Siblings: Love, hate and tattoos

Dear Brother,

I know that there are some things that you don’t want to talk to me about and that’s fine; I can understand that. But, there are some things that need to be said, there are some things I need you to hear. 

For the longest time she pretended not to hear the rumors, she refused to listen to the bitter remarks of her parents, piercing the barrier of closed doors. Even the screaming she drowned out in more noise, in music to match her fitting rage. For the longest time, she chose ignorance.

I refuse to pretend like these problems don’t exist and I refuse to ignore them any longer. They need to be addressed because the gap between us is growing and I fear the day we will no longer speak. I fear the day things get so bad we will not be able to.

Yes, there are some things that she knows now that she should not have, could not have known even two years ago.  There are some things that she never should have had to find out. But, these types of things are to be inevitably discovered. It was inevitable that she found out and that she was to be devastated by it. He knew everyone, including the people she assumed strangers. But to him they were all commonly known druggies, dealers, and drunks and it seemed that some of her “friends” knew him better than she ever would.

“Your brother’s one of the nicer ones. He’s not usually too strung out.”

Well, there you have it. He was a drug dealer, but at least he was the nice one. Unfortunately, she does know her brother well enough to understand that he wasn’t being nice because that’s his usual personality, he just got better business that way. So, yes, for a time, she chose ignorance and wisely so because had she not, it would have broken her.

I am not writing this letter to judge you or to yell at you. I am old enough now it understand it all better. Granted, if I had known everything two years ago i would not have been able to handle it or comprehend your actions. I probably still don’t. And although in these ways I am not like you, I am now more accustomed to dealing with it. You are not the brother I used to look up to and to be honest, I’m not sure that person ever really existed, but I know there is a part of you that I admire and it is that part of you that I hope, with all my heart, is listening to what I have to say. 

Sometimes she thought his actions did break her; they must have if she spent high school in tears. She heard more about him that she wanted to and although he was a hero among the pot heads and the thieves, he was no hero to her. She always used to admire him, imagining him something like Superman, flying to her rescue. Instead, he lay grounded, passed out on the floor, face down in his own vomit.

“You can always call me. I won’t tell mom and dad unless I absolutely have to. I’ll just be there to pick you up.”

If she was in trouble, he said he would be there, no questions asked. But the one night she needed him and she called for him, there was a question: “who is this?” He answered the phone in a distant, drawn out voice, high, drunk, and he didn’t know her.

Her parents worried about her all night, but she didn’t want to talk to them. She couldn’t talk to the people that raised him, the man who was supposed to be her brother. Now, he was only a stranger. What did it matter? She was a stranger to him, alone, calling to him in the dark of the night.

So, let me begin, let me tell you what I have to say: I love you. 

Sincerely, Sister

She did love him, more than she wanted to. She wanted to hate him. She wanted to write him off as a stranger. Instead, she wrote him a letter. After much time and built-up courage, she gave him the letter and after much time and built-up courage, he wrote back.

She had a segment of his letter tattooed to the side of her right arm. The words read:

“Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love” and pray that I may do the same. I love you, Brother.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Lyric tattoos: Flyleaf’s “All Around Me”

“I’ve always loved music. I can’t remember a time in my life that I haven’t been surrounded by it, comforted, saddened, or enthused by it. There’s something significant in the way the right song, or the right combination of lyrics and melody can change the way you feel or think about something. I listen to music everywhere I go; literally everywhere. People think I’m crazy. Well, I think they’re crazy. So, I guess it works out.”

Emily claims that she heard music before her mother’s voice. A little out there maybe, but she’s passionate, and who can blame her? As a singer, pianist, and guitarist, the girl has an ear for pure, untainted composition and the voice to match.

“There’s just this feeling I always get. I can’t really explain it. I don’t always feel the same thing, but it brings out any emotion I have deep inside. Sometimes I choose the songs I want to listen to because I think I know exactly what I want to hear and how it’s going to make me feel. But, I’m still surprised how songs I’ve heard over and over again make me feel something a little different each time I hear them. I think I know what to expect, what to feel or think, but I’m wrong every time. Sometimes I think I listen to music to understand how I feel instead of listening to music because of how I feel.”

