I have made the same appointment nearly every year and cancelled it when I decided it was a crazy thing to do at my age. But on the 11th anniversary of Mom's passing, the same month I turned 55, I kept the tattoo appointment. I'd lived without nipples long enough; it was finally time to get some new ones in permanent ink.
Cancer had taken my real nipples from me. The right one, along with my whole right breast, went in 2003, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I opted to get implants in both breasts to feel and appear somewhat normal. In 2010, the left implant imploded and I needed surgery to replace it. My doctor highly recommended removing the whole left breast, nipple included, since both my mother and one of my sisters had cancer return a few years after their first diagnoses. Though my sister survived both early-stage cancers, Mom's second diagnosis came too late for treatment to save her and she died in 2007.
I agreed with the surgeon, thinking then that it was only my last nipple, not my last hurrah. I had plenty of living left to do and if slicing that little protrusion off my body meant I'd have a better chance to do that, then off with it!
Over the years, I'd also convinced myself that I was selfish to think it mattered at all that I didn't have them anymore. But then every year near the anniversary of Mom's exit to heaven, I felt an urge to do something about it.
When I told my life partner that I decided I was going through with the appointment this year, he supported my decision and reminded me it didn't matter to him. But it did matter to me. I would be the one seeing them each time I stepped out of a shower that faced a mirror and each time I changed in the locker room at the gym. Each and every time I glanced down at my naked chest, I would see something resembling nipples. Instead of just deep pink scars running halfway across each bare mound where the implants had been inserted to replace life-threatening tissue, I would see small circles shaded in the color of my lips.
I wouldn't have any more physical sensation there then I've had since the mastectomies, but I was hopeful that I would be mentally strengthened, knowing that cancer had not completely erased this part of me.
As the hours drew closer to the appointment, I became more nervous. What if this experienced nipple tattoo artist, who was also a nurse practitioner in the plastic surgeon's office, wasn't as good as her colleagues touted her to be? What if the dozen pretty photos she showed me of her previous work were the only good ones out of hundreds more dissatisfied clients?
I could almost hear my mom answer with her own question to me: But, Lisa Ann, what if they turn out beautiful and make you happy?
I arrived at the clinic, surprised at how emotional I'd become. When the artist came in the room and began organizing the ink and equipment, I couldn't conceal my tears. She stopped her busyness and laid a hand on my shoulder as I told her about losing my mom on this exact day 11 years ago. I told her that I should've known better than to schedule it on this date. The artist shook her head and took a deep breath, matching my own. Her eyes watered as she told me she was honored to be a part of this special experience and promised she'd do her very best to make sure I'd like the results.
As I lay back and the needle penetrated my numbed skin with the ink, I couldn't refrain from mentioning how silly I felt to be doing this to a part of my body that is almost always covered up. It wasn't like I planned to go showing off my new tattoos to anyone, any day, anywhere. Suddenly the buzzing sound of the tattoo gun silenced and the artist stepped back.
"Well, this has never happened before," she said. "The electricity quit flowing to the machine for some reason."
I turned my head to watch as she adjusted the cord and manipulated the controls on the machine to no avail. "Maybe you should ask your mom to step in so we can finish," she said as seriously as if Mom could indeed walk over to the machine and fix it.
I shrugged as I said, "Hey, Mom, can you help here?" Within seconds, the buzzing resumed and the artist and I looked at each other, eyes wide as we both laughed. "I think she wanted me to stop second-guessing myself. You won't hear another negative peep from me."
"Yes, please don't do that again," the artist said, smiling as she stepped back to my side, the tattoo gun ready in her hand to finish the work she'd begun.
In the months that have passed since then, I am very pleased with my new naked look and especially happy that Mom made sure I'd quit questioning the why of it. The tattoos are beautiful to me and that is all that matters.