Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | January 4, 2011

A Tattoo for Jeff: Commemoration of Year One

On July 17, 2009, my husband Jeff died of cancer discovered too late. His grace and quiet dignity during the fourteen months after we discovered the cause of his illness was a lesson and a gift to anybody who was a part of it.

On July 17, 2010, I got a tattoo. I designed it myself, and wear the indigo ink proudly on my breastbone. People often ask me if it was painful, needles there so close to the bone. And I respond “Compared to what?” A few moments’ pain of needles in my skin was nothing compared to what it stands for. When I told a close friend about my plan to get a tattoo on the first anniversary of Jeff’s death, she asked why I would want to remember such a thing. My answer: This is not going away. This is part of me forever now. And so it is.

The tattoo’s motifs evolved slowly over months of researching and looking at pictures, then musing, sketching, doodling. It is a shooting star, and a heart, and some words. The star is nestled inside the heart, and the tails of the shooting star arc out to left and right, along with “it is what it is” traced in my own handwriting. Integral to the design, the words are carved in mirror image – or “bookmatched” in appropriate woodworking terms – because they have deep meaning to me, enough to have them etched into me permanently. I can read them in the mirror, and others can read them on my skin.

There is meaning behind each symbol. The banal maxim “It is what it is” epitomizes our journey with cancer. Very early on after Jeff’s diagnosis, we were questioning our most kind, compassionate, brilliant doctor about a troubling symptom. I pressed him, “But is it good or bad?” His reply, “It’s not good or bad; it is what it is.” Which, of course, means: It’s Bad. We heard “It is what it is” so many times and in so many contexts during Jeff’s illness that we found it amusing, and even on the worst days we would share a rueful secret smile to hear such an iconic statement. To me it also refers to the Zen-like calm and acceptance of circumstance I tried to cultivate during this time, which Jeff practiced effortlessly as long as I knew him. The Dalai Lama says:

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

Of course this did not solve our ultimate problem, but it did bring me some comfort, the girl who tends to worry about nearly everything. I miss Jeff deeply every day, and I am heartbroken that he is gone from us, but I believe the effort to cultivate peacefulness helped me to do my very best in each moment for him then, and helps me still, to know I did all I could.

The tattooed heart signifies the very odd yet somehow soothing phenomenon of found hearts. Since Jeff has been gone, I have found hundreds of hearts seemingly placed in my path. They appear in stones, shells, wood, glass, food, flowers, mud. I have been a beachcomber and observer of nature all my life, and before Jeff died had never noticed a single heart in my travels. Since I was a small child I have walked beaches with head bowed, searching for treasures – wishing rocks circled with a white ring, sand dollars, driftwood – and never found a single heart shaped anything. Yet now they are everywhere. I do not truly believe that my beloved is arranging these hearts for me to find, but the synchronicity of their placement and material can be breathtaking. Regardless of their source, they are gifts. They indicate an attention, an awareness I can achieve only because of mindfulness, slowing down enough to see clearly. And all Jeff ever wanted for me was to slow down enough to see clearly. The painful irony that it took his absence for me to do just this breaks my heart daily. This inked heart is my constant reminder to slow down and to see.

The story of the shooting star is simple. I drove through a starry, starry night to our tiny cabin, which Jeff had built nearly singlehandedly. It was my first night there alone since he left us, and so difficult to be there without him, ghosts of his fingerprints on every piece of wood. The Milky Way was ablaze, an impossibly bright trail across the sky. It was too bright to go inside. I stood on the south-facing porch drinking it in. I leaned over the railing and looked north, back behind the house, to follow the dazzling path. At that moment, an enormous bright shooting star slowly arched overhead, tracing the angle of the roof that Jeff built. If I had not been looking back at our house I would not have seen it, hanging there so bright it felt near enough to touch. As Jeff’s sister said later, “Just letting you know he’s there.” Do I think that? Not sure. Do I feel it, believe it, know it? You bet I do.

The woman I chose to ink my tattoo is known as an artist and a healer. As soon as I heard about her I knew she was the only one to do the work.Everything about our meeting was sparked with coincidence and portent. She wove for us such a sacred afternoon. Our daughter was with me, and the artist Jen gently asked Anna questions about her father and let us talk and cry and remember while she worked. I mentioned that although I felt certain about getting this tattoo, and had contemplated it for months, I knew that Jeff would not have approved of a permanent marking of my skin.

When Jen finished her artistry, she took a clean cloth and soaked it with a little liquid to dab away the drops of blood from my skin. A clean, pleasant, and oh so familiar scent filled the air. As I dried my tears I tried to identify it. So evocative, so laden with comfort, yet I couldn’t quite place it. FInally I had to ask.

Jen said, “It’s Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Castile Soap – it’s a very mild —”

Anna and I both started to laugh through our tears. Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Soap was the only kind of soap Jeff ever used, I explained. Then I thought for a moment and elaborated,

“Well, not the ONLY kind. Actually, he preferred the peppermint soap. It’s me that likes the lavender.”

It was Jen’s turn to laugh in gentle disbelief.

She said, “It’s actually both of those. I use the lavender, I love it; it’s antibacterial, healing, and restful, so calming, but we ran out. So we added peppermint to the lavender. They are both in there. How about that? It’s both of you together. Sounds like he does approve after all.”

In the early morning hours of that July 17th, I stumbled upon this poem.

Last night,

I saw the realm of joy and pleasure.

There I melted like salt;

no religion, no blasphemy,

no conviction or uncertainty remained.

In the middle of my heart,

a star appeared,

and the seven heavens were lost in its brilliance.


And on that day, in the middle of my heart, a star appeared.

© Carolyn Stephens 01.02.2011



  1. I am quite certain that every time I hear this phrase, I’ll think of you.


  2. What a beautiful tattoo and poem. I am thinking of getting a memorial tattoo for Chris on the year anniversary of his death. I am leaning to getting something he wrote to me on our wedding day in his handwriting tattooed on my hip.

    I hope the tattoo continues to bring you comfort


  3. I’m not a tatoo sort of gal but I like your tatoo and it’s symbolism…well done!


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