When she was 16 years old, Emily was in the car with her mom on the way to the grocery store when another driver ran a red light, crashed into Emily’s car, and killed her mother on impact. Unable to understand the reasoning, unable to understand her own emotions, and devoid of any sense of happiness, logic, or will to continue, Emily turned to her music.

“I still remember the song that was playing on the radio when the accident happened. It’s stuck in my head like a really awful soundtrack that is so incredibly terrible, you can’t seem to shake it. The song was Flyleaf’s ‘All Around Me.’ I actually really liked the song when it first came out. Of course after the accident, I hated it. It was stuck in my head week after week. It just reminded me that she was gone and was never coming back. A couple months after the funeral I forced myself to sit down and actually listen to the song without any judgment or preconceptions. I cried, I smiled, laughed, screamed; I mean every possible outlet of emotions happened while I listened to that song, and I finally understood how I felt. I finally understood my life at that moment.”

The lyrics of “All Around Me” are so profound in association with her mother’s death. Everything about the song made sense and allowed everything else to make sense. Every word confirmed her mother’s death, every note pounded the reality into her heart and her head, yet each piece also confirmed her mother’s presence, liveliness, love, and the reality that she will never be wholly gone, separated, or dead.

“She lives in me. It might sound cheesy or cliche, but it’s true. She lives in my heart, my head, and in music. Whenever I listen to music, I think of her. I remember her. No matter how upset or depressed I may feel, when I listen to music, I always feel some kind of joy, knowing that she’s talking to me or yelling at me and reprimanding me through the song. When I listen to music…when I feel music, I feel her.”

Emily had bits of the lyrics to “All Around Me” tattooed on her left side:

The music makes me sway
The angels singing say we are alone with you
I am alone and they are too with you

I’m alive

I can feel you all around me
Thickening the air I’m breathing
Holding on to what I’m feeling
Savoring this heart that’s healing

Take my hand I give it to you
Now you own me all I am
You said you would never leave me
I believe you
I believe

The serenity prayer

His violent mood swings and compulsive behaviors were just facets of his personality. She never doubted the fact that something was clearly wrong, she simply didn’t know how to label the problem. He was angry, abusive, and depressed, but even this could not possibly explain his behavior or his attitude. Her preconceptions of his personality were painstakingly distorted, never attributing his irrational behavior to having an “illness.”

The pounding of his footsteps awakened in her a powerful resentment. She wanted to hate him with every morsel, every fiber of her being, but found she could not. What good had he done for her? In all the years she can remember of him, what good had he ever done at all? He didn’t deserve her love; he didn’t deserve whatever goodness she had left to offer.

She can hear his voice ringing in her ears as a thundering roar, full of anger and selfishness. The very sound of his presence disturbs the stillness that was once so favorably in the air. She hears him even when he does not speak, when he does not yell, when he does not snarl. She hears his empty promises even when he does not speak them.

In her brother’s mind, a promise was merely a word; it has no substance or meaning; it is simply strung together to form a useless, obligatory sound. She asked him once before if he had quit, he said that he had. She didn’t believe him. She asked him to promise, and he does. She feels relieved and only God knows why. His promises are just as illegitimate as the first words that she knew to be lies. Why should one word make the difference between truth and deceit?

It should, but for him, it wouldn’t.

Broken promises are his niche, his speciality, his comfort zone because to him, this isn’t what they are at all. To him, they are words; just words. He doesn’t know that the lies entangled in his words strangle and suffocate her. She is left gasping for air and only until she submits to ignorance is she set free to breathe again.

“Ignorance is bliss.” She understands now.

Sometimes she wishes she didn’t know everything that went on in his life. She didn’t always want to find out about the mistakes, the drug deals, the drunken tirades, thievery, and vandalism. As though not knowing would make life easier for her somehow. As though not knowing would make everything untrue. If she didn’t hear about it, then maybe it didn’t exist. Maybe for once, his promises were real.

