by Adam Knight
"All knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood.” –All the King’s Men
Though I’ve never gotten a tattoo, I’ve never really had a problem with them, either. Maybe when I was a little kid, I would have found them scary (I found everything scary). But for as long as I can remember, I thought tattoos were…all right. I even thought I might get one myself one day. However, I was adamant that I would only get one celebrating a major event in my life. I didn’t want to just get a permanent drawing on myself because it sounded cool. That struck me as an invitation for later regret. So I thought about tats, but figured I would know if and when the time was right.
In September 2012, my wife, Kristin, and I found out we were pregnant with our first child. In November, we learned he’d be a little boy. It was a time of great excitement and fear. While we hadn’t been “trying” (we disliked the term), we had reached a point in our lives that was as “ready” as we could imagine. We certainly didn’t go in frivolously, and our fears were, I believe, the right kind of fears. If you go into parenthood without any fear or anxiety, you probably have no idea what you’re getting into.
I had my fears and anxieties, but I also had my landmark, tattoo-worthy event.
The ouroboros, a serpent or dragon devouring his own tail, is a symbol found in many ancient cultures. The ancient Greeks had a version, as did the Egyptians and Norse, to name a few. The ouroboros symbolizes the unending cycle of life and death, infinity, and the unity of opposites as one whole (much like the yin-yang symbol, also circular). The ouroboros is also used to symbolize immortality. In E.R. Eddison’s brilliant and bizarre novel, The Worm Ouroboros, an evil witch king dies and continually is reborn. The structure of the novel itself is circular, too, the ending reflected in the beginning. This makes for good fantasy, but of course I know that immortality in reality is impossible.
But is it? Having a child may be the closest mortal man comes to living forever. From my life comes new life that shall outlive me. Someday, my son would have a child to outlive him. Making my first tattoo the ouroboros would commemorate my child, the unending circle of life, and eternal life. I understood.
I was wrong.
Everyone should have a cool hermit aunt who lives in the mountains, weaves ash baskets, and makes homemade soap. I did. My mom’s sister, Tracy, and her husband, my uncle Jim, lived in the Adirondacks for over forty years. She was a half hour from the closest grocery store, hours from the hospital. She was an artist who isolated herself from civilization, a loving soul whose car sported a “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” bumper sticker. For half a century, she blew smoke in the Surgeon General’s face.
My family camped at Raquette Lake every summer, an annual ritual. And part of that ritual was a stay at Jim and Tracy’s house. We would watch for animals in the trees, sit in the greenhouse, walk down to the cemetery and explore the headstones. We would listen to Jim and Tracy’s stories of the past, of the movement of wildlife, of the locals in Blue Mountain Lake and work at the Museum, and perhaps their favorite topic, the idiocy of tourists.
In the last couple years, Tracy slowed down a lot. Terrible sciatica kept her homebound, then wheelchair bound. She quit smoking about five years ago in an effort to improve her health.
In February 2013, my mom called me to say that Tracy was in the hospital with back spasms. A few days later, she called with the news that in the x-rays, the doctors spotted a mass in her lungs. The prognosis was very good: radiation would be enough to remove it, no surgery or chemo necessary.
A week later, Mom called to say that the growth had spread to her spine. The sunny prognosis became months to live. Then a week later, another call: the cancer was everywhere. A week later, she was gone. In a month, Tracy went from healthy, other than troublesome back pain, to dead.
I hadn’t seen my aunt a lot in the past decade. She didn’t make it easy to be reached, though for as much of a hermit as she was, she embraced email and Facebook. So while I had only seen her three times in the past ten years, we remained connected.
I was sad, but not for myself. Nor was I sad for Tracy, who was out of pain and lived and died on her own terms: stubbornly, originally, and uncompromisingly. And really, what more can be desired in a life well lived? I was sad for Jim and for my mom and for her family, but most of all I was sad that my unborn son (due date was still a month away) would never get to meet his cool great-aunt who lived in the mountains, made ash baskets and soap and had a greenhouse, and lived in a converted hunter’s cabin you couldn’t see from the street.
I found myself reflecting on her passing and the upcoming birth. This led me to reflect more on the ouroboros. The snake must devour something– it devours itself. Life doesn’t just keep begetting more life. Life springs from death. My ouroboros tattoo, therefore, would celebrate a new life, and one that had just ended. Finally, I truly understood the ouroboros.
I was wrong.
The Zero Balance
I’ve had a number of pets in my life, mainly cats. None has had more personality than Sid, a big hunk of an orange tabby we rescued in 2009. And I mean hunk. Sid was big, beautiful, swaggering, charming, and supremely self-confident. Dumb kittens played, but he schemed. The world was a giant puzzle for him to unlock. He understood that when my alarm clock went off in the morning, that resulted in him getting fed. So he would sit on my nightstand at night and whack the alarm clock, my glasses, phone, lamp, whatever it took, until I got up. He could destroy the pull strings on every blind in the house in under an hour. He could jump from floor to refrigerator in a single leap. When he wanted love (which was often), he would drape himself over my shoulders. And he always, always had to have his way.
