The first tattoo I ever got is too embarrassing to tell you about.
But the second tattoo I ever got is something I talk about all the time — or at least any time someone catches a glimpse of it. I got it on the inside of my wrist, when I was just a tender girl of 27, afraid of what her dad would say when he saw it. Maybe that’s why I got it in a spot that is easily concealed by the cuff of a long-sleeved shirt — or, as it is right this second, by a barely-functioning FitBit.
I got this tattoo a few days before I married Aaron. It was my “something new” for a last-minute wedding planned in the wake of a stage IV brain cancer diagnosis. It’s a small word, written in cursive and written as a quick reference to myself whenever I need a reminder of what is important.
That’s the tattoo. All of it. Three little letters marching across the inside of my wrist, stamped for eternity (or my cremation) on my body.
The moment Aaron told me that he had a brain tumor, I crawled into his hospital bed and pressed my forehead to his. I felt his warm hands on my back, and then... I was gone. Traveling through time and space to a future where he was:
- Very sick.
I came back quickly, like I’d touched a hot stove, but I let my brain go back there, to every nook and cranny of that imagined experience. That first night, all we knew was that Aaron had a brain tumor. We didn’t know if it was malignant, and we didn’t have a date set for his surgery.
As Aaron slept his Ativan-induced sleep, I went ahead and pre-lived an illness we didn’t even know he had. I watched our plans for starting a family disappear, replaced by him losing his hair and his job and eventually his life. I saw his funeral, his headstone and the many years of my life I’d have to live without him.
The present was scary and uncertain. We’d woken up in our normal lives and gone to sleep in an alternate universe with thin hospital blankets, open-backed gowns and this nurse named Neil who said things like, “Right on, man!” as he checked Aaron’s vitals. Neil was a bright spot, but this still wasn’t where we wanted to be. This wasn’t right.
Every time I returned from my mental time travels, I’d feel worse. It’s like I was trying to pre-pay my pain, as if anxiousness was a payment plan and if I felt it all right now maybe it would hurt less when these things came to pass.
That’s not how it works. If anything, worrying was like taking on a quickly compounding debt. It ripped me from a present moment where Aaron was still here, still making room for me in his hospital bed and letting me eat the hospital pudding (truly one of my favorite treats of all time and I’m not even joking).
Stop, I would think to myself as my mind would drift into an unknowable future. Stay here. Stay with him.
And I did. I spent a week with him in the hospital, so present that I can recall details of that time together as if it hasn’t been nearly a decade since: the way I could just make out the downtown skyline from the lonely waiting room at the end of the neurology hallway, the way the sky turned from black to purple to blazing orange as the sun rose on the morning of his first brain surgery.
When Aaron was diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma (that’s fancy talk for brain cancer), I furtively Googled it. Just a few words floated up from my phone screen: 3-5 years.
There’s a strange thing about knowing that your time with someone will be abbreviated. Aaron and I both told his doctors that we didn’t want to know how much time he had left, we never wanted to talk about time at all. We wanted to live the time we had, not worry about when it would run out.
A few weeks later, we’d be married.
A year after that, we’d be parents.
And on our third wedding anniversary, I gave Aaron’s eulogy.
So much else happened in those three years we were married. They were the hardest days of my life, and they were also some of the happiest.
The grief was real — is real — but the worries were not. Yes, Aaron got very sick. And yes, he died. But there was no amount of worrying or mentally role-playing those outcomes that could have prevented me from feeling the pain I felt when I saw him suffering, or when I had to live my life without him.
There’s a very careful line to walk here, and trust me, I’m toeing it. Because it is extremely unhelpful to tell people not to worry about things that will affect and irrevocably change their lives. When you’re in the shit, the very last thing you need to hear is that your attitude is a problem.
Some version of the worst-case scenario happens for a lot of people. Since we started Still Kickin in 2015, 10 of our heroes have died. Many of them became our Heroes because someone they love died. And many of them are still muddling through the uncertain middle, hoping for the best and living through the worst.
Aaron did die, just like I worried he would.
And you know what? It frigging hurt. It still hurts. The worrying did not insulate myself against the uncertainty of our future. Digging in to press on a wound that didn’t yet exist didn’t somehow inoculate me from the pain of actually losing him. Imagining every possible worst case scenario did not result in some sort of jinx-based magic that ensures those outcomes just won’t occur.
Sometimes, being in the present moment is actually terrible. Often it is, actually. Being present as Aaron’s brain tumor progressed, slowing his speech and drooping the left side of his face and body? That was terrible. But jumping further into a more catastrophic future didn’t make that present any less painful, especially not for him.
The day I got that tattoo, we didn’t know whether Aaron would survive for three years or three weeks. He had just started radiation, and chemotherapy pills would arrive in the mail shortly, small orange bottles lined up like soldiers in our cabinets.
That now was present when we stood in front of our friends and family near and far (thank you, livestream), and it was present at our son’s birth. It was present for our trips to the ER and for every MRI where we held hands and held our breath as the doctor read the images and told us whether the brain tumor had progressed or whether we could go home and watch Real Housewives and pretend to be normal people.
I always thought tattoos like mine were kind of silly. "Who needs a reminder to breathe?" I scoffed when Lindsay Lohan got that word tattooed on her wrist.
Today I think, who doesn’t need that reminder?
With a past we can’t get back and a future that is always, always uncertain, what could be more important than an uncomfortable, awful, brilliant, horrible now?