But, she always hears the truth and though she does, she would love to hear it be proven wrong. She would love to hear and believe that truth be contradicted, falsified, rumored, and erased. She will never escape the truth and she will never escape his lies.

In fact, her greatest fear is not that she will never escape him; her greatest fear is that some day she will finally try.

After her brother was arrested and sent to prison for three years for possession, she blamed herself for never being able to help him. Afraid that she could have done more to support him, or keep him out of trouble, she visited him in prison as often as she was able and allowed. Unfortunately, her brother never changed. He never treated her any different. He never appreciated her visits. He never stopped emotionally abusing her.

After a time, she stopped visiting. She began to understand that no matter how much she tried to help him, she would never be able to until he wanted to change. She could love him and pray for him, and that was all. She could do no more.

She eventually had the serenity prayer tattooed on the right side of her back.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” 

“Happiness is a conscious choice”

Failure is inevitable. For years, he told himself this. He was reminded of it daily by his actions and observations. Even when success was momentarily accomplished, failure lurked closely at his heels, nipping and gnawing, until it was eventually devoured and destroyed. The remains were scattered helplessly in his past and paved the way for his future, marking a life he used to know and one that he is destined to follow.

Sweat dripped from his forehead and rolled down his face, tearing through his cheek like the air ripping through his lungs. The pressure suffocated him. With each inhaling breath he dreaded the next, knowing it would only be more challenging than the first. He slowed. The pounding of his heart flowed in sync with the ambulance siren. He closed his eyes and in that instant felt the rush of a life abandoning his physical body.

Wandering farther into the depths of darkness, his memory began to fail him. All that was once sacred to him, now seemed distant, inaccessible, or perhaps, so virtually unimportant that his brain removed such thoughts all together.  There was nothing left for him to hold onto, no memory, no wishes, desires, or hopes. Was there a reason for hope? Was there a reason to hold so willingly to the idea? Surely the realistic thought of escape had abandoned him long before this moment. The only thing that comforted him now was the realization that his mind still functioned. In some capacity, no matter how disrupted, or grim, he was thinking. And that was a good sign, or so he hoped.

“Hope.”

How unreasonable and farfetched a concept this was, indeed. Invented, undoubtedly, by a man with nothing to lose, for that way, he could “hope” without the consequence of ultimate failure.

“Failure.”

Uhh, yeah, that was certainly the most appropriate word for his life thus far. Throw an exaggerated adjective of complete emphasis before that word and you’ve hit the nail on the head. The thesaurus in his less than capable mind ran through the list of possibilities: ultimate, complete, super, extreme, tremendous, supreme, incomparable, definitive, absolute, remarkable.

“Remarkable.”

Yes, this certainly was remarkable. How the hell did he manage to fail this “remarkably?” The task seemed simple enough: live and live well. Perhaps that was the problem; something that seemed so simple would indisputably produce the most difficult obstacle he could have ever imagined. In fact, the thing was so ridiculous, he didn’t imagine it, and he was blind to it until it stared him straight in the face.

A burning sensation coursed through his veins, but the pressure had all but gone away. He was growing accustomed to the atmosphere, though that wouldn’t allow him to survive; he would die just the same. Failure. The word, the idea, the loss of hope became his only capable thought, his only reality.

Scott survived that day in the ambulance after a suicide attempt, and lives today, with a wife and two-year-old daughter in Attleboro, Massachusetts. A few years after the incident, fully recovered,having received therapy and love and support from his family, Scott got a quote by Mildred Barthel tattooed across the top of his back.

“You choose your life. Happiness is a conscious choice, not an automatic response.”

How to draw freedom

It had been less than 100 days from the time they broke up that he found himself out of school, out of a home, and into the hospital. In September 2009, she drove to Red Rock Emergency Care in the deadliest heat of the month. Entering, she was directed to room 237, joining other weary looking faces in the close quarters of the elevator. Walking down a corridor, she passed others too occupied with their own problems to notice her uneasiness.

“235, 236, 237.”

