When someone I love dies, it feels like falling asleep. The volume gets turned down on almost everything, but my keys in the door are deafening because I know that, when I go inside, I’ll have to pretend I’m not asleep or else Boyfriend will worry, and I can’t handle babysitting his emotions and mine at the same time. When he is gone, I swim through the apartment, hovering, hardly breathing. Nothing moves, nothing reacts, but the chair seems almost offended when I sit down, so I stand, not knowing what to do, not caring because in a dream, these things don’t matter.
A friend sends me a link to an online comic with a skeleton. My eyebrows jump up and I exhale quickly through my nose in a spontaneous imitation of the beginnings of laughter, and then the heavy, slow-moving pall settles again; the dream returns, wraps itself around me, neutral and insulating, and the skeletons are just lines on a page.
That night I am a boulder with open eyes chiseled into its side, under a thin blanket in the dark, a long stone on an uneven mattress, and suddenly it occurs to me that I have been nudged toward awakening. My eyes crunch like gravel as I blink. Do stones move? No, I decide. I shift. Oh. Then, I decide, I am not a stone after all.
At the moment it means almost nothing. Months later, a friend will kick a magnolia seed pod into the street, and I will realize I did not move myself that evening. A set of poorly-assembled bones brushed against me, and the first sounds of my awakening whispered in the dark: fine-grit sandpaper finding a nail, a match that won’t light, a bony finger drifting across a human-shaped stone. I’ll watch the seeds scatter and bounce across the blacktop and wonder, was there a moment when I started waking up? Yes, I decide. That was it.
[for the record, this is my memory of dealing with grief. I haven’t experienced this in a few years]
I have only one relative with more than one tattoo, and minimal regrets about them. He has good taste and I like most of the tattoos he’d gotten, so I was shocked to hear that he wanted to get a portrait of his grandfather tattooed to his arm. My knee-jerk reaction: “Wow, that’s ghetto.” Tattooed Cousin: “What?! Why is that ghetto?”
I love my cousin. He’s a smart guy and a good person, so when I saw how bothered he was when I blurted out my (admittedly harsh) opinion, I figured I owed it to him to give it some serious thought. The following is written in the language of huge generalization.
It starts with poverty.
People of similar economic status live among each other
Whenever I look for an apartment, I’m struck by the fact that at the end of the day, I’m exchanging money for safety. Apartments in Koreatown, Compton, and Crenshaw are cheaper than apartments in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Malibu. In order to live in what I would consider a safe neighborhood, I must pay more money. Poor people are therefore more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods.
The poor stay poor
Everyone in the neighborhood is in similar economic straits. They can’t afford to send their kids to a school where everyone gets their own books, or personal attention from the teachers. Some don’t finish high school as a result of the terrible school environment. They can’t afford higher education, so the kids who graduate high school don’t go to college. Instead they get crap jobs with crap pay that doesn’t cover basic costs like rent and bills. It’s a cycle of poverty = lack of education = poverty. Some find some escape through alcohol and drug abuse, resulting in the occasional DUI (eventually resulting in the death of the user, or innocents caught in his way). There seems to be no way out without joining the armed forces (where they may die in combat), or breaking the law.
Poverty makes for a shorter, harder life
A percentage of the neighborhood turns to crime as a last resort. They arm themselves. A gang is formed. Rival gangs pop up nearby. They kill each other and are hunted by the police. Innocent people get killed during burgalies, hold ups, drive-bys, etc. The rest of the community are now a group of impoverished people living among criminals because they can’t afford not to. They are trapped by their own circumstance in a cycle of poverty and danger that lowers their life expectancy based solely on their geography. In addition, health insurance is a luxury most cannot afford. Preventative medicine is non-existent, so people die younger than they need to.
As a result of all of these circumstances, poor people are very likely to know more than one person who has died in their life, often far too young. Ritual commemoration surrounds the death of loved ones. Decals are placed on cars. T-shirts are printed. Tattoos of the dead are seen as a genuine gesture of loss and love.
But everyone dies
Why don’t rich people get tattoos of their kids who die in car accidents, or drown in pools, assuming they love each other just as much as the poor? For the middle-to-upper class, tattoos are not accepted as a civilized form of expression of any experience or emotion, death and grief included. The constant reminder of the dead is not necessary to demonstrate a sense of loss. In fact, the tendency by the poor to constantly remind themselves and others of their beloved dead is seen as a callous, somewhat selfish and attention-seeking gesture. Grief is viewed by the poor as a public experience, but is decidedly private in more privileged circles.
Is it the sense of community that causes this? Rich people have the luxury of complete independence. They don’t depend upon each other for survival, while the poor may need to borrow a neighbor’s car to get to work, or loan money to a friend so he can make rent. For the poor, death is a group experience because everything is a group experience. For the wealthy, a WASPy, reserved attitude is the most acceptable response to just about everything
SPOILER: Tattooed Cousin got the tattoo recently, and it looks amazing. I mean, it looks ghetto, but portraits are some of the most difficult art to pull off, especially in a tattoo medium. His is really well done. I guess another qualm I had was that there’s nothing worse than a bad portrait tattoo. I guess I was a little worried it would turn out to be a fucking disaster (see pictured). And that shit is forever.