Not long after her 18th birthday, my daughter appeared in the kitchen, pulled down the strap of her camisole, and revealed a fresh tattoo on her right shoulder blade.
“Like it?” she asked.
“It’s puffy,” I said, “and red. Is that how it’s supposed to look?”
I’d turned away from the cutting board where my younger daughter and I were slicing peppers and bok choy for supper to examine my older daughter’s wounded skin. I adjusted my glasses and saw a woman’s body falling through space.
I wouldn’t say I liked it, but I shut my mouth. Grimacing hard, I returned to the vegetables. The chop-chop of stainless steel on wood became an audible stand-in for what I yearned to scream: How could you be so reckless? Why would you make such a damaging, irreversible choice?
My older daughter seemed oblivious to my distress as she torqued her body toward the mirror to admire herself. “It didn’t even hurt that much,” she said to my younger daughter, who’d abandoned meal prep to swoon enviously. I picked up two carrots and a bunch of scallions, waving them in the air. “Dinner, anyone?” I’d lost my appetite, but we’d still have to eat.
The body branded on my daughter’s back should not have upset me — she’d been chattering about various tattoo options for months. And legally, I was no longer obligated to worry. Now, along with voting, skydiving, operating the meat slicer at a deli, owning a pet, becoming a realtor, and booking a hotel room, my “adult” child was authorized to enter the Mooncusser Tattoo and Piercing parlor in Provincetown, Massachusetts (motto: “Take it to the grave”) and pay a guy to drive a bunch of oscillating, ink-laden needles into her skin.
The mere fact of the tattoo was not the problem. Instead, the tattoo’s allusion to Seth, my husband, her father, left me unsteady and clutching my knife fiercely.
Seth had jumped to his death off a bridge near our home in Cambridge when the girls were 11 and eight years old. He’d been a devoted father, a beloved robotics professor, and never diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Then, on a warm summer morning, Seth was gone.
That night, as our house filled with stunned family and friends while a steady stream of chocolate babkas and pans of macaroni and cheese arrived at our doorstep, my daughter asked, “Will we ever be happy again?” I’d said yes, but didn’t believe it.
I spent the following years trying to re-create the sense of safety and balance we’d lost. Throughout that day-upon-day slog, my daughters and I became a single unit, attuned to each other’s moods and needs. When one of us required a break, we’d gather on the couch with sweet tea to watch Gilmore Girls, wallowing in its charmed landscape and mother-and-daughter high jinks. In summer, when we ached for the missing fourth towel on the beach alongside ours, I’d point toward the bay: “We’re diving in.” We all came to believe in the curative power of cold salt water.
Somehow, whether due to our tight-knit threesome or despite it, they grew up from pixies scrambling to the top of the jungle gym to teenagers tucking deodorant in their backpacks and hiding texts from me.
I believed that my daughter must have known her falling-figure tattoo would unleash my old sadness and renew my fear that suicidal impulses can be passed through generations. But she looked surprised when I asked if she was considering a plunge from the sky herself anytime soon.
She shook her head at my apparent cluelessness. “It’s just a story,” she responded. “It’s Icarus, but a woman. Dad used to read it to me. I think it’s cool.”
Cool? Perhaps on someone else’s child. Not mine.
In my mind, Seth’s suicide had tainted all modes of falling: jumping, diving, flying, climbing, and even landing. Since then, I could not even bring myself to the Tobin Bridge. Nor could I understand why, with the newfound freedom of adulthood, my daughter chose to mark herself with an upside-down figure whose melting feather wings failed to keep her aloft.
“There must be a reason you chose this tattoo,” I said, unable to let it go.
Her eyes, dark and sparkling like his, rolled. Then she shrugged and disappeared from the kitchen. “I’ll eat later,” she yelled. “I’m going out.” My younger daughter chimed in before exiting, too. “It’s her body,” she said. “Her choice.”
As dinner simmered, I stood alone at the stove, weary with the sense that our familiar unit was unraveling, like the band we’d formed was breaking up.
