I got a dumb tattoo in a dumb spot when I was 18 years old. This was before tattoos were in vogue like they are now. I swore that I’d never do it again. One bad permanent decision was enough. Not that I didn’t make more bad permanent decisions in my life, but those tended to be non-tattoo related. And please…my tatted sisters…there is no judgment here. Our bodies are our own. My dad was a biker with a body full of tattoos. My mom has four of her own. My philosophy is: You do you.
After my husband died, I knew that I wanted to get a tattoo commemorating our life together in some way, a branding that would mean something to my girls and to me. Because our girls are young adults, they could get tattoos if they wanted to. Both already had their first tattoo, so asking them if they wanted another was not difficult. My husband was not a tattoo guy by any stretch of the imagination. He was a disciplined, clean cut golfer who dressed nice and enjoyed the finer things in life. Tattoos were not a part of his buttoned-up style. (Plus, his mother would’ve killed him.)
It took a while for me to decide on what, how and where I wanted to brand myself. And like most things do, it randomly came to me one day from the bowels of my subconscious. Once I shared my idea with the girls, the three of us knew it was “it.”
In early August 2016, less than two months before Eric would be gone forever, our small family of four spent a day on The Road to Hana in Maui. This trip would ultimately be our last family time together. We had no idea how quickly Eric would deteriorate after our return. We knew he was dying, but we were under the impression he still had several months left.
While in Maui, we rented a car next to the port where our cruise ship was docked so we could take on this famous road and experience the breathtaking views and visit the many incredible waterfalls along the way. Eric drove. It was a convertible. For a guy who was less than two months from his death bed, you’d never know by looking at him. Outsiders had no idea what nightmare our family was consumed with on our trip. Other than being generally fatigued, Eric looked like himself. Seemed like himself. Acted like himself.
We stopped at a popular waterfall spot, and he and I climbed along some rough rocks to get to a higher waterfall, leaving our girls behind who weren’t wearing appropriate hiking shoes. They hung out at a lower waterfall. Eric and I got to the top and swam in the cool water, eventually propping ourselves underneath the fully released waterfall drenching our entire bodies. He kissed me. Underneath the waterfall. That was a bucket list item for me – to be kissed by my husband under a waterfall. He normally wouldn’t have done that, but he gave that to me on that day. It was interesting how our trip was supposed to be about doing things he wanted to do…but he wanted to do things that we’d want to do. He was focused on us and what we’d want (under normal circumstances), rather than himself.
After a while, we climbed back down, to the lower waterfall where our girls were sitting in rocks. Eric kept going to the bottom to sit and watch the girls and I jump from the lower waterfall into a pool of water. He was afraid he didn’t have the physical strength to make the jump and swim out. He later regretted that he didn’t do it. I wish I would’ve pushed him harder.
We stopped for some lunch at a food truck road stop on our way to Hana. We were running out of time and decided we needed to head back before reaching the end of the road. A lady in a gift shop convinced us to keep going, to not turn around to return the rental car and catch our ship. Instead, she said, we needed to keep going 3 more miles to the Black Sand Beach. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And so, we did.
When we got to the Black Sand Beach, we were in a serious time crunch. We unloaded the car and headed right down to the beach which consisted of tiny pebble black volcanic rocks – not “sand” at all. The pebbles hurt our bare feet and would stick inside my Keens.
But when Eric saw the water, the most majestic water we’ve ever seen, he stripped off his shirt and went right in. “There’s no way I’m not going in that water!” he yelled at us. He was never a sentimental landscape “oh look how beautiful the world is” kind of guy, but in that moment, he was. And he relished in it. He soaked in the entire experience, no matter how short-lived, no matter what dark cloud was hanging over us all.
The water was rough and the waves strong and he didn’t seem to care. Never really a beach guy at all, who generally avoided the waves off the coast of North Carolina and would only stand around the water a little in the Caribbean, except for some water sports, this was different for him. This beach. This water. He was fully immersed in the diamond blue and white caps surrounded by a beauty that can’t be described in words. We watched him getting knocked around, without a care in the world, one moment since his diagnosis where he was happy – truly happy. It was weird how we didn’t really join him in the waves. We just watched him.
It was the last time he was happy.
This day turned into a typical DeJong family vacation moment – our last one. We always had some random lunacy occur on our vacations over the years. We were running out of time and had to return the car and get back to our cruise ship before it left. We had to drive all the way back through this long winding road, chock full of tourists and traffic, and had no idea if we’d make it back in time. Eric decided that if we missed our ship, he’d just suck it up and pay to get us on a plane to meet the ship at the next port. In hindsight, I wish we had missed our ship just so we could’ve had that adventure. Instead, we made it back with 10 minutes to spare.
On the one year anniversary of Eric’s death, my girls and I went to get a Hibiscus tattoo to commemorate our last happy day as a family. The Hibiscus flower sits in the small black pebbles in Maui, where their dad and my husband last left his joy. We each have one in different spots on our bodies, but it unites us with him, brands us with him, forever.