He lay in the center of the room. An IV ran from his forearm to a package hanging on a medal contraption, which supplied fluids to his dehydrated, frail body; the heroin having been recently detoxified from his system. She stared at its movement and considered walking back out. Instead, Danny awoke from a chair in the corner of the room gratefully welcoming her presence.

“Thanks for coming Steph. He’ll be really happy to see you.”

She didn’t know what to say, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be there. She just stared, blank faced and motionless, much like the corpse he appeared to be. She had never seen him look like this and it terrified her to consider his fate. She could not bear to think of it and to accept the inevitable would only leave her hopeless, and now more than ever, she needed hope, they all did; all three of them, crowded in room 237, pinned to the railings of that mobile bed, exhausted by the fear that this was to be his home.

“Is he asleep?” She felt stupid for asking, but she wasn’t sure. He could be lying there dead for all she knew.

“Yea, but I’m sure he’ll be up in a minute. He’s been out for a while.”

At the rising sound of Danny’s voice, Alex drearily opened his eyes, his lids fluttering as he strained to focus. She stood rigid and probably paler than even him. She didn’t want him to wake up. She didn’t want him to see her. For the first time since she had known him, she felt inferior to him, threatened, and afraid.

“Steph?”

He spoke her name in a  hopeful reassurance, his voice the same comforting lullaby she was used to. Then, he reached his hand out and smiled. Somehow, everything felt normal; everything felt right even though everything was completely wrong. Life, for however brief a time, returned to a certain accustomed normalcy that although was not normal by other’ standards, felt something like home to her. She was used to this feeling, she was sheltered by it and was comforted by its consistency. It was something she could latch onto, and for the life of her and for Alex’s, she wasn’t about to let go.

She held his hand for many hours that day and when she finally did let go, her presence stayed with him and only the reminder of her freedom followed her. She loved him, but she refused to be held back by him any longer. He was part of a world that she didn’t understand or belong in, and she was happy to cast his burden from her back.

Leaving the hospital that day, Stephanie returned home as a woman freed from her ties to the world. She was no longer bound by secular things and felt peace in her discomfort. She did not recognize this place without Alex, drugs, or pain. But, here, freedom greeted her welcomingly.

One week ago, Stephanie asked me to design her a tattoo about overcoming adversity and experiencing true, unequivocal freedom. We discussed the possibilities and agreed upon a tattoo of three sparrows, representing the stages of her struggle and resurrection from her suffering. The first would remain small, with wings drawn in close to the body, representing a sheltered, diminished life. The second would be larger, with wings beginning to open as though about to fly, representing her efforts to break away her past ways of living. The third sparrow would have an open wingspan, as though in full flight, with a front view. This final sparrow would represent Stephanie’s life today, in complete control of her mind and heart and enjoying all the advantages of freedom.

Beating bullying

Image by “Lipscomb Bisons”

Her faith was broken and Jesus himself did not posses the carpentry skills to mend her splintering.

“For a time, I actually believed that I had strayed too far from my faith for God to help me or bring me back. I gave up on Him because I thought He had given up on me.”

She believed, even if no one else would, that she was unimportant. There was nothing in her life that mattered and nothing that could convince her otherwise. She lived a purposeless life, devoid of significance. The only reason she remained standing was because she didn’t care enough to kill herself; she wasn’t important enough to draw that kind of attention. She wasn’t depressed; she was indifferent.

“I used to care about what people thought about me. I lived every single day, afraid of what they might say or do to me. They didn’t care about me; all they cared about was making my life a living hell just because they could.”

She looked back on the days of her youth, torturous and agonizing. There were few people she felt close to then, and even fewer she felt comfortable labeling as friends. Walking through the halls of her old high school, memories flooded her consciousness.

“They slipped notes in my locker; bad ones. I mean they said really, really awful things. I was too fat, so I became bulimic, but I started having severe intestinal problems from throwing up. I was tearing up my insides. So, I decided I wouldn’t throw up anymore, I just stopped eating. I was anorexic for a long time. My parents were insanely worried, they didn’t understand what was going on with me. I just tried to convince them that I had started running a lot. Yea, I’m not athletic at all, so they had to have known that wasn’t true.”

