I got my first ink on a warm May night in 2002.
I was 43.
I don’t remember why it had to be at 11 o’clock at night. The tattoo parlor was located in the basement of an old red-painted brick building on Market Street in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania. My 16-year-old daughter Caity wore jean shorts and a pink tee-shirt. I had on khaki shorts and a tank-top. We both wore rubber flip-flops. Even the most casual of observers would surmise we were related by our lazy familial gait which caused pebbles to scatter as our heels dragged in unintentional unison. Holding hands as we walked from the parking lot, it was clear, we were father and daughter.
Gingerly, we walked down the outside steps. I had to duck my head to avoid hitting the thick wooden beam over the doorway. I pulled the door open and we were greeted by the sound of a stereo playing Joan Osborne’s version of “Make You Feel My Love”, and the smell of a freshly lit cigarette.
Caity seemed mildly amused by the softly lit, 70’s co-ed dorm motif of the waiting room. Her eyes smiled as they darted about the 10′ x 14′ room full of vintage wall art. For me it was cool, but almost cliché with the posters prints and peace signs from my teenage years. The furniture consisted of several folding metal chairs, a worn orange fabric sofa, and a large wooden cable-spool flipped on its side. The spool served as both a foot rest and a coffee table, Scattered on the makeshift table were scores of thumbed-through tattoo magazines and a portfolio of Polaroid’s of proclaimed satisfied customers. I thought the Dr. Pepper can cleverly converted into an ash tray was a nice touch.
To our right, the twenty-something smoker leaning against the wall peered through the strands of hanging beads in the doorway to the “Tatt Zone”. We could see Rick, the tattoo artist in his workroom. The sterility emanating from the bright lighting and stainless steel cabinets was both starkly cold and warmly comforting. Rick appeared to be applying a salve to the calf of the young woman lying on the workbench. The young man casually looked over at Caity and me, and then turned back to the salve and the calf.
We sat down, instinctively both choosing a metal folding chair. Caity, pointing to the Dr. Pepper ashtray, whispered with a wrinkled nose, “Who even drinks that?” We both laughed a little uneasily. I’m not sure who was reassuring whom more, but we held hands again and waited for the ink man to finish. This would be Caity’s first tattoo as well.
This was not the first father-daughter field trip that would create a stir within the family. On the last un-chaperoned outing, Caity got her belly button pierced. My poor bride Leigh was vilified by her parents for allowing Caity to have any unsupervised time with me.
Chris, the older of our two children by 13 months, never developed a liking for ink or piercing. He’s a lot like his mother that way. In fact, since the 7th grade introduction to air sickness during an aerial photography flight I had arranged, Chris limited his adventures with me to college and professional sporting events, with an occasional day hike on the Appalachian Trail or white water rafting trip.
“Daddy, what’s that thing from the 70’s you say about permission” Caity asked.
“What? You mean ‘It’s easier to beg forgiveness than it is to ask for permission’?”
“Yeah. That’s it” she says.
“”Trust me! Mom’s not as big a fan of that as I am.” We both giggle.
I have many friends with tattoos. Some with something to hide; a soccer mom with a flower on the sole of her foot she hides from her kids; a make-up artist with a fish covering the scars on her wrist. Some have something to boast; like the CEO with his kid’s names on his chest, and sales rep with his Greek Letters on his ankle. Some friends with tattoos, however, are happy with ” its cute”, keeping the deeper meaning to themselves.
When I showed my concept design to the tattoo artist he looked at the major components, a cardinal, a sun, a cloud, ‘919’, and a rainbow. He looked at me quizzically, and said, “You know, the rainbow has different meanings to different people”.
“Well – for me it’s the alternative paths of healing I became open to after I got cancer.” I replied.
He nodded his head, and then glanced at Caity.
She said, “Daddy, I think what he’s saying is the rainbow is a sign of Gay Pride, and some people may think you’re Gay if you have that on your shoulder.”
I was quiet; marveling at how my little princess had grown up. In the same moment I felt shamed by my ignorance, I felt proud that my daughter could teach me.
