Today I go to the tattoo shop to get a tattoo commemorating my family. My first tattoo immortalized Shayna on my body- well as immortal as this body is. This tattoo is for the four of us. I get the design done and the guy starts working on me. This is the point where we have to make conversation with a perfect stranger for an hour. The guy is in his early 30s, from Hamilton, OH, obviously not highly educated and curses like sailor. We don’t have a lot in common. He starts the conversation with a story that sounds like a country music song. His girlfriend’s grandmother had to have emergency surgery, her cousin is in the hospital and might die from a sudden mysterious infection around the heart and his dog just got sick and he’s looking at $1,000 in vet bills and no diagnosis. All this since Monday and it’s only Thursday. I listen sympathetically and try to think of questions to ask him to pass the time. I really don’t want to talk about me, but we run out of things to say about him and he starts to ask me about what I do, my family, etc. I give him the back story careful to not bring Shayna into it too prominently because I really don’t want to get into the “my daughter died” conversation right now. There are three other people in the room listening. Two kids in their 20s, one getting a tattoo, the buddy with him just watching, and the other tattoo artist. I tell him about our recent vacation. We talk about Phoenix. I introduce all of the characters in my family, Tywana- married for 25 years, Kayla my 19 year old and Shayna 16. Right after Shayna passed I had decided she would be forever 15, but that makes no sense. The rest of us are adding a year each trip around the sun, so I say Shayna is 16 to keep her three years younger than Kayla. After that, the conversation goes something like this:
“So, your older daughter, is she in college?”
I explain that she’s at UT, studying biology, we talk about the cold up there. I’m thinking “Hurry up and get this done, we’re running out of things to talk about.” I’ve already told him I have two kids. He knows their names, he’s tattooing them on my arm. I don’t want to talk about Shayna. It’ll be awkward for him and I never know if I’m going to break into tears or not, even though I’m pretty sure not in front of these four strange men. Then he asks “So, what high school does she go to?”
I decided that I’m not going to lie about Shayna to save my feelings or anyone else’s. I’m not going to push my story on people. It makes people uncomfortable, but when you ask me a direct question, I’ve got to answer and there’s no way around this. “My daughter passed away I tell him.” and I just leave it there. He replies “Oh, I’m so sorry. (long pause). Now I feel really bad.”. “No, don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault. It’s OK.” I turn the conversation back to Kayla and what she’s doing at Toledo. He asks “How long ago did she die?” I tell him it will be a year next week. He points to the tattoo and asks which one is she? Then he asks about Tywana’s name and Kayla’s and, by the process of elimination, he knows I am Brian. Finally, he leaves it alone and we move on.
These awkward moments are going to keep coming up. I just play them by ear. I don’t have a planned speech or even a strategy. I’m going to be true to myself and to Shayna.