Issue 2 - April 2024

A story of a family's tragedies, losses, and eventual healing through a collective visit to a tattoo studio.

Ink Link

By Jim Landwehr 

I come from a big Catholic family of seven kids born in the Midwest in the late fifties and early sixties. My family went through a lot of hardships. My sister Linda died at the age of five from a Wilms tumor, and our father was murdered five years later in a racially charged bar fight in 1967. At the time Dad was killed, we were living in the housing projects of St. Paul in what looked like a desperate situation because my mother was left to raise my five siblings and me.

Fortunately, we had a strong, fiercely independent mother who managed to work us out of the housing projects into our home that she purchased in 1969. We lived in that house for fifteen years, providing a foundation for establishing the core of our sibling relationship. We ate dinner around the table several nights a week and celebrated holidays and birthdays together. We somehow managed to do it all while sharing bedrooms and, miraculously, a single bathroom.

The shared grief over the loss of our father and sister brought us together in ways that might not occur in other families. Despite constant bickering and infighting between us at any given time, Mom constantly drilled home the fact that we were a family. She always said forgiveness, respect, and grace were our holy trinity. Like any family, we had our share of trials, breakdowns, and rebelliousness. We dealt with spilled milk, household chore disputes, and even a few run-ins with the law. I imagine that comes with putting seven humans under a roof, no matter where you go, but at the end of the day, we had each other’s back.

In 2010, we were living our own lives when our brother Rob discovered a lump on his back. When he had it checked out, it was determined to be a large tumor on his spine. He had Chondrosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer that can spread quickly and is difficult to treat. The tumor was removed in a long-complicated surgery, and Rob’s spine was reconstructed using a mesh cage and titanium rods. We knew this surgery would forever change his life. Still, we were grateful for the medical miracle that would allow him to live a dramatically modified lifestyle with his wife and two daughters.

Six months after surgery, Rob lost feeling in one of his legs. His doctor referred him to the Mayo Clinic for an immediate blood panel and assessment. Two days later, the oncologist reported that the cancer had returned to his spine, and the new tumor was causing paralysis from the waist down. Unfortunately, it had also spread to his lungs. His condition was deemed terminal, and he was given months to live.

This type of cancer was not known to respond to chemotherapy. As a last resort, Rob underwent a couple of clinical trial chemotherapy treatments at Mayo. The treatments failed to shrink the cancer, and Rob was sent home to spend the remaining months with his family in the Twin Cities.

It was during this convalescence that my brothers, Tom and Paul, and I schemed for a way to get Rob out fishing with us one last time. Over the Memorial Day weekend, we rented a pontoon boat on White Bear Lake to accommodate Rob’s wheelchair. The weather threatened us with a bit of rain, but we were able to seek shelter under the pontoon’s covering until it passed.

My prayer was that Rob catches a fish, any fish. I didn’t care if the rest of us caught anything. I am a person of deep faith, but I had my doubts. Not only did Rob start us off by catching a Crappie, but he went on to outfish all of us by catching five distinct species of fish that day. I’d never seen someone cover such a large cross-section of species! It was nothing short of a God moment, a day that none of us will ever forget.

After that outing, Rob continued to battle cancer but passed away on August 30th, 2011, at the age of forty-seven. I miss him every day.

After Rob’s death, I wanted to honor him. He was my closest sibling in the family, and all four of us brothers were avid anglers. I’d been thinking about getting a tattoo for years but never had the courage. The negative stigma that once went with tattoos dissuaded me from pulling the trigger.

Our family gathered at Pine Forest Lodge in northern Wisconsin, which we had frequented for years. We thought the location, a favorite getaway of Rob’s, would provide a chance to gather, mourn, and remember him. One night, around a table on the deck outside our cabin I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a tattoo of a Muskie in his honor but was having reservations.

My older brother Tom spoke up, “Do it! Get one, Jim! Why live with that regret? It would be a terrific way to remember him.” His encouragement stuck with me.

When I mentioned I wanted one for my wife Donna, she decided to get a small tattoo on her wrist as well. She went to college with Rob, and he had introduced us over twenty years earlier, so his death impacted her as much as me. She wanted a simple written tattoo of the Hebrew word Hesed, which means faithful, kind, and reliable love. The design would include a small red bird in flight, a nod to Rob and Donna’s late grandmothers, who both loved Cardinals.

