THE TEAL BLUE RIBBON TATTOO

Travel back with me in time to 2007. This scene takes place in a Jupiter, Florida tattoo parlor.

Being a protective mom in an atmosphere that clearly made me uncomfortable, I was practically glued to my daughter’s side, acrylic nails at the ready to do battle should the need arise. As much as my mind rebelled at the thought of permanently scarring the body with works of art, I understood why we were here.

“Don’t ever get a tattoo,” I had preached to my children since the days of coloring books and crayons. “People will judge you unfavorably if you do, and even if you put them in inconspicuous places, a pretty little butterfly becomes a big, squished ugly moth when you get old.”

Mothers have been known to have to eat their words, and mine were a mouthful of bitter, angry bile. There I stood, in support of my daughter’s decision to disregard my advice, not because she didn’t respect me, but because she had been raped and needed to bury the memory under something meaningful. Did I say “bitter?” “Angry?” Those words don’t even begin to cover how I felt. Every time I looked at my little girl, because no matter how old she is, she will always be my little girl, I cried inside for the suffering she had to endure.

Murray, a heavily inked, muscle-bound biker type approached us and asked, “Got a preference, doll?” Jessica was anxiously scanning the tattoo selections displayed on the walls and finding nothing she liked, she answered, “I’ve got my own design. Would that be okay?”

She pulled a sheet of paper from her purse and showed him the sketch of the awareness ribbon she had drawn – teal blue, the color for sexual assault.

Recognizing that her drawing skills were limited, she asked Murray for help.

“No problem, doll. Step over to my table and we’ll whip something up together.”

Designs were drawn, tossed, redrawn and tossed again but, in less than twenty minutes, Jess was nodding her approval as Murray explained the tattooing process to her. He had drawn a perfect open ribbon design that was small enough to be unobtrusive but large enough to cover the deep, wide scar on the inside of her wrist; the scar caused by the zip ties that had bound her to the probability of death for three and a half long tortuous hours.

I have to admit I was impressed and somewhat curious. I always considered myself open-minded. Maybe, I thought, I should get the same tattoo in support of my daughter’s strength and determination. The idea played around in my mind as Murray pulled open a drawer and removed jars of ink and – needles!

People talk all the time about bonding moments. Women often do lunch, go shopping together and sit side-by-side for manicures and pedicures. I don’t think many moms and daughters consider tattoo parlors a viable substitute for any of those activities. Yet, there we were.

Jess sat at Murray’s table and placed her hand, palm side up, on a padded board covered with sanitized paper. Murray swabbed her skin with alcohol and drew his design with marker on her wrist.

“The wrist is one of the most painful areas to get a tattoo,” he warned her. “The outline will hurt the worst. Try not to move.”

Murray sounded so professional – like a doctor explaining surgery to his patient – and what was I thinking? Nitrous oxide! Where is the nitrous oxide when you need it?

I was standing at Jess’ shoulder, and she reached her other arm behind her back and grabbed for me. Sign language has never expressed love with such depth of emotion, as did our fingers wrapped around each other at that moment.

Jess held my hand tightly as Murray bent over her arm. With expert precision, he lowered the tattoo gun to her skin.  Contact! Reflexively, Jess gripped my hand even harder.

I heard her gasp and saw tears roll down her cheeks. I wanted to pull her to me; I wanted to cradle her head in my arms, but I couldn’t touch her for fear that I would ruin the masterpiece Murray was meticulously painting on her wrist. A half hour later, the ordeal was over and Jess was smiling.

“Your turn, Mom,” she brightly announced.

I hesitated, and Jess filled in the awkward silence.

“You don’t have to do it, Mom. It hurts a lot and I already know how much you love me. You’re here. That’s enough.”

Two years later, at the criminal trial of her attacker, Jess stood before the jury and held her wrist out for them to see. The State’s Attorney asked her why she had gotten the tattoo.

Jessica’s answer was little more than a whisper. “Since I have to remember what happened for the rest of my life, I want to remember that I survived.”

I’m a firm believer that tragedy defines our character much more than happiness. Thinking back to the days when I considered tattoos something to avoid, I realize how much the attack on my daughter has changed me. My eyes still register questions marks whenever I see someone covered in ink. These days, I can’t help but wonder what memory of heartache or joy each design holds for the wearer. I always hope for joy.

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