Great Aunt Lauren's Tattoo

Great Aunt Lauren's Tattoo

Forget Me Not: The Art of Tragedy

by Lauren Holland, Zachary's Great Aunt

When tragedy strikes a family there are so many possible responses. Tattoos are probably not the most common response, but our tragedy was also, not a common experience. At 1:47p.m. on Friday, February 27, 2009 our family began experiencing the tragic loss of one of our own. My nephew’s son, Zachary Michael Cruz was killed in a Berkeley crosswalk. He was two weeks shy of his 6th birthday.

I say we began experiencing this loss because it is not something that happens all at once, however sudden and unexpected a pedestrian fatality is. In fact, this loss is a never-ending, ongoing experience.

Initially the family unity and shared sorrow was matched only by the heart-rending outpouring of community love and support. Perfect strangers stopped on the street corner where Zachary died; they hugged us and they cried with us. Hundreds upon hundreds of condolences were left on Zachary’s hastily created memorial web-site.

Holly Ellis, the proprietor of Idle Hand Tattoo in the Lower Haight in San Francisco, was so deeply moved by the media reports of our loss that she offered her entire shop to Zachary’s family and friends to get memorial tattoos. I don’t know who initiated the idea, but most of the family and many of the family’s closest friends chose to memorialize Zachary in this very personal and permanent way.

I had to think about it. So, I thought about it. A tattoo virgin, it may have been argued that I avoided the commitment, and that may well be. I took my then 72 year old mother to Idle Hand and watched as she, also a tattoo virgin, winced her way through an ankle tattoo in honor of her first born great-grandson; the look on her pained face only equaled by the pain on her face at the funeral service. At 72, her first shot of Patron at a family gathering after the graveside service was also a first to remember. So many ‘firsts’ with this kind of loss – they have stopped surprising me, but they still come.

It was almost a year later before I found myself in the Bay Area again. Zachary’s parents, my niece and nephew, were regulars at Idle Hand. They would make the trip to the Lower Haight and add color to the ongoing body art that helped (in some small way) to keep them connected to their child who had died.

I was ready. I had thought long and hard about body art as memorial. I had thought about love and loss, and attenuated memories fading with time. I had thought about other loves and other losses, and those yet to come – the inevitable cost of loving. I had thought of the memories that had already faded. I did not want to forget.

Hence, the forget-me-not. Such vibrant color. Such tender beauty and fragility. A reminder of love and laughter, and irrepressible smiles and the beauty of life. I was ready.

I wanted a tender vine winding around my ankle with forget-me-nots for loves lost. Idle Hand tattoo artist, Jason Donahue, convinced me that such a diminutive work would not hold its color and would lack the detail of a bolder statement. The first flower was for Zachary, the second for my father, and the third for my movie idol, James Stewart. The pain of the tattoo was nothing compared to the pain of losing my loved ones. It was proof of life. Proof that I was alive and a reminder that loss hurts.

Three years later, when my long-time love, Matthew O’Dwyer died suddenly I went to a local tattoo parlor and added the small purple forget-me-not for Zachary – I had always felt his flower should be smaller because he had been taken from us so young. I added the initials and the dates and left the flower next to my dad for my mom for someday. That day has not yet come, thank God.

When I write about transportation safety; when I speak about pedestrian safety at conferences or in classrooms; when I see people driving unsafely; I think about Zachary. I think about all the firsts, like my first tattoo – really just a moment in time since Zachary’s death – one moment among thousands of moments; each filled with experiencing loss – holidays without Zachary; birthdays, graduations, dance recitals, vacations…

When people ask me about my tattoo, I try to express all this. I simply cannot. But, if, after reading this, you can grasp, for just a moment, what tragedy may lie in a moment’s inattention on your part, maybe, just maybe, you could try to drive a little safer than you do.

Tattoo by Jason Donahue