The bitter taste of acid burned her throat. Again and again, she brutalized her body, torturing herself to satisfy an anonymous expectation. But, they were never satisfied and there was no expectation. She was merely the subject of purposeless and thoughtless taunting, for the satisfaction of a group wholly unconcerned with the damage it had on her health and happiness. They were unconcerned with her life.

“Of course, then they told me I was too skinny. At that point they were right; I was under 100 pounds. But, once they told me that, I ate junk food for a while and then I gave up. I gave up trying to please them, they were never going to stop bullying me. For some reason, it made them happy. Sending me to therapy, isolating me from the rest of the world, and breaking my faith gave them some sort of sick satisfaction and so they kept bullying me until I dropped out of school.”

Therapy should have helped, but it didn’t. She didn’t need to talk about it, lay down on a plush red sofa, and cry out her feelings, continually addressing the, “and how do you feel about that?” question. She learned two things from Dr. Useless: One, everything was pointless; two, everything was meaningless. Soon she began to understand the meaning of apathy.

“I could go on and on about how terrible it was, but it doesn’t even matter anymore. They were wrong. I know it, they should, and God knows. At the time, I blamed the bullies and I blamed God for letting them bully me. He could have prevented all of it from happening. I never understood why, but I figured out that I’m not supposed to understand the reasoning.”

Out of school, out of therapy, and in a state of perpetual indifference, she, in a moment of clarity, sought counsel elsewhere. She didn’t need to know that other people were in her same situation.

“Cool,” she thought, “other people are suffering too. Let’s have a pity party.”

Apparently misery, in fact, does not love, want, or need, company. Instead, she went to the Bible, she went into prayer, and she went to the Dominican Republic.

“All I know is I am a better person now because of all of it. I went through Hell on Earth, but after I got over my ‘not caring’ stage, I started praying a lot. I asked God to carry me through the hard times; to show me what to do, how to feel, and where to go. Well, he sent me to the Dominican Republic and that made all the difference. I was going through a hard time, emotionally and physically, but the kids in the Dominican had absolutely nothing. They were starving, alone, and should have been miserable. They had every right to complain and cry, but they were all smiles, all the time. I’ll never forget them and God taught me through them. I’m here now. I’m alive and I’m happy and strong. God got me through it.”

While there, a young boy said to her, in the little English he knew, “Jesus tell you come here? He here too. He love me; he love you; he love everybody, even bad people. He love them too.”

The week after returning home from her two week long mission trip, she got a tattoo of the outline of the Dominican Republic, with the words the boy spoke to her as the outline. The tattoo, located on her right shoulder blade, is very simple, but equally powerful.

“I was reminded of God’s power and presence all over the world. These kids knew so little about the Bible, but it didn’t matter. They knew the two most important things: to love God and to love others, because God loves everyone equally, despite the sins we all commit. I also really understood for the first time that there are things bigger and more important than me. God is everywhere, working through His people to show love to the world. That’s the reason I got my tattoo. I wanted something that was going to be more than me. I didn’t want it to be about overcoming my struggle or about my pain and perseverance. It’s about God, and love, and that child, and those bullies. It needed to be about something bigger.”

Old Testament tattoo for a new heart

“You know the best thing for a guy like me is to see a keg rolled in, a girl dancing, and a roll of something to smoke.”

Jeff is one of my closest friends and has been for a number of years now. He joined the Army almost three years ago, so I was thrilled to spend time with him when he was able to leave his base in North Carolina and return home for the weekend.

I sat at his kitchen table and listened to him rattle on about the wild life he experiences whenever he gets a night off duty. I watched him as though I was interested in what he had to say, as though I believed a single word of what he was trying to sell.

“That’s all I really want, just some fun, ya know?”  He asked as though he expected me to understand.  He went on about the pressures of the Army and the insanity of bootcamp, like these things should justify his late-night excursions. Nine minutes into the conversation and I was already concerned for him. I had hoped the Army would spark a change in him. But, instead of questioning his obvious uneasiness, I simply watched him.