“Hah!” I burst out laughing, turning to the ink man, “There is no f—ing way that’s coming off the design now!”
There may be many reasons not to get a tattoo. I had one really good reason to get one; It was my cancer story. Not the physical cure, but the spiritual journey. I wanted to honor that. I had been in remission for nearly seven years and felt defining my experience in terms of the physical cure cheapened the richness and the glory of my journey. Although one of the enduring gifts of cancer was learning to not give a damn about what other people thought about me. it didn’t mean I was above seeking advice. After all, as one friend pointed out, “Forever, is forever.”
The centerpiece of the tattoo I call “My Cancer Story” is a cardinal perched on dogwood branch. The rainbow (healing paths) arcs back from the cardinal’s beak to a sun (Goodness), which is partially obscured by a cloud (temporal nature of obstacles). Floating below the beak is ‘919’ (the date I fell ill and a reminder of beautiful gifts revealed with a passage of time). Located at the top of my left arm, I kiss this everyday.
Nobody knew the “cute” vibrant shooting star Caity chose for her lower back would foretell her own spiritual strength.
A naked eye could judge the permanent ink on our skin; but it would take an open heart to grasp the enduring spirit that lies within. The story of Caity’s tattoo was just beginning. The story of my tattoo started long before I had cancer. The story of my tattoo began with the ink of my grandmother’s spirit.
As long as I can remember Nanny, my maternal grandmother, was a soothing balm; unflappable.
Born Elizabeth Vannaman, Nanny married at 19 to a wealthy heir named John Smith. They began to raise a family with three children living on a luxurious estate near Morristown, N.J. with, as Nanny would say giggling, “more servants and horses than anyone could ever use!”. A large fire in the mid 1940’s, however, burned the uninsured estate to the ground. Overnight, my mother’s family became paupers.
Family lore had it that my grandfather, who was prone to depression, never recovered financially, or emotionally. He never worked a steady job again. They moved south to the Jersey shore, where Nanny found jobs as a maid and a waitress. My grandfather died in 1960. Shortly thereafter Nanny became the live-in manager at The Wyoming Hotel near the corner of 8th Street and Ocean Avenue in Ocean City.
Like many hotels on the Jersey shore, the three-story 1920’s era Wyoming catered exclusively to summer tourists. As there was no air-conditioning, the ventilation was aided by a glass transom above the door in each room. The first floor deluxe rooms were ‘deluxe’ because they had a toilet and a bath. The upper floors had community facilities. The staff was made up almost exclusively of college-aged kids looking for summer employment. Nanny would remain there for over 25 years.
My mother, the middle child, graduated from Nursing School then married dad in 1956. He was beginning his career as a nuclear powered submarine officer that caused us to move frequently (I attended 9 schools in 12 years). The Wyoming was the only permanent home my siblings and I knew. We spent many summer vacations with our North Carolina cousins going to the beach by day, boardwalk by night, and creating mischief in between. Nanny’s unflappability revealed itself time and again. When I was 9, I had walked up to the third floor (this is where the teen-aged employee maids and waitresses roomed), and decided it would be a fun to see if I could let spit drip out of my mouth and watch it go all the way down to the first floor. It did, apparently landing on top of a laundry basket Nanny was carrying up from the basement. She caught me. I tried to lie my way out of it. I caved and apologized. She never said a word to my mother.
Later, when I was 18, after a night of drinking in nearby Somers Point, I found myself, once again, on the third floor where the college-aged maids and waitresses roomed. I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but for some reason I found myself stuck in one of the transoms above the door of a particularly attractive waitress from Ithaca, N.Y. Although accustomed to teenage angst and pranks in the 1960’s and 70’s, Nanny did not relish being awoken at two A.M. with the news her grandson “just got stuck”. Nanny giggled at these stories, and others, while reminiscing over her afternoon bourbon for years after she retired to North Carolina in the mid 1980’s.
It was March, 1993, and the World Trade Center had just been bombed by terrorists. Mom had come back east to Charlotte from San Diego to help with Hospice care for Nanny. Upon reflection, she commented that being an RN often meant her role as daughter took a back seat. Mom didn’t complain, she was just so grateful she was there for the beautiful experience on Nanny’s last day.
