By Will Daddario
That which we refer to as “Pain” really deserves a more careful parsing. There are, after all, so many kinds.
When my son Finlay died suddenly, and ultimately without reason, at the end of 20+ hours of labor, I certainly felt pain.
But that pain wasn’t physical.
It was world-ending.
A sort of existential pain that coincided with a complete shattering of my reality, my sense of time, my sense of wellbeing, and, truly, my Self.
I call it pain because it hurt, but it wasn’t strictly equal to the pain my wife felt, the pain women experience while in labor, the pain of a broken bone, the pain of depression, the pain of social injustice or any other kind of affront to the nervous system.
As a grieving father engaged actively in grief work, I have learned that there are infinite pains.
This realization led me to a question: might there be a pain that serves me well?
Might there be such a thing as care-full pain, a curated pain that supplements my ongoing effort to open to grief and loss?
Tattooing, it turns out, is this pain. At least, tattooing serves this purpose for me and for many other grieving parents I know. In my case, the ongoing practice of tattooing provides me with a ritualized activity that fuses body and mind, or, rather, eliminates the perception that the two are separate.
Tattooing exposes the unity of my body and mind through its exquisiteness.
The pain of tattooing is literally “exquisite,” in its original (Latin) sense of “carefully sought out”: I seek out this pain as a means to focus my intellectual and embodied knowing on the tangible struggle of living without Finlay.
Finlay is named for the Scottish poet and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay whose garden Little Spart, in the Pentland Hills of southern Scotland, is one of that country’s most prized works of art. The garden is immense.
Here is Jessie Sheeler’s description of it from her book Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay on this magical place:
“It is a garden of ideas and poetry, with works in stone, wood and metal almost invariably incorporating words, and set in surroundings which enhance or are actually part of the whole work, so the trees and bushes, running water and still ponds, grass and flowers become more significant by their appointment to a place within the artistic scheme.”
When my wife Joanne and I walked through Little Sparta during a visit there well before our son’s conception, we could hardly believe the size of the place and the attention to detail that crafted each corner, vista, and section within the garden.
Little Sparta is truly a curated world, a place cared for with the precision of an artist-thinker whose work helped shape the field of poetry in the twentieth century.
In the years since Finlay’s death, I have decided to treat my body with the same kind of curatorial attention that I. H. Finlay gave to Little Sparta. Each tattoo I plan is placed in a specific location, and the change in location allows me to experience the pain of the needle in a new way.
Each part of the body I choose as the canvas carries a symbolic charge, and each piece of text or image works to amplify that charge through its literary or pictorial narrative.
It is my hope that, one day, my body and its tattoos will serve as an analogue to I.H. Finlay’s garden, with each space carefully designed to testify to life’s complexity and the cyclicality of life, death, and rebirth that the natural world knows so well.
The pain of the tattooing itself works mysteriously to fasten my knowledge of this complexity and cyclicality to a deep part of my soul, one that sees beyond the limited temporality of quotidian letdowns, stubbed toes, familial dysfunction, and the like toward something more capacious in scope.
The first tattoo in the garden took root on the left bicep.
Ne pas être indigne de ce qui nous arrive.
This thought—which translates into English as “not to be unworthy of what happens to us”—comes from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze who uses the words to articulate a new understanding of ethics.
He seems to suggest that right action comes not prior to the deed but afterward. We do not possess a moral clarity that shapes our actions and determines them as ethical or unjust; rather, we act, and then we live into the aftermath of the action.
It is there, in the post-factual living, that we realize whether or not we are worthy of the decision we have made and the effects our decisions have wrought.
We become worthy through living into our deeds and accepting our role in them.
Intuitively, I felt this would be the path with my grief for Finlay. The words wrap around the bicep, center of my arm’s strength, and serve to remind me of this temporality proposed by the French philosopher.
Finlay’s death is not the end of my life. It is the beginning of my quest to see how I might become worthy of Finlay’s departure.
I chose the left side because of the correlation between that side of the body and the right side of the brain, the side given to creative expression.
My act of being worthy would require a creative spirit, not a rational, step-by-step plan of action.
The pain of the words’ application was acute, especially on the fleshy underside of the arm. Perhaps not surprisingly, the healing of the tattoo was more painful than getting it.
I was intensely aware of my body’s healing process as, for at least a week, my arm scabbed and began to claim this text as a permanent part of my body. The lesson was clear: healing is an ongoing process that takes much longer than one expects.
Once healed, relics of the wound remain in the form of scars, but these scars reveal the body’s inbuilt system of self-preservation.
In truth, this “first” tattoo revealed the fact that the careful pain of tattooing had been active in my life for some time.
The ethical promise now formed a symmetrical pair with the inscription on my right bicep—the Ancient Greek philosophical expression for “Care of the Self”—that I got after my father’s sudden death two years previously.
It turns out my garden had been growing before I knew it.
Time passed before I decided to return to the tattoo parlour. This next one took some thought since it was partly for Finlay and partly for his brother, Phalen, who had made his appearance in the world during the summer of 2016 after we moved to Asheville, North Carolina.
Phalen’s presence, as bright as it was, doubled as a stark reminder of Finlay’s absence.
I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and wanted a tattoo that would speak to the therapeutic journey through that depression as well as to the child-like wonder of Phalen’s presence on the planet.