In a few weeks, our split would become official. The three of us drove to New York to drop my older daughter off at college with her tattoo and dyed eyebrows and piercings on anatomy unknown to me ― was it the rook or snug, tragus or antitragus, septum, rhino, nasallang or some other body part I’d need a piercing dictionary to figure out?
In her freshman dorm, she told me she was ready for me to leave. She changed her mind a moment later: “You can stay a few more minutes.” I tucked the baby blue sheets into her bed, then unrolled the new mattress topper. “Comfy,” I said with an upbeat lilt. There was so much more to say. But I knew better. Instead, I left a handful of protein bars on the battered desk. “I’ll walk you out,” my daughter said.
On a Manhattan street corner, the three of us sweating dirt, we pulled each other close. We are the same size, 5 feet tall, so when we huddle like this, we’re aligned, like classical architecture, face-next-to-face, hip-to-hip, as we belong to the same body. The distance between us is much more acute when we finally separate like we’re falling apart. “Love you,” we said in unison.
My younger daughter and I climbed back into the car to head home, singing show tunes the three of us used to sing together. I hear the loss in the patchy harmonies.
A few days later, I phoned my daughter at college to check-in. She didn’t answer my calls or texts. I was thrown back to the day Seth died. At first, I thought he’d been in an accident, and that’s what I think again. Something happened to her, I am confident, in the park, or at a party, on a fire escape; the drink was spiked, one misstep too many. Suddenly, I was sweating, breathing irregularly, trying to quiet the voice that said my child must be dead. The tattoo, I was confident, had prevailed.
A sleepless night. Then a text. “Alive,” she wrote. She’d been at an art opening downtown, eating 99-cent pizza at the place on Bleeker, perched on a stoop talking politics with a new friend until 3 am.
I wrote her a long email about my difficulty with our separation, why the falling-woman tattoo led me to her father’s jump from the bridge, and how I worried it might be a warning sign. She texted back while I was walking the dog: “I didn’t think about the connection there, but now I see how you did.”
She had never wanted to dwell on her father’s death details. Though my youngest had repeatedly asked, “How did Daddy die?” and dutifully attended her grief group for children, constructing art to honor the dead out of pipe cleaners and polished stones, my older daughter would have none.
She grieved for him in her way, sideways: a passing lyric in a ukulele song; channeling him while playing the bullied, suicidal girl in the musical Heathers; lining her bedroom wall with “before” photos. She knew but also turned away from knowing ― how we all know and don’t know so much: our partners, their secrets, and our own.
As I pulled the dog along quickly, I realized my meager influence over my daughter was gone. She’d figured out how to cope, to find good, on her own. She’d gained comfort from the tattoo, reliably covering her body like a favorite soft sweater.
This offered me some comfort, too. A tattoo of falling is not falling, I thought. It’s a recognition of falling—a testament to having not fallen. There is soap, my philosopher father used to tell us when we were children, and there’s the idea of soap. The tattoo helps keep him alive, a new facet of her story ― a story distinct from mine.
I tried to let go, the way mothers must. I read Kahlil Gibran, foolishly hoping that words on a page could ease this separation: “Your children are not your children… they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
To underscore the point, my daughter soon texted me a new picture ― a second tattoo, Ignatz, the mischievous mouse from the old Krazy Kat comic strip. Seth, a passionate comic collector, had the same tattoo, although he’d removed it years before we’d met.
“What do u think?” she texted.
“It’s cool, honey.” Now all I wanted was to remain in her 18-year-old orbit.
My new job as the mother of an adult child is to sort loss from loss, death from images of death, and creativity from execution. The line is slim. When her number appears on my phone, there’s always a moment of trepidation, awaiting the sound of her voice. The words I hear could break either way. This is the cost of living. Never sure if she’ll fall hard and shatter or miraculously pull off a safe, auspicious landing.
An award-winning journalist, Rachel Zimmerman has written about health and medicine for over two decades. A contributor to The Washington Post, she previously worked as a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a health reporter for WBUR, Boston’s public radio station. She is the author of “Us, After A Memoir of Love and Suicide,” to be published in 2024.
If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
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