For the previous few days, a male cardinal had come to rest each morning on the windowsill outside Nanny’s room.
It was March 22, Nanny’s last day. For the fourth day in a row, as a vibrant cardinal took its self appointed place on the paint thirsty sill, mom reverently welcomed the curious bird, “Good Morning, Charles. Here to check on your patient?”
Mom described how the light fragrance of the early spring lilacs wafting in through the open window contrasted sharply with the pungent, unmistakable odor of impending death. After six years of on-again, off-again chemotherapy, Nanny’s body just got tired of the chemical abuse.
Mom said she took the wash cloth dipped in olive oil and reached over to moisten her mother’s chapped lips. She had seen, and smelled, death come enough times to know the end was near. “I knew it was time.” she said.
The gradual quickening of shallow breathing sounded the quiet alarm. Mom breathed in deeply, prayerfully, as the little girl in her reached for, one last time, her mother’s hand. Tears fell to Nanny’s pasty, emaciated forearm, rolling onto the cotton sheets. One last time Mom squeezed her mother’s hand, tightly, simultaneously ushering out and holding on. As Nanny exhaled her last gasp of life, Mom’s teary eyes were drawn to the windowsill. With a peaceful heart, she watched her Mother’s spirit take flight with the cardinal into the Carolina sky.
On September 19, 1994, I was driving north on Interstate 81 returning to my office after mid-day meetings in Shippensburg, PA. Instead of continuing on to my office I took a short cut home. I was exhausted. I crawled into bed. After 9 days of alternating fevers and chills, I finally went to see my friend Dr, John Ricks.
We discussed my symptoms, and he had a technician take a chest X-ray. I was in the exam room, sitting on the padded table with my legs hanging over the side. My head hung low; it felt like I had a 100 pound weight around my neck. It seemed like a long wait.
John walked in, closing the door behind him. As he strode quickly across the room toward the X-Ray viewing box on the back wall, he said, “I think I know what’s causing your fevers. I think you have Hodgkin’s disease.”
I raised my right hand to eye level, holding it parallel with the floor. I watched carefully to see if there were any tremors. I was thinking Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s a form of cancer.” he said.
Everything stopped. You could have knocked me over with a feather. All I could think of was Chris and Caity, then 8 and 7.
I could hardly breathe. I was stunned silent.
John continued, “The first time I diagnosed this it was my college roommate’s wife. That was 19 years ago. We had dinner last week. If you’re going to get a cancer, this is a good one to get.”
He went on, “I have already talked to Dr. John Conroy. He’s very, very smart, and still young enough to have compassion. I think you’ll like him. He will see you at 7:30 tomorrow morning. Here are the X-rays, take them with you tomorrow. Go home a get some rest.”
I was in a dazed cloud when I walked out of the clinic. I felt like everybody was staring at a large red “C” sewn on to my chest. I had no idea a year would pass before I would shake that feeling. As I pulled out onto the road, I called the instructor of a course I had just begun. I instinctively knew I needed to practice saying the words before I got home to face Leigh.
“Dan, this is Pat McBride. I have to withdraw from your course. I….”
I choked up. I began to cry. A full minute passed before I could finish the sentence.
“I have cancer.”
I got home, took Leigh to our bedroom, and held the X-ray up against the mirror on her vanity. A large mass was readily apparent on the right side of my chest. I gave her the diagnosis. We agreed we needed to tell the Chris and Caity daddy was sick.
All I remember her saying was, “God didn’t bring us this far to just drop us off at the end of a block. We’ll figure this out.”
The next few weeks were dominated by a whirlwind of blood work, chest biopsies, and bone marrow aspirations. A trip to the lymphoma clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, confirmed the diagnosis: Stage III-B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had 6 1/2 pounds of cancer in my abdomen, chest, and wrapped around my heart and my windpipe.
For the first three days after John Ricks had helped me differentiate Hodgkin’s disease from Parkinson’s disease, I was shell-shocked, withdrawn, depressed. The concept of my own body turning on me was utterly incomprehensible. I was in the best physical condition (I thought) than I had been since my Plebe year at the Naval Academy. My business was flourishing. My family life was good. How could this be happening to me?
