'I Tattooed My Father's Inspiring Last Words Onto My Skin'

I stand outside the tattoo parlor in Los Angeles, my hands shaking, as I try to summon the courage to walk in. It won't be my first tattoo, but the last one I got was in 2008, which might as well have been a lifetime ago. I had no kids back then, but my husband and I were trying to conceive and failing. I chose to get a word tattooed onto my right forearm: Hope. It served as a reminder. Three years and many losses later, our first daughter was born. Then her sister a year after that.

As I enter, I am greeted by the scent of smoke, and the buzzing and ticking of electric tattoo needles. It's a sound I instantly recall and associate with piercing pain.

Every inch of wall space is covered with all the art you could possibly imagine putting on your body: anchors and hearts with swords through them and half naked ladies and roses and snakes and more swords. So many swords.

I approach the front desk, dig through my purse and produce a sheath of paperwork I've filled out, along with directions to the place. The heavily tattooed and pierced artist laughs at the fact that I have printed out the directions, which, oddly, puts me at ease. I can guess how he sees me: a 45-year-old mother, prim in my shell and cardigan set.

Carrie Friedman Lloyd and her father
Carrie Friedman Lloyd and her father. Carrie Friedman

I show him my art: my dad's last full words to me, uttered years before his death, before he could no longer talk.

I decided they should be in my dad's handwriting, so I traced and re-traced his words using a piece of velum placed over old letters and cards he had sent. I did this for weeks, trying to get his writing just right.

Now, at the parlor, I pay the fee and the artist transfers a copy of my design onto my arm, and after my approval, it begins. I had forgotten the pain of my last tattoo. It feels like a vibrating bee sting. I start to sweat, then feel dizzy. I am nauseous with nerves.

So, I close my eyes and remind myself of the meaning behind this tattoo.

I was visiting my dad at his nursing home in March of 2019. He was in a wheelchair by then. Parkinson's disease and dementia had already robbed him of the ability to stay steady on his feet.

"How's your dad?" my father asked me.

I started to say, "I don't know," then asked him, "How are you? You are my father." He nodded his head urgently, as if we were suddenly playing charades. It was the first time his eyes had focused on anyone or thing my whole visit.

"But how's your dad?" he said very quietly.

"I don't know," I said, embarrassed that I didn't have a better response. "I think he's having a tough time," I added.

He nodded and looked directly at me, said clearly:

"You go on."

At first, I thought he was telling me to leave. I wondered if he was saying I talked too much, though that was unlikely, as I'm often an observer and quiet sometimes to a fault. Then, I knew exactly what he meant. I flashed back decades to the regular phone calls he made over the years to my siblings and me anytime he was about to get on a plane.

"Now listen to me," he would say, from an airport payphone on his calling card. "If anything happens to your mother and me—if our plane goes down and we die—know you must go on. You would dishonor us by not going on with your life."

The message was different for each of us. My sister recently told me that his message to her was always: "You honor us by getting along with your brother and sister after we're gone. No in-fighting. You stick together for dear life, understand?"

In his phone calls to me, he'd stress: "Living well and taking care of yourself and each other is how you honor us." He was an estate-planning attorney and in his line of work, he'd seen it too often: a family's matriarch or patriarch died and their children stopped living through a variety of responses to the grief. Perhaps alcoholism or drug abuse, profound depression, or even suicide.

My siblings and I had come to expect these phone calls, and often rolled our eyes when he called each of us. "God, Dad, you're so morbid!" I once said. And, "We get it, we'll go on with our lives." I remember often telling him to take a Xanax, and that his flight would be fine.

Now, he repeated himself at the nursing home: "You go on." He said it in a labored way the second time. It was clear that it was hard work for him to make sense, to say something specific through all the disease and crossed wires in what was once a beautiful mind.

The same mind that once knew every word to American Pie and would sing at the top of his lungs on long family car rides from Wisconsin to Iowa; the brain that could retain the name of every seashell, even the rarest ones, after 40 spring breaks spent in Florida with and without his kids, but always with his partner in shelling and life, my mother.

Carrie's Tattoo Of Her Father's Last Words
Carrie Friedman Lloyd has a tattoo of her father's last words on her arm. Carrie Friedman

My father died over the course of five long years, so the goodbyes were spread out, not concentrated into one final farewell. Still, his death in February broke our hearts all over again.

In the first days without him on the planet, I felt unmoored. Then remembered what he had always wished for us: To go on with our lives. To live well.

Of course, I've let myself feel the pain of his loss, but I'm also letting myself do what I know he wants for us: To breathe easy, laugh hard, spend time with family, walk the beach, and sing at the top of my lungs on road trips.

As the needle buzzes its second pass over "You go on" on my inner wrist, my shirt becomes wet with sweat. I watch as the artist carefully loops the "O's."

Tracing my father's handwriting for weeks left me feeling connected to him again. His handwriting is similar to mine: messy cursive with letters that go down slightly toward the end of each word, as if our hands and pens are too tired to stay up.

My arm is numb as the artist finishes the tattoo. My wrist is red and raw but there it is, written in my father's handwriting: You go on.

Words I will carry with me forever in my heart and, now, on my sleeve.

Carrie Friedman is a writer in Los Angeles. Find out more about her work at carriefriedman.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.