“After My Third Tattoo” by Elizabeth Wurz

Elizabeth Wurz


“What noun would you want spoken
on your skin your whole life through?”
—Mark Doty, “My Tattoo”

On the back of my neck, the verb experience
is healing. With the hand-mirror and wall mirror,
I see where to rub the ointment
on my father’s tombstone.

When I opened the plastic bag of his ashes,
I expected to inhale some
soft gray powder like flour.
When flesh and bone burn,
what’s left is a bag of sand.
Crumbled starfish and femurs.

They stented his basilar artery.
In another vessel, the blockage
paralyzed him. For ten days,
he blinked once for no
and repeated blinks for yes.
He wanted the life support removed.

They’ve torn down the campground in Panama City
where he and I slept in tents and boiled blue crabs
every summer. They’re building a seventeen-story condo
at the site. The tattoo parlor is still there—
where my Uncle Jay inked the topless mermaid
on my father’s bicep.

With twenty-five dollars from his retirement fund,
I rent a cushioned lounge chair on the beach,
set the bag of ashes and my cooler
under the umbrella. I think of his blinking
yes—he wanted the life-support removed.

When they gave him morphine, he shut his eyes.
I could not see his fear. I watched
his heartbeat and respiration slow and stop
on the monitor. In my hand, his hand
hardened and lost warmth.
His body turned gray.
They gave me his false teeth in a container,
and I drove them to the funeral home.

Our rituals are not private.
I pour his ashes into a red sand-castle bucket,
stuff the plastic bag in my bag of empty beer cans,
and walk past others’ oil-covered bodies,
surfboards, and the smell of coconut.

I pour the pieces of his body in
where the wave breaks.

from Rattle 29, Summer 2008


Elizabeth Wurz: “Three years after experiencing the sudden death of my father, I had enough distance from that experience to write this poem. I write because I need to write.”

Rattle Logo