My brother died suddenly at the age of 36. Today would have been his 52nd birthday. When he died, I felt as if I’d lost an arm.
Allen and I hadn’t been close as kids, but as two kids growing up in the country, we often were all we had to amuse ourselves. I didn’t really start to appreciate him until I left home.
After his death, I started to think about getting a memorial tattoo. My brother lived in the country. He collected model tractors. He liked to snowmobile and go hunting. He liked to be alone in the woods. None of those were the reason I loved him, so it was hard to find an image to encapsulate all I wanted to say.
Before his death, I’d gotten tattoos to symbolize earth, water, and air. I struggled to come up with an emblem for fire. I didn’t want a salamander or a succubus, even though I’d written about one. Anyway, big red tattoos tend to look like burn scars from a distance. I wanted something subtler.
The more I thought about it, I wanted my fire tattoo to symbolize the purifying power of fire, not its destructive aspect. Allen’s death was the fire that burned away my old life as a sister and gave me a new life as a mom. More than that, his early death made me realize that I couldn’t continue to wait to get my books published. I needed to get serious, to buckle down and get the job done. Losing him made me realize how short my time might be.
When I finally hit on the idea of a phoenix, the symbolism seemed completely obvious. The metaphor for San Francisco, my home, is a phoenix. A number of destructive fires swept through the city in its early years. The last great fire was in 1906, after the earthquake. I even crawled out of bed to attend to the predawn 100th anniversary celebration of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Still, I didn’t connect San Francisco’s phoenix to the one I wanted until Jason, my tattoo artist, said he’d done a number of phoenixes that year.
My phoenix is different than the others, though. Jason had already transferred his drawing of the bird onto my arm when we realized we had different interpretations of the phoenix myth. Most phoenixes in art and tattoos are shown surrounded by flames – at the end of their lives, before their resurrection.
I wanted a phoenix that had already burned itself to death and was rising again. I wanted the magic to have already occurred. Jason ended up free-handing smoke around her as she rises from the ashes.
In one foot, my phoenix holds a baby’s skull. That’s the egg from which she rises. That’s my younger brother’s skull.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about wearing an indelible memento mori, but 10 years after the tattoo was finished, it still comforts me. I will never stop mourning my brother, but as painful as that loss was and is, it was the catalyst that finally lit a fire under me and made me stop waiting to be discovered. Fifteen years after his death, I’ve published eight books. I’m finally living the life I dreamed of, instead of waiting for it to begin.
I’d rather have my brother than a tattoo, but that doesn’t seem to be a bargain I’m capable of striking.