Eight years

I wasn’t going to write this post. If you’ve lost a loved one you might be able to relate. I wanted this day to be just another day in the long line of days that is my life. I’ve grieved all my grief and healed my pain, and he remains in my heart but as a friend of lifetimes. I miss him sometimes, and once in a while i’ll find myself wondering what we’d be doing now if he was still here. I don’t even know if we’d still be together. Perhaps not, who knows? But as it is, he and I are still in touch, through the dreams that have never left me. The feathers he lays in my path wherever I happen to be in the world. The books with his messages. The random things I find in impossible places. Eight years later and I’ve let go of all the anger and frustration i once felt towards him. I’ve learned the lessons of our relationship, and built a life around me that’s honest and independent and all mine. That I don’t share it with a significant other is less to do with my attachment to him (for I no longer am) and more to do with circumstances and fate.

I flew to New York last week for a few days, my 40th birthday present to myself. While there I got my new tattoo, the one I’ve  been planning for months. I’ve been searching for years to find the right artist, and when I discovered the work of Cris Cleen I knew I’d found my man. His style, his philosophy and the integrity I see in his work drew me in immediately, and when I saw his interpretation of a swallow, I just knew.

Swallows are a traditional tattoo motif — historically sailors used them to show off their sailing experience. From Wikipedia:

“Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a Barn Swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck. According to one legend, a sailor tattooed with one swallow had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km); a sailor with two swallows had travelled 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km).Travelling these great distances was extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing, so one or more swallow tattoos denoted a very experienced and valuable sailor. Another legend holds that since swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, the swallow will guarantee the sailor returns home safely. A sailor would have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a journey, and the second swallow tattooed at the end of their tour of duty, upon return to their home port. It is also said that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry their soul to heaven. The swallow also represents love, care and affection towards family and friends, showing the loyalty of the person always returning to them. The bird also represents freedom and hope.”

To me, the swallow represents my independence and my freedom, a reminder of qualities I will always posess even if I fall in love again. She marks the completion of the healing journey I have taken, flying in the direction of my heart to show I will always return home — to myself and to my loved ones.

On a purely practical note, I placed her on my right forearm to balance the tattoo I have planned for my left arm. She’s my most visible tattoo to date and that feels right to me. I know tattoos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to me they are bold and beautiful, permanent adornment infused with meaning.

My love didn’t have any tattoos himself but he appreciated mine as they were a part of me. In the last eight years there have been many changes: my weight has fluctuated, my eyesight has worsened. My hair has sprouted grey in places and creases have formed where they weren’t there before… But this bird inked on my arm is the most radical change of all and it’s one he will never see — at least not with physical eyes. And that is as it should be, for this swallow will be appreciated by another lover one day, his fingertips tracing the outline that ghostly hands cannot.

And I welcome that day’s arrival with an open heart.

44 responses
  1. sas

    i love you xx

  2. grete

    Your bird is beautiful, your voice even more so. Your tears have watered some seeds that have grown into beautiful flowers…….

  3. Elizabeth

    Dearest Susannah – thank you so much for this post and for your work. I have a tattoo of Picasso’s peace dove on my arm – a symbol of peace and freedom that I had inscribed during the long process of healing from the suicide of a dear friend/would-be lover. May the quiet thrills of healing & freedom be close companions for you. Much love – elizabeth

  4. Mary in VA

    Someone once told me that the anniversary of a loss is a time to treat yourself gently, and reflect on the paths you’ve taken since. Your blog and your books show the growth in the past 8 years. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. TJ Wood

    Gently powerful and moving…hugs to you. This is so beautiful…

    “this swallow will be appreciated by another lover one day, his fingertips tracing the outline that ghostly hands cannot”

  6. Sherry Smyth

    Beautiful bird. Beautiful love. Beautiful you. xo

  7. Jill Salahub

    I am feeling melancholy today, missing my friend who passed almost four years ago now. I made her a mix tape, and it made me feel a bit better. I noticed that the mood of the mix was dreamy, sad in a deep way, but beautiful too. Grief ages like this. It can still be sharp at times–as it was when it visited me this morning during yoga class and I cried during savasana, my throat and chest so tight I felt like I couldn’t breath, the tears hot and bitter–but more often for me now, it’s a deep ache. It certainly never will go away. I will never stop missing her. Both our hearts, yours and mine (along with everyone who has lost someone they love so much), are stretched and broken and thus so much bigger, our capacity for love so big it becomes almost unbearable. It’s a secret in you now, but one day, someone will know it, share it, be blessed and maybe even broken by it.

    I love tattoos, but I love them even more when someone has a story to tell about them, who got inked because their heart was already invisibly marked and they wanted to make that memory, that experience visible.

  8. jOY

    Thank you for the gift of this message. Today I launched a new class as a tribute to my ‘lost love’. It’s my imprint, much like your tattoo…you loved me, it mattered, and here is my creative expression infused with my experience.

    This line “his fingertips tracing the outline that ghostly hands cannot”. My goodness, that will stay with me for a long time…for I write words he will never read, but one day another lover will fully absorb…what a gift you have given by choosing to share…thank you.

