I Defied My Parents, But My Tattoo Was Worth It

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
I grew up in a "no tattoos, no exceptions" household. My parents weren’t especially strict, but there were some rules written in stone, and not getting inked was one of them. My mother’s rationale was: If I were to get a tattoo, I wouldn’t be able to get buried in a Jewish cemetery. My dad, on the other hand, simply told me that if I ever got one he wouldn’t speak to me again — end of story.

I was never one to have an appetite for ink. For starters, I have a very low pain tolerance. And, I didn't think I could ever decide on something I cared about enough to imprint on my body forever. But, when my older brother passed away suddenly on June 21 of last year, in a haze of grief, bewilderment, and sudden realization of how fast life could change, I was sure of one thing: I wanted to get a tattoo, and nothing and no one could stop me.

But that didn't mean I wasn't utterly terrified. I headed to the notoriously cool and star-studded Shamrock Social Club tattoo parlor the night after my older brother’s funeral with my middle brother Michael, my best friends, and a few of my cousins. We rolled up around 11 p.m., and I proceeded to pace the room, attempting to calm my racing heart.

With some guidance (and after finalizing the details only about five minutes before getting it done), I decided to get the word “sponge” written out, something my deceased brother used to call me. You see, I had very chubby cheeks when I was younger, and he got into the habit of pinching them a lot. Somehow, that morphed into squishy and then spongey. And, like most nicknames, it just kind of stuck.

My best friend wrote it out in perfect cursive handwriting, measuring the size of a paperclip on my left arm (also the location of my nonexistent bicep). It’s discreet, elegant, and the most perfect work of art. I’m greeted with it every single day, being that it’s positioned front-and-center. This small piece of skin has come to mean the world to me. I was — and still am — completely enamored by it.

But, as much as I love it, I couldn't tell my parents about it. In fact, I told almost everybody except them. I wore long sleeves despite the weather, and had no intention of spilling the proverbial beans. Months went by, and I started to wear short sleeves, wondering, perhaps even prompting them, to notice. They didn’t.
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
One night, my dad and I were having dinner — just the two of us — and out of the blue he asks, “You don’t have a tattoo, do you?” I didn’t even hesitate as I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt, started crying, and said yes. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. But, the spontaneous tears definitely played to my advantage.

He knew the sentimental value behind the word and, to my complete and utter astonishment, he loved it. Really, he couldn’t get enough, and stared at it for quite some time. He even went so far as to take a picture and post it on his Instagram (despite me asking him not to because my mom didn’t yet know. Since they've divorced, they don’t follow each other). He captioned the post: “Spending a rare weekend with the amazing, strong, and wonderful Sponge.”

“But no more tattoos, okay?” he said to me later that night.

A few months after, my mom found out in a similar fashion. I was showing her a picture on my phone and, for some reason, she thought she saw a tattoo on my ankle in the photo. She promptly asked me, in horror, if I had one. In this case, too, I hadn’t planned on rocking the boat and divulging my secret. I responded: “No, mom! Of course that’s not a tattoo on my ankle!...But I do have one.”

I showed it to her right away, and she started crying. She read it out loud and immediately understood the emotional weight and value this one small word carried. But, she wasn’t quite as accepting as my dad. She covered her face with her hands as she swayed back and forth between panic, disbelief, and loving approval. She knew just as well as I do that my brother would have loved it more than anything in the world.

To this day, my parents check my arm every time they see me, as if to make sure it’s still there. Maybe they're hoping it's temporary; maybe they've come to adore it as much as I do. Or maybe it's a comforting physical reminder of the loving son and brother who was taken from us too soon — but whose memory will live on forever.

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