Almost ten years ago, I went to Ireland with my sister, one of our best friends, E, and E’s boyfriend, M. Of all of the trips I took to Ireland in my wild and misspent youth, that one was the most disastrous, with lots of rain and dissension in the ranks about where to go and how to get there and how long to stay. As a vacation, it was kind of a bust.
One unforgettable thing happened, though; I got my first and only tattoo. Like nearly everyone born in 1975, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d get one, merely a matter of deciding what and when and where. I wanted something memorable, meaningful, and easily concealed–the tattoo trifecta. After years of dithering, I decided that getting a small Celtic symbol on my left shoulder, inked by a hot guy in a shop in downtown Galway, was the perfect solution.
Hungover and keyed up, the four of us browsed through the flash art and picked out our designs. My sister and E and I went small–a star, a circle, and a triskele, respectively, but M went big: a 8×8 inch Celtic cross, orange and blue and green and intricate. He went first, and E stayed with him for moral support. As the only one of us to have previously gone under the needle, she was our ringleader and chief counsel. My sister and I went downstairs to browse in a clothing shop, and were surprised to see E come in a few minutes later, bearing a bag of food from McDonald’s.
“Don’t freak out,” she said immediately. “Did you hear a big thump?”
“M passed out. But everything is fine!” she said cheerfully. “He just needs some food. I’ll come back and find you when we’re done.” M was a big, athletic, relatively badass guy, and finding out that he fainted within 5 minutes of meeting the needle wasn’t great for my and my sister’s nerves, but we went and had a beer to steady ourselves and went through with it anyway. We teased him about being a wimp every chance we got after that. “Look, a thumbtack! Steady there, M!”
M was a troubled soul, and his relationship with E crumbled a couple years later. He drifted from coast to coast, often estranged from his worried family, battling demons of illness and addiction and pursuing his love of music, especially bluegrass. His breakup with E was spectacularly bad, and we were out of touch for years, only recently re-connecting via Facebook. In his photos there, he looks like he always did, shaggy and smiling and often with a banjo in his hand. He looks like a good person to hug, which he was; solid and long-armed.
E has moved on, married now to a nice man and mother of a beautiful toddler. Yesterday, she called to say that M had died. He was living back at home, trying once again to get himself together. He’d been at work, stepped out for a post-shift cigarette, and had a seizure (though he had no known history of such). He hit his head when he fell, and the way he landed cut off his oxygen supply. By the time he was found, a day later, nothing could be done.
This is the third sudden, shocking death of a young person in the last few years among my circle of bar friends. Three people who were doing what we all do, planning the next big thing and the next happy hour simultaneously, until the record screeched to a halt with no warning. Before that, of course, there was the shooting. We are young to have known so much grotesque, senseless sadness, but really, who ever feels old enough to bury their friends?
This has hit me unexpectedly hard. I imagine that M, whose demons were much more vicious than mine but of the same genus, thought he had all the time in the world to make things right; get cleaned up, stabilize, make amends with his family, finish his education, find another nice girl to love and do it right this time. And he did have all the time in the world, until he didn’t. None of us know how much time the world has allotted us, so spending it wisely can be a tricky proposition. Lately, for me, the push to choose correctly feels like a train rushing up behind me, its wind riffling my hair.
I never see my tattoo, situated as it is on my shoulder blade. I forget about it all the time, surprised to catch a glimpse of its green swirl while dressing. I like when people ask about it; I enjoy telling them that I got it on a whim, in Ireland, that four of us did it together and celebrated our bravery afterwards with Guinness in a pub. I like that version of myself, young and happy and footloose in the world. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist, I was telling the story yesterday to a colleague, not an hour before E started calling my cell phone over and over to say that M was gone.
Despite some of the bad things that happened subsequently, young and happy and footloose in the world is how I’ll remember M, too. I hope he’s found peace.