Updated: Apr 12, 2022
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.
Rita & George © Kaylinn Gilstrap
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.
I have been told, if you’re living, you are a survivor. 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 I should have been prepared but I wasn’t. 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 (step-daughter to George), Stephany to a drug overdose. There is no preparing for any of these events let alone a series of them.
Rita's tattoo is in honor of her son, Chris. Shortly after getting the tattoo, her husband George was diagnosed with stage four tonsil cancer. © Kaylinn Gilstrap
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 acknowledging them lets in some light.
Rita & George will celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in April. © Kaylinn Gilstrap
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 every day 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
Rita and George met on the dance floor. They still spin each other around whenever they can. © Kaylinn Gilstrap
Odd Couples is a study on how opposites attract and how social views are not the deciding factor in connection.