Something happened on the fourth day. It just came over me. For some reason, I knew I was the perfect person to get this thing and beat it. I just knew. I felt empowered. I had started to read the first of 140 books I would read during this period. The principles and guidelines outlined in “The Cancer Conqueror” by Gary Anderson would help me form the basis of my own battle plan. I became open to all sorts of alternative healing practices; prayer, meditation, visualization, positive mental attitude. I changed my diet. I read voraciously. I embraced the notion that I was not just a human being having a spiritual experience, but rather a spiritual being having a very human experience. I employed a “Life Coach” who helped me pull together and manage the wide variety of healing modalities. I didn’t know if attitude accounted for 1% or 10% or 50% of the desired outcome of total remission, I just knew it was the only thing I could really control. Whatever influence it could have, I wanted it working for me. This would become my healing rainbow, the wide range of paths I explored.
I had T-shirts designed with a bulldog and slogan that read “We’re kicking cancer butt!” Leigh was the coach. Chris and Caity were my motivation. I surrounded myself with people who believed I was healing, not the others who treated me like I was sick. I didn’t understand why my body was attacking itself, so I made it about something I did understand. This was a football game. It was first down on my own 8 yard line. I had 92 yards to travel to reach the goal of remission. John Elway or Joe Montana wouldn’t throw in the towel. Either would I.
Finally, and most importantly, I reconnected with the 12 Step recovering community that had been so instrumental in me getting sober seven years earlier. The twelfth step, “having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we carried the message to other alcoholics, and practiced these principles in all our affairs”, became the primary operating dynamic in my life. This became the core of my healing rainbow.
I had gone to a Sunday morning meeting of fellow recovering alcoholics and shared my recent diagnosis. Afterwards, of the 55 people in attendance, 8 shared with me they were cancer survivors. I knew I was in the right place. I didn’t know to what degree the selfless giving of oneself to help another can alter the body-mind-spirit connection. But I was about to find out, Whatever the outcome, I wanted to be the best dad, the best husband, the best person I could be for the rest of my life, whether it was for two months, two years, or twenty years.
In December, 1994, jury selection for OJ Simpson’s murder trial dominated the news. It was three months since I had been diagnosed, and the ‘rah-rah’ football cheerleading approach had worn thin. I was emotionally and physically spent. One morning I was lying on the tartan fabric sofa in the family room. The kids were in school, and Leigh was at work. I was exhausted after another sleepless night. Since my diagnosis, I grappled with the fear of the slumber that would leave my kids without a dad. My hand rested on the soft hair of the neck of my loyal yellow Lab, Shamrock. Short of absolute denial, there is no amount of positive mental attitude that could overcome the gut wrenching distaste of abandoning my family.
I gazed out the sliding glass door. Lurking patiently beyond the weather-pocked post and wire fence, high and wind-tattered cornstalks brushed across the dim morning sky. We were the last house on the dead-end road, where an Army of cornstalks stood guard beside and behind us. Or were they? I took comfort in the faded green grass and thinned mulch surrounding the leafless dogwood tree. The cumulative effects of the chemotherapy had taken a brazen, battle hungry warrior and broken me down into a wired and tired hodgepodge of hope, fear and reflection.
I was laying still. My eyelids blinked in slow motion. My breathing was labored, disrupted by an occasional gasp and hitch, like a soft hiccup. My left hand was pulled up next to my face, clenching the corner of the thick Afghan blanket that protected me, helped me to combat the persistent chill from defining my existence.
The muted din of Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden making their own case for death faded, as dry, hard leaves scraped across the concrete patio. Something beckoned my attention. The scratching ceased, and my eyes returned to the cornstalks. I wondered if the grim reaper was crouched nearby. I was tired, scared. I took a deep breath. Suddenly, a vibrant cardinal flew in and landed on a leafless dogwood branch.
I calmly watched the cardinal that calmly watched me. I thought of Nanny. I was overwhelmed with a sense of calm, a deep knowing: Accepting death as a possibility will not diminish my will to live.