When we moved to our house in 2011, Sid changed. In our apartment, he had been mellow and easygoing. But in the house, Sid got restless. Maybe he saw the feral cats next door, maybe he heard or smelled them, but he began urinating on every surface and trying to run outside. On the day when my patience snapped, he peed in all four corners of my bedroom, on the curtains, and on the bedspread—while I was still in bed—in one morning. I went out to the store, bought him a belled collar, snapped it on him, and threw him outside.
Some say it’s cruel to keep cats cooped up inside, but I’ve always felt it’s cruel to subject them to the dangers of weather, traffic, disease, and predators. Every cat I’ve had has lived a long, healthy, happy life inside. And at the old apartment, Sid was content within our four walls. But something about this house—probably those feral neighbors—drove him outdoors. That first day he was outside, I was jumpy and constantly worrying. But Sid was a smart cat. And he had no interest in going far. He just wanted to hang out on our front porch, patrol the back yard, and investigate the abandoned lot next door. That night, he sauntered in, happy as could be.
Within weeks, all but two of the feral cats were gone. Sid never fought, but I think he went over and told them how things were going to change around here. Neighbors always told us how welcome and friendly Sid was when he came to their yards. People who didn’t like cats agreed that Sid was the perfect cat for non-cat people. Every day, I worried about his safety and braced myself for tragedy, but there was no denying that outdoor Sid was a very happy Sid, and the coolest cat anyone could ask for.
And he was, frankly, MY cat. Kristin and I had adopted him together, but maybe it’s because I was the Food Guy, or because I was the Mush Guy, but Sid loved me and harassed me more than her. Every day I would get home from work, he would walk figure-eights around my legs, and if I didn’t acknowledge him right away, he’d LEAP into my arms.
The day before Easter was the first warm, bright spring day of the year. We had family and friends in town for the holiday weekend. It was my brother-in-law’s birthday, Kristin was only weeks from her due date. Fertility, rebirth, happiness, and brilliant sunshine were the themes of the weekend. What ensued, I only remember in fragments. I looked out the front window. Sid lay in the street. Neighbors stood on the curb, looking at him. I cried Sid’s name, and it was a cry that came from deeper than my heart or stomach. The base of my spine, maybe. Then the next thing I remember, I was on the sidewalk, crawling towards the street. Then my brother-in-law was lifting Sid from the road, telling me to go back in. Then I was sitting on the living room floor, unable to cry. I felt numb. Then later that evening, we went out to dinner. Most of what happened in between is lost. But Sid was gone.
I know the statistics, that outdoor cats live on average 2-3 years. I’d braced myself for that day. I’d rehearsed it in my mind every day. But no amount of preparation could truly prepare me for that moment of pure, whopping knowledge. I never wanted Sid to go outdoors, but he was miserable inside, and he loved patrolling our property, sunning himself, and climbing into the crook of our tree. I’m not an irresponsible pet owner. What would be irresponsible would be to force him to stay indoors like a prisoner. And if my stories haven’t already shown, Sid had a strong will and a stubborn streak. He liked going out, and there was no stopping him. Unfortunately, he also liked the free food the woman across the street left out for strays. I don’t doubt that’s why he darted across the street that morning.
I’ve dealt with death and grief before. I’ve lost all of my grandparents, my aunt Tracy had only been gone two weeks, and I’ve been to the funeral of a family friend who died at age 20. Even with pets, I’ve put half a dozen cats in the ground over the years, including one who was barely more than a kitten last summer and had died suddenly from illness. Why did Sid’s death weigh on me like no other? Why was I, a 30-year-old man, stuck in grief over the death of a tabby cat? I’ve grieved before. It’s like getting a cut—it bleeds and hurts at first, then scabs over. When the scab falls off, a little scar is left, but the pain is gone. But with Sid, it felt like the wound is a slow bleeder, and sometimes I stop and recall the memory of seeing him in the street. The shock has worn off but the wound is still open.
All attempts to “keep it in perspective” have failed. Every day, people lose parents, spouses, even their own children. On the cosmic scale, what is one cat? For a while, I punished myself for being so self-indulgent when there were people out there with worthier grief.
And then I decided—screw that. Grief is not a competition. Grief is grief. Maybe it was the suddenness or the violence of Sid’s end, maybe it was that undercurrent of guilt for letting him out, maybe it was that he was a cool, loving friend who I’d never see again.
Some say the world is a terrible, dark place, filled with misery. Some say it a beautiful place, filled with miracles. I’ve never fully embraced either idea. The idealist in me wants to see the beauty, but after grief like this—and I can say it is the harshest grief I have ever endured—the world seems very grim. The universe is not positive or negative, but in a state of zero balance. That was what I learned from the ouroboros with Sid’s death: that the universe isn’t dark with glimmers of light, nor is it bright with occasional shadow. It exists in a zero balance, and great sorrows could only be met with great joy—for example, the impending birth of my son.
New parenthood inspires clichés.
