Behind My Cat Tattoo: How I Transformed Grief into Art


I love tattoos. I’ve loved them for a long time, but when it came to getting one on my own skin, I had pretty strict criteria, most important of which was that because tattoos are permanent, they also must have long-term significance.

In the mid-2000s, I began thinking I’d like to get a tattoo of the symbol for the heart chakra. According to Hindu tradition, the heart chakra represents the ability to connect with others, to give and receive love and compassion, to feel joy and transform grief into wisdom. I needed all those things in my life: I’d spent too many years acting as if I had my act together when internally I was just a hot mess. The Sanskrit word for the heart chakra is anahata, which means "unstruck." That gave the chakra another level of meaning for me.

So I knew I wanted a heart chakra, but the time wasn’t right. It wasn’t until a pair of black cats came into my life that I actually began healing some of my wounds — and one of those cats, my beloved Sin├®ad O’Kitty, was a huge part of that transformation. She sat with me through episodes of crippling depression, looking at me with boundless love and compassion in her huge golden eyes. I could almost hear her saying, "I love you, Mama; it’s going to be all right. I’ll take your pain away."

Sin├®ad literally saved my life. More than once.

In 2005 I moved to my family’s rural land, where I lived in a small apartment carved out of a barn while my brother built a house. One summer night in 2006, Sin├®ad went out and didn’t come home the next morning. Or the next evening. I looked all around our five acres, along the roadsides, and in ditches for a quarter mile either way; called all the shelters and vets; put signs up — all the things you’re supposed to do when a cat goes missing. But I never saw her again until she appeared in a dream two weeks later. I woke up crying, because I knew she was dead.

Just as my grief (and the grief of my other cats, Thomas and Siouxsie) over losing Sin├®ad was abating, I walked into a copy shop to get some work done for my employer. And there, behind the counter, was a cage with three little black kittens inside. They were on loan from a local animal shelter that partnered with area businesses to get some of their feline charges into the public eye.

Photocopies be damned! I had to pet the kittens!

The first two had kind of a "meh" reaction to me, but when I picked up the third one, she threw her tiny paws around my neck and started rubbing me and purring like crazy. "Oh, God, I’m a sucker," I mumbled.

At least I had the courtesy to ask Thomas and Siouxsie how they felt about getting a new roommate before I filled out the adoption application.

And thus Dahlia became part of the family.

It was love at first sight with Thomas and Dahlia, and they never went a day without cuddling or walking around the property together. I’d always hoped to have a pair of feline snuggle-buddies, and finally I did.

As the years passed, I started thinking that my tattoo wasn’t just going to be a heart chakra; it was going to be a tribute to Sin├®ad as well. I visualized that heart chakra symbol with a golden-eyed black cat seated next to it ÔǪ or wrapped around it ÔǪ or something. I also found the person I wanted to do the tattoo.

But even with Sin├®ad and a heart chakra, and the right tattoo artist, it still didn’t seem quite right. Not until a few months ago.

In April of this year, Dahlia became terribly sick. Three days after I moved to a new home in a new city, I rushed her to the emergency clinic because she was in severe respiratory distress. An ultrasound revealed three tumors, one by her breastbone and two near her liver. The vet said there was a 99 percent chance it was cancer, but we needed a biopsy to know what type of cancer it was and whether it was treatable.

She spent that week preparing to die. She wasn’t eating or drinking, and she was keeping herself separate from Thomas — which was really unusual after six years of being joined at the hip.

I spent that week being as fully present with Dahlia as I could. I knew our time together was going to be a whole lot shorter than I’d hoped, but I owed it to her to honor her life and her dying process. When the biopsy results came back and it was clear that her prognosis was very poor, I knew I had to make the compassionate choice. I made the euthanasia appointment for the next day. But when she had another horrible respiratory attack that night, I took her to the emergency clinic and asked them to release her from her suffering.

Again, it was time to grieve. Time for Siouxsie and Thomas and me to face the loss of another friend and honor the joy she brought to our lives. And I especially wanted to honor Dahlia for truly opening my heart. I’ve never felt such pure and unadulterated love from any being in my life. Part of the reason for that was that thanks to Sin├®ad’s work on the first stage of my heart-opening process, I was ready to receive it. I really believe that Sin├®ad sent Dahlia to finish what she’d started.

And finally it came together: the heart chakra and the two cats that were instrumental in healing my heart. Now it felt right.

This tattoo is the representation not only of my promise to myself to give and receive love, compassion, and joy, but also of the two wonderful feline soul mates who helped me to begin that journey.

It’s also a way to reclaim my body. In the photos you can see a scar on my back. That scar goes all the way down to my hips, a reminder of the surgery I had at age 12 to correct severe scoliosis. I wanted the surgery and I knew what it was about, but when someone messes around inside your body it is a violation on some level, even if you consented to it. Having a mark of my own design on my back does a lot to transform the feelings I have about my body, and my back in particular.

Blessings to the surgeon who saved me from a life of severe pain and disability, and to the scar he left in saving me. Blessings to the tattoo artist who took my ideas and turned them into a beautiful work of art. And most of all, blessings to both of you, Sin├®ad and Dahlia: It was a privilege to share my life with you, and I’m honored to have this reminder of how much you meant — and mean — to me.

Photos by JaneA Kelley unless otherwise specified

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