There are two sides to every tattoo story: the tale how how you got it, and the tale of why. Most days, I prefer to explain the how: Right after high school, my best friend Christian moved to Austin to join the AmeriCorps and I hitched a ride down there just for the adventure of it.
After midnight, bored on 6th Street and too young to drink, I decided to get a tattoo. We picked a shop at random and I explained my concept, forcing the artist to draw and redraw the stencil until he came up with something to my liking. (Side note: Don’t ever do that, especially with a piece this big. I could have been mangled.)
The concept isn’t as sophisticated as 18-year-old Sarah Kelly thought, but the work is good enough. I thought about having it removed, or at least covering it with makeup for my wedding, but I couldn’t — because of the why.
“Sweet dreams and flying machines” is a line from James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain.”
Since 2003, the song has been inextricably tied in my brain to the death of Tyler Kirk.
Tyler was a musician and the second funniest person I knew. His girlfriend, my best friend Jill, was the funniest.
On Jan. 30, 2003, I stopped by his locker after school to say hi and check out his stuffed Jerry Garcia doll, which he’d carried with from class to class. Or maybe I had borrowed it for the afternoon and stopped by to return it. I can’t remember exactly.
But I remember with absolute clarity that he smiled. He laughed and joked and waved before he walked away to catch his bus. A few hours later, he was dead from a self-inflicted gun shot.
And all my brain could do was repeat it: Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.
The day they buried him with the Jerry Garcia doll, I put those lyrics in my away message on AIM. (Is it OK to laugh at that now?)
I don’t know if I would have stayed friends with Tyler, if he would have liked the sports-nut sorority girl I grew up to be, or if I would have liked the person he grew up to be. He doesn’t have the benefit of aging past age 14.
But I do know that he saved me.
Watching so many people’s worlds fall apart at the news of his death made it impossible to ignore the fact that somebody gives a shit about me. Somebody would notice if I just ceased to exist.
With three half-assed junior high suicide attempts already on my record, I decided to just go ahead and live. Because, frankly, suicide is a dick move.
And that’s what I remember every time I glance down at my arm. I could have just tattooed “People gave a shit about Tyler and they give a shit about you, so maybe try not to die today,” but I thought the plane looked cooler.
And every year, on Jan. 30, I swear my tattoo burns exactly like it did the night it was etched into my arm.
So hey, if you’re having a hard time: Please know that there’s help out there. People want you to stay alive, and things don’t have to be this hard forever. Talk to someone. If you’re not sure where to start, try the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.