I decided to enlist the help of our friend’s brother, an artist known for his renderings of animals. The final design was a giraffe. Not a realistic giraffe but an origami giraffe, and not a completed origami figure but one that was in the process of unfolding.
The symbolism came from a realization that my ability to endure great periods of depression came from a knowledge that was already enfolded inside me.
I didn’t need to invent a new method for living. I needed, instead, to unfold what I already knew. The giraffe speaks to this unfolding.
A portion of its belly is peeling back to reveal a light within, a light that can guide me through the experience of parenting a young boy who, at his birth, so closely resembled Finlay that my knees buckled and the pain of that earlier loss shook the hospital where he arrived.
The pain of a shoulder tattoo is surprising. The muscle there is thick and able to absorb the pain during the sitting. Afterwards, however, is a different story.
The pain of the earlier tattoo was acute during the recovery phase, but the pain of this one lasted at least twice as long. The pain was exacerbated by the tiny feet and hands of an infant who kicked and punched the giraffe repeatedly as he flailed about.
Again, though, the pain of the healing process rooted and stabilized my beliefs about healing from the traumas of my past. The body becomes stronger as it incorporates knowledge sewn from the pain of grieving.
That sentence sounds profound, and maybe it is, but it does not erase the moment-to-moment dis-ease of living with the death of a child. My depression ebbed and flowed as Phalen grew, but each ebbing seemed to take me further out to sea.
The third tattoo in the ongoing body garden came about while struggling to keep my head above water. Its placement and its message doubled as a kind of preventative magic spell that would protect me during bouts with my darkest of thoughts.
“Make tiny changes to Earth.”
These words, scrawled on the inside of my right forearm, would serve as the shortest, most laconic to-do list.
Why persist? To make tiny changes. To help others in small ways as they, too, do the work of grieving.
To guide my children who are, after all, only a small part of the world’s vast population.
The words come from a song written by Scott Hutchison of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit who completed suicide in the spring of 2018:
“When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth”
It is clear from these and other lyrics that Hutchison struggled with suicidal thoughts for some time. The driving beat and insistent vocal intonation, however, gives the music a sense of hope.
In this song, a thought of death and the apparent meaningless of life resolves into a modest plan of action.
Like him, I would rely on this simple instruction: make tiny changes to Earth. And I’d write it there on the forearm where the veins show through and lifeblood peeks out.
The writing of this particular message carried an even deeper meaning since I decided to incorporate some of Finlay’s ashes into the ink.
Hutchison’s few words slowly grew into a palimpsest where the surface message of pragmatic self-preservation covers a magical incantation aimed at protecting me from harm, and, beneath that, the ashes of my little boy write something imperceptible that radiates nonetheless with profound perspicacity.
Unlike the shoulder, with its muscle used for shouldering all sorts of burdens, the underside of the forearm is rather muscle-less. The skin there is thin, and the pain of the tattoo reveals that thinness.
Again, though, the pain here is a careful one, one chosen and designed for a longer, ongoing art project, and I think this fact helped to remind me of pain’s many purposes.
The body senses an invasion or abnormal sensation. It sends information to the brain, as if to say, “Alert: something is not right. Please instruct.”
Framed within this ongoing tattoo project, however, the brain responds calmly: “Patience. This sensation creates space to think.”
The hurt of it all is transfigured into an ascetic revelation of the body’s ability to absorb unwanted sensations and turn them into lived knowledge.
Recently, Joanne and I welcomed our third son into the world. Mid-way through the pregnancy, we discovered that the baby has a complex congenital heart defect, and thus we prepared for a turbulent entry into the world managed by many doctors and nurses.
The little boy, Ren, spent the first eleven days of his life in the hospital.
On day 5, a stent was placed in his heart to keep him alive. Since then, he has had two more hospitalizations and repeat catheterizations in order to prepare him for a major surgery at four months of age.
Around four years of age, he’ll have another major surgery, and he may need a heart transplant at some point in his life.
The words on my left bicep ring out: not to be unworthy of what happens to us.
I have yet to sit for a tattoo that will honor Ren’s early struggles, but I will eventually do so. When I do, I will let the pain of the experience unify the lives and deaths of my three sons– Finlay, Phalen, and Ren–into the thick present of the tattooing experience.
Before that time, I’ll attend closely to the pains I endure, both physical and psychical, and attempt to keep in mind the knowledge that pain comes in all forms.
While there are many pains that we do not want, many that we would never wish upon our worst enemies, there are certain kinds of pain that open up perspectives to broader horizons.
These other pains, which I think of as careful pains, pains yoked to the empathetic acts of caring for self and others, serve as major assets in the ongoing craft of grief work.
In my case, the exquisite pain of tattooing and the planning of my life-long body gardening project helps me to distill the knowledge I’ve gained thus far.
The tattoo I get for Ren will continue this work, as will all the tattoos I get in the future for reasons I can hardly imagine.
Perhaps you, too, will experiment with this kind of careful pain. Might we think of tattooing in the wake of grief as a curatorial experience geared toward writing an epidermal history of our losses?
This writing both records the loss(es) and shines a light outward toward the future.
The wound of the tattoo, to paraphrase Rumi, marks the point where the light enters. Thus, we can imagine a lightgarden written with ink on the skin, an ongoing monument to the merger of light and dark that marks the experience of finitude and the human experience.