I smiled. I cried. For the first time in months, I drifted off and slept peacefully. My battle had just become a dance, and I was not leading.
While the spiritual path to remission may have become a dance, the physical path mimicked a drunken sailor stumbling back from shore liberty. Except for my eyebrows, I lost all my hair. I was bloated from the Prednisone. I was constantly fatigued. I needed blood transfusions. I contracted pneumacystis pneumonia (“That’s what normally kills AIDS patients” – Thanks!) While checking out of a hospital in May 2005 I was asked, “Has Hospice been notified?”
A month later, in early June, the sports world was watching Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles chase Lou Gehrig’s Major League Baseball record of 2,130 consecutive games. With my mother to my left and my bride to my right, the Lymphoma Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore told me, “It appears your disease is persistent, meaning it has grown in spite of the chemotherapy. Your only real chance of survival is with a bone marrow transplant.”
“ Now, I have to tell you three things;” He continued, ” first, everybody gets sick; second, almost everybody can’t eat for a month; and third, if the transplant is successful, your chances of surviving beyond 2 years is about 15%. “
The three of us were quiet. We knew from our own research my condition no longer fell under the category of, “This is one to get.”.
I cleared my throat, and said, “Well, for all of that, can you arrange a visit from cal Ripken, Jr. ?” At least we could all laugh.
Then, in early August, just weeks before the scheduled transplant was to occur, I was told, “The good news is, the cancer is definitely not growing. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s there anymore. We want to postpone the procedure.” For many people this may have been a good call to receive. For me, hearing that my “only real chance of survival” was being delayed triggered renewed doubt and anxiety. For six weeks I nervously underwent continuous testing, until October 15, 1995 when my oncologist finally said, “I can’t explain everything, and I certainly can’t explain this. You are in remission.”
A week later, I received a bulky envelope in the mail from the Baltimore Orioles. It contained an autographed baseball with the inscription, “Pat, My Best. Cal Ripken Jr.” It would become the only autographed sports memorabilia I would keep.
On one hand, this physical recovery was remarkable because the odds laid out by the experts were so daunting. On the other hand, I was somehow neither surprised nor overjoyed with the pronouncement. I am not sure if my response was muted because I was afraid it my relapse, or because spiritually I was at a place of total peace with whatever the outcome was. Perhaps it was a blend of the two.
In December, 2003, three months after my parents purchased an east coast home to be near their grandchildren, and three weeks after walking a Marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Mom, at 71, was diagnosed with advanced stage Ovarian Cancer.
For three years, it was the shitty kind of cancer story. Hope dashed by desperation. Chemotherapy, side effects, surgery, hospital stays, Shingles, and finally acceptance. The powerlessness of watching my mother’s slow, stumbling dance and wrestling with a mid-life, coming-of-age questions sent me back into therapy. At 45, I discovered I had unresolved “Mommy” issues, peppered with depression and my own survivor’s guilt. My therapist called this the ‘Middle Passage on steroids’.
This inspired my second tattoo I call, “The Rest of the Story”. Located on my right upper arm, it symbolizes the paths I strive for each day. Yin – yang (Balance), an arrow, the Runic symbol for Tiewaz (Courage), Kanji symbol for Kaizen (Continual Improvement) and Fire (Passion).
Mom wasn’t crazy about her middle-aged, first-born child getting tattoos (or for that matter, taking her grand-daughter to get tattooed!), but the connection between us had grown deeper than it ever had. I think she actually ‘got me’. During one of her hospital stays, I stopped by the Hospital gift shop. In the corner was a 6” by 6” ceramic tile with a painted Cardinal perched on a branch.
“Oh, Patrick! It’s beautiful” Mom cried when I gave it to her. We talked about Nanny’s cardinal, and my cardinal, and my tattoo. We discussed God and heaven and why I left the Catholic Church. We marveled at each others childlike enthusiasm. It was as precious a memory of my mother as I would ever have.
