The Importance of a Seemingly Unimportant Detail

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Permanent Art
When I was 20 I got a tattoo. I had wanted one for a while, but could never settle on a design. I took the concept of a tattoo seriously: it would be on me forever; the design would need to be timeless; the location would have to be perfect. I thought long and hard about it and decided that my lower back would be the best place. If I ever got pregnant or gained a lot of weight, that area would stretch out the least. If I needed to hide it – a job interview, a visit with my grandmother – that was easily done.

So while in college, my roommate and I walked to the nearest tattoo parlor from campus. (I’d love to say there was a better reason for choosing the shop, but let’s be honest – there wasn’t.) A nice, heavily-tattooed young man with an unlit cigarette resting in one of his substantially gauged earlobes, greeted us and walked me through all of the tattoo options on display. There were two I liked, one was a collection of flowers, one a collection of swirls. After a brief conversation, $20 down and an appointment scheduled, the artist said he would combine the two into exactly what I wanted.

The next day I returned to find he had, in fact, created a design for me that was just right. All in black, not too big and not too small. It was nothing that would win me bragging rights, but that’s not what this was about. This tattoo was just for me and it was exactly what I wanted.

And so we began the process: clean the area, apply the stencil, approve the placement of said stencil, settle into the parlor chair on my stomach and under the watchful eye of my roommate (who had returned to witness it all), proceeded to sit through the most painful 45 minutes of my 20 year old life. In the end, I paid the artist a total of $80 for a very personal piece of art that I’ve never regretted.

The Realization
And then came April 10, 2013. I was racing through my workday trying to get everything as prepared as possible before I left. I was having surgery on my lower back the next day and would be out of the office for eight weeks. That day, I had a lunch hour conversation with a friend who had gone through almost the same surgery two years earlier.

“Do you want to see my scar?,” she casually asked. Of course I did! Anything to make me more prepared for what would become the first major medical incident of my life.

As she lifted the back of her shirt and that pale scar came into view, it hit me for the first time – they’re going to have to cut through my tattoo. But… but… no! That wasn’t allowed. I’m a super-type-A-plan-things-ten-years-into-the-future person. And I had done that with my tattoo. It was not done on a whim – some random, drunken, lost-a-bet decision. It was well thought out. It was in the perfect place – the place where nothing could touch it. But now, someone was going to cut it in half?!

Chronic Pain
The type of chronic pain you have to live with to end up getting lower back surgery will make you do and say a lot of strange things. But mostly mine made me lie – a LOT.

How are you? “Fine.”

How are you feeling? “Great.”

Are you going to this event? “Of course! Wouldn’t miss it.”

Don’t you want to sit down? (Something that caused me excruciating pain.) “Nope, I don’t mind standing at all.”

You want your life to seem normal. You want to pretend as if this horrible, chronic pain hasn’t taken over your every thought. As if the only appointments you actually keep aren’t with doctors and specialists that try – and for me repeatedly failed – to help.

You want to pretend as if your car hasn’t become simultaneously your worst enemy and your biggest comfort. For me, sitting was nearly impossible, so driving hurt like hell and there were no amount of cushions or pillows that could make it OK. But at the same time, your car becomes that place you frantically race to after appointments when yet another sure-fire thing doesn’t work. It becomes your safe space to finally break down and sob hysterically and uncontrollably before pulling it together and forcing yourself through the rest of your day.

So when I said that reality out loud to my friend – “They’re going to cut my tattoo in half” – and she replied – “Probably. How do you feel about that?” – that liar, chronic pain said, “Fine. Whatever makes this pain end.”

But it wasn’t fine. Cutting that tattoo in half – that super-personal, just for me, piece of permanent art that I loved so much – it just wasn’t OK. But there also wasn’t any other choice.

In To Surgery
The next afternoon I was all prepped up: husband at my side; hospital gown on; IV in place; all of my regular clothes shoved into a plastic, drawstring bag. I was more than ready for the chronic pain to be over. I was ready to come out on the recovery side of this issue. My surgeon stopped by for the quick, five-minutes-or-less, pre-surgery chat. He had me roll over and for the first time saw my bare back.

“We’ll probably have to go through that tattoo,” he said.

“I know. It’s fine,” I lied. ”Whatever you have to do.”

“We deal with tattoo’s all the time,” the surgeon said. “I can usually match them back up pretty well.” He smiled reassuringly and walked away.

Oh. Holy. Hell.

The Aftermath
One surgery, one night in the hospital, a lot of medicine and countless tears later, I was home and it was time to change my bandage for the first time. My husband gingerly pulled the gause away and all I could ask was “How does it look? Did they cut through my tattoo?”

“I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell,” he replied. I felt a glimmer of hope, but his response just wasn’t quite definite enough.

The next night, my sister-in-law took care of me while my husband was at work. When she changed my surgical dressing, I asked the same question. She took a long pause and answered, “I don’t think so.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

She looked closer and studied the top of the wound before delivering exactly what I wanted to hear, “No, they didn’t cut it. They started a millimeter below, but they didn’t cut it.”

It may seem silly, but I am very thankful to God and any/all guardian angels guiding that scalpel because no one else understood how important it was to me that my tattoo come out intact. Below is the iPhone photo my husband took of it this morning. Yes, it’s a little old and yes, it could stand to be retouched. But every time I think about getting it touched up, I think “Why? It’s just for me and I don’t care.” Turns out when it comes to my tattoo, all really I care about is the one thing I strived so hard to never have to worry about: that this super-personal, just for me, piece of permanent art stay exactly as it is.

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