My day changed, all the plans made, because of a young man's tattoo.
I was having a cup of tea in the lobby area of the hotel, chatting with Joe about the day and what we had planned. We were going to go to the City of 10,000 Buddhas for lunch. We'd heard about it and I had become immediately intrigued. The idea of a State Hospital for people with intellectual disabilities now being sacred ground, a temple no less - was kind of poetic in my mind. I wondered, whimsically, if the buildings themselves felt relief at the different role they were playing in the lives of others. I wanted to know if I could feel that relief and was looking forward to our visit. Besides that, we were told that they had a marvelous vegetarian luncheon restaurant - and that fact sealed our decision. We would go on an adventure, see the City, have lunch - dining in a place where there would be statues of a guy who's belly was as big as my own - what could go wrong with that plan?
Well, simply put, a tattoo.
He came in with his girlfriend, they made, as women of my mother's day would have said, an attractive couple. They too were chatting and when he raised his arm to wave to someone out of my sight, I noticed that he had an unusual tattoo on the back of his arm. I glanced again, a few minutes later, to see what it was. It was an old fashioned bird cage, empty, with the door open. It was a big tattoo, maybe five inches high. It was such a striking and powerful image that I had to ask.
He didn't seem to mind my intrusion into his day, his girlfriend too turned to me with a friendly and open face. He told me that I needed to see the whole thing to see what it was. He pulled his sleeve up and showed me that off in the distance, far from the open door, a bird flew frantically away. He'd been inspired by the book by Maya Angelou, 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' and, along with a scripture that he didn't want to mention, the tattoo captured something important for him.
I told them that I found it striking because of what I do and have done for a living. I told them about the closure of facilities for people with disabilities, about a population of people, jailed for the crime of difference being freed. We ended up, all four of us, having a brief and intense conversation about freedom. When done I thanked him for telling me about his tattoo and thanked the two of them for being willing to accommodate the nosiness of a stranger. They laughed and then he said, 'And we should thank you for what you do too.'
All in all a pleasant interchange.
After they left, I went back to reading and drinking tea and Joe began to load the car. We would need to leave to be there when it opened for lunch as we had a long drive after lunch to the next stop. At some point, I don't even remember it happening, I stopped reading. I remembered the very first time a woman with a disability described to me being taken down into the basement of an institution to be raped by a staff member that she had trusted. It was the first of many assaults. She was the first of many to tell me this story and other stories. Stories of horror. Stories of brutality. Stories of outrageous hurt. These stories were intermixed, it must be said, with stories of kind staff who desperately tried to help, whose kindness was lovingly remembered, but who were ultimately unable to make the 'sting' of captivity even slightly more bearable.
I wondered if we would be having lunch in a room that saw these horrors. I wondered if the very spot where I parked my wheelchair would be a spot that lingers, as trauma always does, in the mind of someone who sleeps fearful of the dreams that come. I wondered if I could have a sandwich in Auschwitz's dining room. I wondered if I could sip on a coke and relax into lunch in the slave quarters of a plantation. I decided, I couldn't. I decided that, though the building may be making new memories in the minds of others, I knew it's secrets. I knew what it had seen. And because I knew, I simply couldn't go. I don't want to remember the experience fondly. I don't want to chatter with others about the food, the ambiance, the clever use of space. Someone needs to remember. I choose to ...
A cage and an open door.
Let that be tattooed on the spirits of all who love and fight for freedom.