There may be tens of thousands of drawings, illustrations, paintings, and tattoos of lions on the internet, yet it still took me almost 5 years to find the right one. Either too fierce, with open snarling mouth in full roar, or too cartoon-y, held up by a monkey as the circle of life surrounds the cub, what I was looking for needed to show strength without ferocity, innocence without over-sized Disney eyes. It may have taken me 5 years to decide on a design, but I’m pretty sure I got it right.
Liam’s neurologist, Dr. G., asked about my tattoo at his appointment this afternoon which is probably why I thought to write this post. I get asked about it all the time. It’s why I put it on my forearm, as conversations about my tattoo always, ALWAYS, turn into conversations about my boy. A feature not a bug, that was totally by design. Dr. G is probably the specialist treating Liam that I admire the most. He is brilliant and kind, he takes the time to make sure that we discuss all avenues of treatment. Liam was only three weeks old when he met Dr. G, he is the only doctor we have ever met who has treated another case of Miller Dieker Syndrome and, long before meeting us, Dr. G had started a clinic focused on lissencephaly in Boston, so he came into our lives with special expertise seemingly hand picked to treat Liam. Needless to say I was beaming with pride today when this man I admire so much had asked about this tattoo. Even more so since he seemed to love it.
But there’s also a part of this tattoo that I don’t talk about whenever it comes up. A part that is just for me. This piece was paid for with the cash prize I was given as the recipient of the Richard P. Welch Award for Continued Excellence in Patient and Family Centered Care by the Women and Infants Hospital. Not only is my forearm a physical representation of Liam’s nickname from only days after his birth and an illustration of his amazing strength, it is a constant reminder of the value and importance to sharing our story with the world. A mark identifying the calling that raising Liam has brought me to, in speaking and writing and volunteering to help not only families with children who have special needs and disabilities, but all patients and their families of the hospitals I work with.
Admittedly, it’s a lot of pressure and meaning to put on some ink under my skin.
But that’s just it…. All of my Ink, Means something.
“We should get tattoos today.” Karin said nonchalantly as we strapped little Liam into his carseat in the parking lot outside his pediatrician’s office 5 years ago. ” He just got his flu shot AND his 1 year immunizations. Poor kid just got stuck with four needles. Don’t you think we should get stuck with some too? Besides, that shop in town has a sign that says twenty dollar tuesdays for any words 5 letters or less.”
” Ha! yeah, good idea, that would be great.” I said waving her off and assuming we were joking, especially since I was due to be at work in less than an hour. “yeah, let’s get tattoos.”
A few hours later while at work I received an email. A photo of a wrist. A wrist with my initials in black. The subject line of the email read, YOUR TURN. After careful consideration of whether or not I was looking at sharpie ink on skin or tattoo ink in skin, I made up my mind to make a quick stop on my way home from work that night.
Now I know what everyone will say about tattooing names and initials on each other, because they all said it. I have more than one friend with big black tattoos that didn’t start out that way. Tattoos that had to be covered up when things fell apart, but after all that Karin and I had been through in the years it took to start a family, even if the unthinkable happened, I would be ok having a reminder of that part of my life on me, so of course if she got tattoo’d that day I had to follow suit.
“I think one of you guys tattoo’d my wife this afternoon.” I announced loud enough that all three tattoo artists could hear me from their stations as I walked in to the shop.
“Ah, you must be E.W.O.” a big guy dressed in all black said looking up from his drawing table. ” You know, she made a joke that she wasn’t 100% sure that you’d have the balls to come in tonight.” he said laughing.
I put a twenty down on the desk and started rolling up my sleeve. “Well then I guess now I’m just here to prove her wrong.”
And, not a day goes by that I’m not glad that I did.
It was a simple little ornament. Probably only 2 inches long, with red ribbon through an eyelet at the top. A pewter viking made in sweden and given to me by my aunt for our Christmas tree the year before. Given my Swedish heritage, (my great-Gramma Olson was born in Sweden, coming over in 1903) I liked that ornament so much that I hung it on a shelf in our living room year round. Until I took it down on the morning of July 22 2006 (nine years ago yesterday), and slipped it into my pocket. After a long, hard fought battle with cancer, my grampa had passed away the night before.
For the next 2 months and 5 days that little viking ornament became a talisman of sorts. In my pocket at all times, I would rub it with my thumb when I needed to, and in those 2 months and 5 days I needed to.
Only a few hours away from exactly 2 months after my Grampa passed away, our son Ben Olson was born and passed away. Karin and I, along with my parents and her parents were given about 8 hours to be together with him. To hold him. To tell him we loved him. To let him and ourselves know that he was a part of a family.
I knew that day that my first ever tattoo would be for Ben, but I also knew that even though it wouldn’t be like that little ornament, it absolutely could only be of one thing.
My first tattoo,
It had to be of a viking.
Wracked by grief and sadness, in the few days between Ben’s birth and his funeral I rubbed that little viking ornament between my thumb and forefinger so much that it began to bend and the detail wore off. Afraid of losing it forever, I put it back on the shelf. It still comes out every Christmas to adorn our tree. Their deaths coming so close together, and both so closely ingrained in my mind, Ben is laid to rest next to my Grampa which has always given me great comfort.
The littlest viking sleeps with my big viking.
And he always will.
A few months later, Instead of an ornament in my pocket, I put my heritage and my fatherhood to that point on my arm. Where he’ll always be with me.
I get that tattoos aren’t for everyone. I have more than a few extended family members who aren’t fans at all. That’s ok.
To me (so far), as you can plainly see, my ink is a representation of what’s important to me.
It’s a mark of my family.
And I am so happy that they are all there.