He moved around the table where I sat, through the kitchen, into the open dining room and finally to the living room, raising his voice as he wandered farther away. First he loaded the dishwasher, washing the dishes too large to fit in it by hand. Moving to the dining room, he gathered the table cloth into a ball and wiped down the placemats with a wet rag.  He checked the living room last, being sure to dispose of any trash and rinse off any dishes left over from last night’s movie. Finishing what he was doing, he returned to the kitchen and opened the fridge to retrieve two bottles of beer. Whether one was intended for me or merely a second for him I do not know, but after looking at me momentarily, he put one back.

Sitting in the seat across from me he began to tell a story of some raging party he went to one night with a few of his “Army buddies.”

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he took a swig of his beer, “it was crazy.” He sounded excited, but as I watched him speak, no genuine smile ever crossed his lips. He simply grinned, like one would, out of politeness or habit.

“What, no crazy stories of your own?” he asked rather sarcastically with the same distinct grin.

“Nothing like that; that’s not really my scene.”

“Good. That’s good.”

We sat in silence as he nodded his head and stared down at the table, lifting his eyes every so often to drink his beer. He looked the way people do when they are thinking about something, and Jeff certainly had enough to think about. Before leaving to join the Army, he had serious issues at home. He had a drug problem in his last two years of high school, his parents got divorced when he was only a boy, he hasn’t seen his father since the divorce, and he has an older brother that he has no recollection of meeting.  Needless to say, I was not the one to start judging his behavior, so I remained sitting and listening to all he had to say, the same way I always used to do with him.

A ringing sounded from below the table and Jeff reached into his pocket to answer his phone, pulling him out of a trance-like state.  It was his mother. He spoke to her gently and lovingly, offering to her whatever help she may need and assuring her that he was taking good care of himself. As the conversation came to an end he told her he loved her and would call her later to see how she was doing.

“Is everything ok?” I asked.

“Yea, that was my mom. She’s just worried about me, that’s all.”

“You seemed a little worried about her too.”

“It’s been hard on her lately. With me gone and Eli at college, I can tell she’s getting lonely.”

“Oh. Well it’s nice of you to be worried about her.”

Jeff nodded casually, “Well, how are your parents?  I haven’t seen them in a long time.”

“They’re the same, especially my dad.  He finally got me to read Ecclesiastes.”

“Gotta love Paul,” he said chuckling in a sort of appreciative remembrance.

Jeff knew my dad well. They used to get caught up in conversations about a scripture reading that Jeff claimed to have read, but never did, and my dad had read multiple times, but claimed to be unsure of its meaning. Dad was always trying to involve Jeff in Biblical discussions. He wisely thought, as he always does, that turning to God would help Jeff deal with his problems.

“Have you read Ecclesiastes?” I asked, assuming he had not and worrying that he would be set off by the question.

He stared at a point directly to the left of my face and spoke remotely, “’I explored my mind how to let my body enjoy life with wine and how to grasp folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom – until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.’”

The words from his mouth reflected the words on his back.

He quoted Ecclesiastes 2:3, a passage I reread after our visit. It speaks of the emptiness of pleasure and the ways in which only God can provide one with a full and satisfying life. He quoted it from memory, but there was sadness in his voice as though hinting at regret.

“Was that –“

“Ecclesiastes.”

“Paul would be proud.  So am I.”

The day he made a change in his heart, he tattooed the inspiration to his back.

“If Jesus can carry the cross on his back, the least I can do is carry his words.”

Rather than a reminder to himself, the tattoo served as a testament to others that he understood the lifestyle he should be living, and he was working every day to make it better.

“It’s not the Bible verse people usually get, but I think that’s why I like it. It’s personal. I know what it means for me and when other people see it, they can read it their own way. I’m not perfect, I know that, but I’m trying now. I finally get it or at least I’m learning.”

He’s right. The tattoo is not a common one, in fact, I don’t think I know of anyone else with a tattoo of the words in Ecclesiastes 2:3, but it is perfect for Jeff and it is the perfect translation of his testimonial.