tattoo

Ink.

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.

 

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“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.

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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,

Ben’s 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.

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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.

My Bona Fides. 

Yes, I am the Eric Olson in the article, and yes I am the 2014 non-clinical recipient of the Richard P. Welch Award for Continued Excellence in Patient and Family Centered Care, and yes the reason I’ve started writing for, and posting to, the blog again was because last week when I was told this was printed in my hometown newspaper the East Providence Post, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make a liar out of whoever wrote “He regularly updates his blog,” since they were right about everything else in the announcement.

Yes, I won an award. I’ve never won an award before, and I am really proud of this one. Even now, a month and a half after being presented the award (and that was a month after I was told I had been selected the winner), I am still kind of amazed and speechless that I was even considered for this honor, and there are a bunch of different reasons why.

1. Reason the first (not in ranking of importance, just a listing). This award, as the article mentions and as Mrs. Welch noted in her speech during the presentation in January, was not about my work, at my “work”. Yes I work IN the Women & Infants Hospital but I work FOR (meaning who signs my checks) a large management subcontractor managing the kitchen. I am decent at my position but in my day job I have little exposure to the care of our patients other than providing safe and tasty meals while they stay with us (although, as I tell my staff, whether or not you have direct patient contact, ALL hospital employees impact patient and family centered care). Instead this award was for my work on the hospital wide advisory council for patient and family centered care, where the perspective I bring is more often as the father and husband to former patients, rather than a department manager. It was for my presentations and speeches to Pediatric Grand Rounds, and the Follow-up Clinic conference on NICU dads.  It was about the work I did attending the Institute for Patient and Family Centered Care National Seminar last year. It was about the work I do sharing Liam’s story with you. Right here. Because without this blog and all of your responses to it, I don’t think I would have had any idea that Karin and Liam and I had a story worth sharing, a point of view that had any value, or that our experiences could help people and systems of care for anyone else out there with a family member with complex medical needs.

2. The second reason that this award is so cool and I’m so proud of it is because it isn’t just about me. I of course would have no story to share, No motivation to help, and no confidence to stand and speak were it not for my amazing wife and this incredible little boy that we are lucky enough to have in our lives. I often say at my speeches that I had never been able to speak in front of groups before Liam was born but get me bragging about that kid and I could speak to hundreds, Thousands! And I would do it for hours. I’m not the award winner, we’re an award winning family.

3. Third, the award came with a little money, and as soon as Karin heard that she insisted that I use it to get something just for me. Not to use it all for heating oil and car maintenance but to splurge on something that I’ve been talking about getting for the past 6 years but could never justify the expense. Even though most of it did go to those bills, I was able to save enough for my own award and it means so much to me.

Finally I was able to get my next tattoo. And every time I look at it or show it off I remember where the money for it came from.

If you need a tat in Rhode Island go see Greg Arpin at Unicorn Ink, he does incredible work. This came out better than I could have imagined. Works out pretty well when your kid has a badass nickname.

 

4. But I suppose the biggest reward of receiving this award is that I’m beginning to actually believe that I am an advocate. That I’m legit. Ive got my bona fides.

The award is knowing now that I can do this. Not only because it’s what I am so passionate about, but someday, if I can figure out my way in, because someday it will be the way I make my living. This award is recognition that I am on the right path for that.

Recognition that I have a story, the skills, and now the confidence to tell it, only it isn’t my story,

it’s Liam’s story.

I’m just the guy who he awarded the opportunity to tell it.