Mom’s deterioration over the last few months was almost more than I could bear. Dad said the constant hiss and pop from the oxygen compressor made their home sound like a 1930’s bicycle shop. When the third chemotherapy cocktail failed to produce the desired results, I silently prayed that she would not be accepted into any of the three clinical trials Dad had applied for. Watching mom suffer such indignity as an object of someone’s science experiment was tortuous. There was, after all, a human being attached to this tumor. I just wanted her suffering to stop. I just wanted her to die.
Mom was a devout Catholic, although I think she would have been devout wherever the wheel of faith would have stopped for her. Raised a Protestant, she converted to Catholicism in order to marry Dad. She was a genuinely spiritual being having a very human experience. On Easter Sunday, her favorite church holiday, it would be the last time Mom would eat any solid food. With her were all four children and 5 of her 6 grandchildren; just as she would have it. After the obligatory apple sauce and ice chips, she ate a small piece of ham and a scalloped potato. She threw them up later, and then joked, “Yech!!! It tasted better the first time” and smiled.
She alternated between napping and watching Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”, then Tiger Woods as he made a charge at the Masters. As had become my custom, and I think the custom of my three siblings, I crawled into bed with her. I was so torn.
“I know your dad is incredibly disappointed”, she told me; “I was turned down for the clinical trial. I’m ready to go. I am so worried about your father though. I hope he finds someone nice to spend the rest of his life with. I want that for him.”
I was so relieved. Selfishly, I just didn’t want to see her suffering go on anymore. I knew whatever her heaven would be, it was better than the hell she was going through. I also hoped she told Dad that she wants him to move on. He had been so totally focused on mom’s health challenge the past three years. I made my challenge a football game. Dad made his like a nuclear submarine operation. I was genuinely concerned mom’s death would be such a devastating loss he would not make it much beyond mom. In my book, the sacrifice and commitment Dad demonstrated throughout the previous three years had earned him the unmitigated right to pursue happiness in any way he desired. He earned that. His example of how a man loves a woman was the greatest gift he could ever have given.
A week later, it was Sunday, April 15, 2007. Hospice had been called on Friday. I crawled into bed with her. I hoped this would be the last time. It was strangely easy and comfortable as we talked about life and death and what we believed. She had to be uncomfortable, but, as always, welcomed me and never complained. There was never a sign of self-pity. While she was a little loopy from the Oxycodone, and faded in and out of lucidity, I relished this time with her. The fire drills were now over, and these were just bonus minutes with my Mommy.
Our last conversation was late that afternoon.
“I am so proud of the way you have dealt with your life.” She said. “You are such a good father. Chris and Caity are such good, happy kids. You have made me very proud. “
“Thank you. You know Mom, you are my hero. I love you.”
“Love you too.” She said, her eyes drifting shut.
“And one more thing, Mom,” she opened her eyes, struggling to focus, “When you get to Heaven, put in a good word for my golf game will ya?”
She giggled, and said “I will” and squeezed my hand for the last time.
I did not feel dismissed. I felt complete. I could feel her love.
When I returned late Tuesday evening, the ever-present hiss and pop of the oxygen compressor continued, but the smell of death mom had once described was undeniable. Her vanity had long since been converted into a pharmacology display, covered with medicine bottles, rubber gloves and hand wipes. The painted Cardinal on the ceramic tile leaned against the mirror where she could see it. It would become my most cherished heirloom.
The following day at 3:15 in the afternoon, Mom was surrounded by Dad and her 4 children. My sister Kathleen dabbed olive oil onto Mom’s chapped lips. The gradual quickening of shallow breathing sounded the quiet alarm. With mom’s right hand in mine, the core family formed a circle for the last time. Dad led us in prayer. First we recited the ‘Our Father’, then the ‘Hail Mary’. At the end of the last line, “Now and at the hour of our death”, Mom exhaled her last breath. A moment passed. My youngest brother Boo turned off the oxygen machine, and we stood in an eerie silence, as a family, all crying. Then, my brother Tim, pointing out the window, exclaimed, “Look! On the tree! Cardinals!”
Sure enough, the bird that seems to tie the generations of our family together appeared once again.
Three years later, missing Mom hurts much more than I ever imagined. As one friend said, “Forever is forever.”