“You will never see life the same way,” was one I heard in the nine months of pregnancy.
“It is a moment you’ll never forget.”
“You will change.”
Every experienced parent I met told me some variation of all these things, and people who weren’t even parents said they’d heard that’s how I’d feel. I tend to be wary of clichés. I feel like there might be something wrong with me if I don’t experience what everyone else claims to have experienced. I was eager to meet my son, but I’d wait until my own experience so I could see for myself what it was like.
Sometimes, clichés are based on truth.
I’ll spare the graphic details. I’ve found that most people don’t really want to hear about mucus plugs, dilation, or Braxton-Hicks. Childbirth had been built up to be like Knocked Up crossed with Saw. Some fathers pass out, faint, or run from the room screaming at the birthing process.
All in all, the birth was far more fascinating and PG-13 than I expected. So that cliché didn’t come to pass.
Nor did my son emerge as a hideous, slimy newt, which is how most babies come out. I thought he’d be a wrinkly gremlin that was only cute because he was mine. So he defied that cliché.
Then I held him for the first time. Brace for the cliché.
His eyes, which had been open only minutes, looked up and saw drop-ceiling Styrofoam tiles. They looked out the window and saw the Meadowlands, with the New Jersey Turnpike in the distance. They looked at me. Those bright blue eyes were seeing everything for the very first time. And I thought of all they would see in this world. Beautiful things: sunrises and sunsets. People who love him. Puppies and kittens. Fireworks on summer nights and the lights on the Christmas tree. Autumn leaves and spring flowers. That cute girl (or boy) who is his first crush. Then later, his own first son or daughter. And he would see ugly things: darkness. Enemies and betrayers. Hideous monsters in his dreams or under the bed or in his closet. Bombs on television or, God forbid, in the streets. Death. Death of the things he loved, just as I had seen a few weeks earlier with Sid, his beautiful broken body lying in the street, or my aunt, wasting away from cancer hundreds of miles away.
The ouroboros, like any mythic symbol, reflects life. In that moment I looked into my infant son’s eyes, I saw the circle. I saw new life, and within those eyes I saw death, and more new life. Someday, my son will look down on me in my deathbed (I can only hope for so much) and see the tail of the serpent. And someday, he will look into the eyes of his child, and see the serpent’s head. The ouroboros isn’t just the unending circle of life and death in my life. It’s the unending circle of life and death that coils in the life of my son, and his offspring, and downward through time.
I had my work done at Industrial Arts Tattoo in Bayonne, NJ, only a few minutes from my home. I had done my homework and seen many favorable reviews for them. I went in on a Saturday afternoon, trying to act casual and relaxed, and probably coming across like a flake or an idiot. They kindly scheduled me an appointment, and I went to the shop on my big night, not feeling a bit nervous, but filled with anticipation.
My artist was Luis, who was recommended to me because he specialized in detailed work and work with intricate lines. I signed my waiver (essentially saying that yes, I want a tattoo, no, I’m not drunk, and yes, I understand it’s gonna be there for ever and ever) and watched the setup and preparation. I had thought I would go in feeling jittery and nervous, but I wasn’t. I was eager, but that was it.
Luis showed me the drawing he had done of the ouroboros design I had sent him, blew it up on the photocopier to the right size for my arm (it’s not an impressive arm; there’s not much blowing up to do), and then traced the ink template onto my shoulder. Then he sat me down and got to work.
I didn’t fear the pain, and really, there wasn’t much to fear. No macho trip here, I just didn’t find it that painful. Maybe uncomfortable, and even that, just at first. It was like being persistently scratched or paper-cut. The process was actually rather boring. I chit-chatted with Luis and the other guys in the studio. After the initial adrenaline jump, there was about two hours of just sitting. When he was done, I looked at the work. It was even better than I’d hoped for.
Sometimes a seemingly insignificant, minor event or a few words can profoundly influence the course of our lives. We often don’t realize it until years later, if at all. Then there are times like this. I knew as I lived through March and April of 2013 that it was a period of time that would profoundly alter the rest of my life.
I’ve been asked (and asked myself) if getting a tattoo was a good idea because what if I regretted it later? This had always held me back from getting one in the first place. But how could I regret honoring those I’ve lost? How could I regret the birth of my son? Though people, circumstances, opinions and feelings may change over time, life and death do not. The ink is on me forever because life will always be a part of death, and death a part of life.
Issue #4 Contents
Bed and Breakfast
The Silver Apples of the Moon
C Was for Cat
Jack Campbell, Jr.
Skin, Before and After Packaging
The Turning of the Worm
Brian Douglas Moakley
Adam Knight is a writer and English teacher in northern New Jersey. His stories have been published recently in the online magazine The Were-Traveler, as well as in several anthologies, including Song Stories Vol. 1, The Big Bad, Told You So, Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever, and Villainy. He has also ghostwritten a non-fiction book, is currently contributing to a GRE test-prep review book, and is writing a novel based on the life of a Holocaust survivor. He can be reached on Twitter at @adamknightbooks and his website www.adamknightbooks.com.