The first time I saw Rita was in the communion line. She is a striking woman with soulful blue eyes, a kind smile and of course, there are her tattoos. Even though she caught my eye what really fascinated me was that the man holding her hand, her husband George, had no tattoos. I do love a good contrast! I thought they were perfect for my Odd Couple project and after months of seeing them I finally asked a friend for an introduction.
When the day came for me to go by Rita & George's house to scout I had an idea of how it would go. I figured we'd stroll around their home and chat about their lives and how Rita came to have tattoos and we did! Rita was 52 when she got her first tattoo and now at 67 she has spent around 100 hours in the chair. She has geishas, a skull on a roller skate for her roller derby daughter, DeathSkull, a portrait of her dad, dragons, flowers..... George just shrugs whenever someone points out the contrast. He loves the woman and all the artwork that goes along with her. But I was literally only getting to the surface of the story and these two people.
Survival has been a reoccurring theme for me this year. An organization I volunteer with stresses at training that we're all survivors. It's not a question of if we're survivors, it's a question of what we've survived. So when Rita started opening up to me as we sat on her front porch the theme continued. Rita and George have weathered some major storms. In 2004 their son (stepson to George), Chris (Christopher Paul Caldwell) disappeared off a cruise ship. In 2008, George was diagnosed with stage four tonsil cancer which was a fight for life and marriage. In 2010, they lost their daughter (stepdaughter to George), Stephany to a drug overdose. There is no preparing for any of these events let alone a series of them.
Rita is completely transparent about her grief and also how she survived it. She describes in vivid detail driving down the Oklahoma turnpike when she received the call about Stephany and hearing in the background the emergency crew trying to bring her back. Rita remembers almost a year after Chris disappeared telling her doctor if she didn't help her, she wouldn't be around the following month. She also recalls George's intense fight against cancer with thirty seven rounds of radiation and two rounds of chemo but is so grateful that he's had seven years now cancer free. Rita doesn't deny or hide the dark, low places grief and trials can take us and by acknowledging them it lets in some light.
She still misses Chris and Stephany. That never goes away. She just does her best to memorialize them by releasing a balloon with a note every birthday and keeping them present in her home. Besides that Rita embraces everyday she has with George, her other two kids, twelve grandkids and two great grandkids because she knows there is no guaranteed amount of time for any of us. Rita and George just keep moving forward; scars, tattoos and all.
"If you banish the dragons, you banish the Heroes" Andrew Solomon