Invisible Tattoo

September 10th, 2015

Today I am due for my second round of chemo. Feel pretty good. Didn’t want to walk carrying my bag full of urine—my horrible urine purse—so I did 40 minutes on the bike trainer, took a shower, put lotion on and let it dry, saw the docs, and am now getting more chemo. Yesterday, I got the sweats and was a little tired, but I recovered.

I want to tell you about my henna tattoo. It’s about two weeks ago, and I have Anna and Amanda’s wedding to go to. It is my plan to be gorgeous. So I call someone in Carborro for a henna tattoo, and she asks me what I want.

I say a henna crown with roses, irises, and peonies. I also need a star, a rocket ship and a bee.

Rationale for Roses:

Several years ago, my mother-in-law, Rose, passed away. It was sudden and heartbreaking. She fell down the stairs while cleaning the chandelier. I loved Rose, and I know that she loved me. I know I was like a daughter to her. So I want roses in my tattoo. I feel her ghost sometimes, watching over me and Chris. I sometimes deeply feel her approval and her love.


My dad’s father died in World War II. He was a member of a bomber crew, and you only had to fly 35 missions to get sent home. He died on his 32nd mission and was shot down by a German fighter. This meant my grandmother had to figure out what to do with my 4-year-old father and the rest of her life. She moved from the Staman family farm, and she took peonies with her. She married again, and planted the peonies in the back yard of her new small house; they were her pride and joy. After she passed, my sister Laura and I asked the new tenants if we could dig up some of the peonies, and I have vivid memories of the two of us weeping into the dry soil, and carrying the peonies away in trash bags with dirt on our funeral clothes.


I didn’t know my mother’s parents very well. I knew they were kind, and that I am like Grandad, who everyone called Red. Red was a foreman at Davey Tree during the depression. They got paid on Saturdays, and by Friday, all the money was gone for the workers. He and his wife would throw pancake parties every Friday night so the crew could eat. My grandmother had a gold coin, and she wore it around her neck all through the depression, as a symbol that they were not truly poor.

My Grandad loved irises. He secretly planted irises in the fall in the middle of a marshy bog, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere. One day in the spring, he took my mother out there to see them. It was so beautiful that she cried. When she asked him why he did it in the middle of nowhere, he said, “It’s a gift, and a gift doesn’t have to be for anybody in particular. I’m glad you like it, though.”

And this is why I think I need irises, roses and peonies for my henna tattoo. I go to the little witch’s house; she is not really a witch, or course, but she could be. She lives in Carrboro, for one thing. I see a big black snake slithering up to her door. She is petite and wearing a red kimono or Indian dress or something that might be a smock. She spends a lot of time talking to me and finding out what I want. I cry a few times, and she acknowledges that it is hard to be sick. She spend two hours painting on my head.

When she is done, I feel like my ancestors are with me. I feel them surround me and protect me on my journey. I love it.

photo 3 photo 1

Do you see the Rocket for Zachary Rocket in the below picture?

photo 4

See the Bee for Madeline Bee? The star for Chris, the rockstar?

photo 5

I feel beautiful too.

But in the morning, the day of the wedding, it looks like this. Almost all of it is gone.

photo 2

I am very sad about this, and this sadness is unexpected. The little witch offers to do it again for free, but I don’t want to. That was 4 hours of my life all in. I don’t ask for my money back, either, although I know I could. She spent her time on this too, and made something beautiful. Maybe the healing I got from feeling the support of my ancestors is all I needed. I need the acknowledgement that I want their help and support, that their past is entwined in my future. And I get to share the pictures and the stories with you.

I go to Anna and Amanda’s the wedding wearing a hat. The hat is too hot, and I eventually just take it off. All my climbing friends are there; Maddy, Zach and Chris are there; and we dance and dance and dance. The wedding is so full of love, Anna and Amanda could not be more adorable.  Maddy says it is the best day of her life. Everyone is everyone’s. We all have each other, and the empathy we are sharing is called joy.

I did not need for the tattoo to show. It was there.

14 Responses to “Invisible Tattoo”

  1. David Kwee on September 11, 2015 12:39 pm

    Your ancestors sound cool.

    The henna’s transient, your ancestors’ stories are forever. As yours will be.

    I like your apparent daily affirmation: Being sick sucks. Being free of MS will be awesome.

    We readers may not be as permanent as the internet, but FWIW, your stories (and now your ancestors’ stories) are safe with us.

  2. Janelle Bitikofer on September 11, 2015 12:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story, Karen!

  3. Heathapatti on September 11, 2015 12:58 pm

    And it always will be there. Love you so much.

  4. Liz on September 11, 2015 1:26 pm

    Wonderful Karen. And an amazing henna tattoo. Love your posts and wishing you continued strength. Liz

  5. Julia on September 11, 2015 2:40 pm

    This is just such a beautiful post. Thanks for all the intimate details, and pictures.

  6. Jenny on September 11, 2015 2:46 pm

    Sometimes the most important things that we carry with us can’t be seen at all. Sending good thoughts your way every day!

  7. Laurie J. Edwards on September 11, 2015 4:46 pm

    So glad you got pictures of that gorgeous tattoo. Too bad it didn’t last, but all the memories that inspired it are still tucked away in your heart. That’s the important thing. And that you’re on a healing journey.

  8. Anonymous on September 11, 2015 10:15 pm

    You’ve got this. Your family, ancestors and friends have your back.

  9. Laura Staman on September 11, 2015 10:18 pm

    Thank you Karen for treasuring our ancestors and being keeper of the stories. You weave them out in such a beautiful way. I feel peaceful by it and value my ancestry more now too. I love you. Thanks for the gift.

  10. Lisa Johnson on September 11, 2015 10:50 pm

    You are truly a wonderful story teller.

  11. Pat on September 11, 2015 10:51 pm

    Such precious, precious symbols and memories!

  12. Kirsten on September 12, 2015 1:35 am

    SO beautiful – the words, the memories and the henna. So cool you were told the details of these ancestral stories. Treasures. And though I was surprised to see the henna on your head at the end of the story (why? Don’t know) it was perfect. And maybe even perfect that it was not the star of the show on Anna and Amanda’s wedding day (?) You are bad ass.

  13. Kirsten on September 12, 2015 1:45 am

    SO beautiful. The words, the memories, the henna. Awesome that these ancestral stories were shared in such detail :) Treasure. What a delightful surprised to see the henna on your head. Perfection. And beautiful and perfect as it was, it may have taken the spotlight on Amanda and Anna’s day. May Blessings rain down on you beautiful bad ass!

  14. Melanie on September 15, 2015 10:45 am

    Absolutely beautiful.

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