  9. jenn

    Loving you, beautiful woman. ♥

  10. lisa field-elliot

    love you big time. always. xx

  11. Shan

    Well, I am glad you DID write it. You have come a long way and part of that healing process you speak about was possible through posts and open-hearted sharing like this one today.

    PS: Your swallow is beautiful. xo

  12. aimee


  13. Renier

    Thank you for this precious heart sharing…

    “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
    And swallows circling with their shimmering sound…”
    (from There Will Come Soft Rains by Sara Teasdale)

    Bon Voyage!

  14. Anna Guest-Jelley

    So beautiful, Susannah. What a perfect & lovely tattoo. Sending your lots of love!

  15. COrey

    the tattoo is gorgeous!

  16. Emmy

    Dear Susannah,
    I am tremendously touched by your post and what a beautiful tatoo, thanks for sharing the story behind yours….

  17. Brandi Marie

    The end of this brought tears to my eyes. I think your tattoo is beautiful. I have a big one in memory of a lost love planned for my left arm this Summer. Can’t wait to see your future ink, brave girl <3

  18. cococita

    Thinking of you beautiful woman and admiring you for the ‘real’ and authentic person you are. Warm hug

  19. Marjory

    This is beautiful Susannah. I wrote a poem about Swallow a few years ago. I was surprised to see this being visit me in the flow of poetry. The medicine continues to unfold in my life. Bless this new cycle in your life dear heart! xo

  20. jane

    loving you, your changes and your growing… i see you there swallow, fly with our freind <3

  21. Kimberley McGill

    I love my daughter to suicide 5 years ago. Her death propelled me into a grief I could not have imagined. But coming back from that grief, I started life over. Not the way I used to be before, because that person did not exist anymore. Like you, I’ve found my wings – my independence, my creativity, everything is new. of course, I’m not glad for what happened – but I am grateful for the spirit in me that rose up to heal and present me with a sparkling new life!

  22. Kimberley McGill

    That first sentence should read I lost not I love.

  23. Debi

    god. thank you.

  24. Jade Sheldon

    You are so amazing and I absolutely adore your new arm art.

  25. Paty

    Dear Sus, you know I know and understand each of your words.
    This is a post as beautiful as you. It has your light and your essence.
    Love, love, love you
    A big hug to you from Mexico

  26. stacy

    Beautiful. xo

  27. Caryn

    A beautiful, thought-provoking and poetic post, Susannah. Thank you, as always, for sharing your healing journey with us.

    I came across this quote today and it struck me as quite profound. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it here:

    “If you’re really listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold evermore wonders.”
    — Andrew Harvey

  28. sperlygirl

    here’s to the journey this swallow will accompany you on…as my dear friend has always whispered to me at times of (sometimes most heartbreaking) transition ‘onward & upward’. may you continue to soar, susannah. xx

  29. Bea

    Fuck yeah.


  30. saraH

    Beautiful words, they honour you and your love and your capacity for love, as does that gorgeous tattoo in a really visible and powerful way x

  31. Sheila Bergquist

    What a beautiful tattoo and I love the story behind it. I can’t wait to see what is going on your left arm!

  32. Anne Jutras

    Susannah, such a powerful meaning, it gives the goose bumps! I send you lots of LOVE and a HUGE HUG!


  33. india

    you’re a brave writer. which is what it’s all about in the end. i too have tattoos. they are the marks i choose to add to my body, to supplement the ones Mother Nature [and the odd accident] have tossed at me, the wrinkles and scars i have no choice in…and all bar one are of my own design and drawing. and that odd one out is special for the hand that drew it.

  34. Sherri B.

    What a deeply moving post…your tattoo is lovely and seems perfect for this moment in your life. I loved your mention of feathers and that they’re a sign from your loved one…for me it’s the eastern bluebird. Sightings are rare, but with each one it’s a soulful, sacred moment because I know my loved one is saying hello. Thanks for sharing.

  35. Bella

    I love how much this means for you. It’s really beautiful … the symbolism, the detailing. How lucky am I to have spent the afternoon with you?! Love you, lady. xo

  36. La plume et la page

    I don’t like very much tattoos but this swallow is really beautiful!
    I hope you’ll find another lover. Soon!

  37. Kathryn

    such a beautiful post, Susannah.
    I’m not a tattoo kind of girl, but I think they are cool when they have meaning attached to them. your swallow is beautiful and its meaning more so.

  38. Carol

    Inspiring :-)

  39. kimberly

    wonderful! and I love the TAT!

  40. Hannah Marcotti

    Fierce fucking magic. I love you. xo

  41. gerri


  42. Iris Ztarr

    Oh my what a beautiful perfect swallow and a touching gorgeous post, hope your new love arrives soon in a moment when you’re least expecting him, to surprise and delight you

  43. Katie

    Hey Susannah,

    This is a really beautiful post, and I’m glad you did write it. I’ve just started reading your wonderful book and am about halfway through already and am in love with your words and your ideas and stories. This post fits in perfectly with the bit I have got to: I just passed I Have A Body. Lovely :)

    Your new tattoo is gorgeous and HAPPY BIRTHDAY and I hope you had the most brilliant time in NY.

    Keep writing and keep inspiring us.

    Lots of love, Katie. X

  44. L.Mcg.-e.

    So beautifully written.

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