone, I always feel a moment of anxiety as I wait for the sound of her voice. The words I hear could break either way. That’s the cost of living. I’m never sure if she falls hard and breaks or miraculously makes a safe, auspicious landing.
Rachel Zimmerman, An award-winning journalist, he has been writing about health and medicine for more than two decades. A contributor to the Washington Post, she previously worked as an editor for The Wall Street Journal and as a health reporter for WBUR, Boston’s public radio station. She is the author of Us, After: A Memoir of Love and Suicide, to be published in 2024.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 988, text, or chat 988lifeline.org to support mental health. In addition, see local resources for mental health and crises at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside the US, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
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