October 7, 2013

The Cadaver Test: How Considering Death Became a Celebration of Life.

If the person examining my cadaver on that slab could easily get the “message” from my tattoo, it was the wrong tattoo, for the wrong reason.

I just had a conversation in which I actually said “I often imagine myself as a cadaver.”

I can explain.

We were discussing the fact that I got a tattoo on my last birthday, in March. I’ve wanted one for years, and didn’t actually get one because my mother was horrified by tattoos. To her, the tiniest heart on the nape of the neck was as egregious as a full sleeve of florid and entwined nudes.

While I would happily have skipped the ink if it meant having my mother back, it just doesn’t work that way. So after she died last year, I decided it was time.

Because I thought about it for so long, I considered hundreds of possible designs and placements. I’d love to be so free-spirited that I could have a line of vividly colored Ganeshi marching up my forearm. I am not.

I work at a church, and supervise volunteers who are women in their 70s and 80s. I am somebody’s mom; and, well… I own real pearls and cashmere sweaters. There are days when I go all Stevie Nicks, but there are also days when I’m feeling a little more Kim Novak. The whole 50s librarian thing is fatally marred by visible tats unless one is adorable, under 30 and possessed of a feasibly ironic hipness.

So I settled on the inside of my left wrist because I can easily wear bracelets or a watch to cover up if I’m channeling Doris Day.

But back to the whole cadaver thing: When I started thinking about what the image should be, I thought the point of getting a tattoo was letting people know I was a person who would get a tattoo. It was about broadcasting my personality, like bumper stickers, or clothes or a Facebook profile.

I thought about whisks, forks and knives (I’m a cook!), pens, pencils and typewriters (I’m a writer!), and various religious symbols like lotuses and tiny dharma wheels (I’m a Buddhist!). When I was a cadaver on a slab somewhere, whoever had the pleasure of dealing with my earthly remains would look at the tattoo and say “well, even without an autopsy we know one thing about her—she was a writing Buddhist cook.”

Then lots of things happened—life stuff—and I kind of forgot about the whole thing for years. I talked about it every now and then, and I loved looking at other peoples’ ink and asking about the story behind it, but I wasn’t making any plans.

And then I was, but it was all different.

I emerged from a bleak and desolate place by practicing Buddhism (as opposed to talking about it or reading about it or collecting tchotchkes) and the most important thing, the thing I needed to remember over and over again was to be present. I wanted a reminder to myself. I wanted it small, and I wanted it personal. My selection process became the complete opposite of my earlier wish to telegraph my “brand.”

If the person examining my cadaver on that slab could easily get the “message” from my tattoo, it was the wrong tattoo, for the wrong reason.

[And let me say this: many people hate the whole idea. Many people would say, quite correctly, that I could wear a piece of jewelry to remind me to be present and it would function as much as my wedding ring does, as a symbol of a choice and a commitment. Others might say that making a dot on my wrist with a Sharpie every morning would serve the same purpose with less drama…and the possibility of coordinating my “reminder” with my outfit. I could also go back to my old practice of wearing a rubber band around my wrist and snapping it hard when I found my mind wandering to the past or worrying about the future. I get it. I really do. I did, however, think about this for more than five years, and I still wanted to do it.]

So I considered words like “be here now,” “be present” and “breathe.”

These, however, failed the cadaver test.

Then I considered symbols: a tiny lotus, a dharma wheel or conch shell. I liked them better than words, but they still had a “look, I’m Angelina Jolie and I’m spiritual as hell!!!” vibe.

Then I found it: the Sanskrit character for “Metta/Maitri,” or “loving-kindness.” It was all kinds of perfect. Metta practice involves loving oneself, then spreading love outward to family, friends, enemies, and all sentient beings. It is also associated with Tonglen practice, the breathing in of suffering and breathing out of compassion and peace.

I practiced Tonglen as I sat with my mother while she died, a time when I was more wholly “present” than ever before or since.

On my 51st birthday in March, I lay on a table in a well-lit room while a guy with a ponytail examined my left wrist.

I was not a cadaver, but a woman celebrating life, and creating a personal and lasting reminder to choose compassion, love and presence.

It’s just a little thing, my tattoo; one of my volunteers (who is 87, and a Republican) says it looks “like a smudge of dirt.” Other people have asked me why I didn’t choose something more colorful, or “cuter.” You know, like a Minnie Mouse.

The thing is that it doesn’t have to please other people, or make sense to them. It’s a private message.

To me, it feels just right.


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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photos: via Barbara Reddoch and Ann Nichols}


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