When my mother heard our plans, she wanted to get one as well. Mom had just turned eighty and decided it was time to get her first tattoo. Her design was an anklet with seven heart charms hanging from it. Five of the hearts would be inked in red and two would be hollow, with the hollow ones representing her two children that preceded her in death, namely Linda and Rob.

I wanted mine to be the Muskie, a hard-to-catch fish we both had caught in separate outings up north in recent years. Somewhere within the design, I wanted to have a date within it. My eventual design was a muskie leaping after a lure. The lure’s spinner would have the date October 14, 2011, inscribed within it. It was the date I caught a Muskie in Rob’s honor. It was also his birthday.

The three of us went to a tattoo studio one Friday evening, and we were each assigned a different artist. The tattooists designed and clarified our artwork.

When my mother made the request, her artist asked, “It may be a morbid question, but what happens if another of your children dies before you? It would mean you would have to make one of the red hearts hollow again, which would be difficult.”

Mom was quick to answer, “Well, I wouldn’t worry. If another of my children dies before me, I’ll be jumping off a bridge.” It was a tricky question, but after all Mom had been through in her life, it didn’t rattle her.

Ultimately, these tattoos are a means to remember those we love. Their lives are etched on our skin as well as our hearts. Every time I see that fish on my shoulder, I think of the laughs that Tom, Rob, Paul, and I had in the boat over the years. The ink links us. And, to Tom’s point, if there’s one thing for sure, I have absolutely no regrets.

Interview with Jim Landwehr

For this interview, we chose our short story winner Jim Landwehr to share his journey of loss and the meaning behind his true story, Ink Link.

Jim, the loss of your sister Linda at such a young age must have been incredibly difficult for your family. Could you share a bit more about how her passing impacted your family dynamics and how you remember her?

Linda's passing at the age of 5 was devastating to my Mother and Father as well as my three older siblings who knew her. Because I was just an infant at the time of her death, and my younger brothers were not even born yet, I always refer to her as the sister I never knew. I only know her through pictures, but realize her presence in our family, however brief, was an important part of what kept us together as a family over the years.

It's evident that fishing held significant importance for you and Rob. How did these shared experiences on the water strengthen your bond, especially during Rob's illness?

We've been fishing together as brothers since we were kids. At Rob's celebration of life the subject came up that it would be good to get us all together fishing on a boat one more time.

The pontoon trip allowed us to do that and it was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had - as the story alludes. Me and my two brothers (and our children) all continue to be avid fisherfolk. Being in a boat spurs great memories of our time with each other and Rob.

The fishing trip you organized for Rob's last outing was a beautiful gesture. How did you navigate the balance between wanting to create lasting memories and acknowledging the gravity of the situation?

It is a great story and I tell the full story in my book, "Dirty Shirt: a boundary waters memoir."

The trip itself was a blend of emotions, but when push came to shove, there was still the banter between brothers that was part of so many other fishing trips over the years. Lots of gentle put-downs, bragging and joking, like any good fishing outing. It was a magical blend of gravity + levity.

Your mother's response to the tattoo artist's question about potential future losses is both

poignant and stoic. How did her resilience influence your family's approach to facing adversity?

She was the rock, the glue that held us together during some very lean times in the 60's and 70s. My wife and I have a saying, "Live like Mary." That sums it up. She's been through a lot and is still a positive light to others.

In your story, you mention the importance of forgiveness, respect, and grace instilled by your mother. How have these values helped your family navigate through the pain of losing loved ones?

Mom always reminded us that we were FAMILY and we take care of each other. We are probably closer as siblings now than we were when we were young. This is a credit to Mom's reminders and her living example.

The decision to get tattoos in honor of Rob seems like a powerful way to commemorate his life. How did you and your family members come to the decision to permanently mark yourselves in his memory?

Around a picnic table at the cabin as we gathered to mourn Rob's passing, I mentioned I was thinking of getting a musky tattoo in his honor. My mom and wife both latched on to the idea and we made an outing of it. I've often said that when my other brothers pass, I'll get another fish species to commemorate them. Let's hope I don't need to before I pass away. LOL.

Rob's battle with cancer and eventual passing is heart-wrenching. Can you describe how your family coped with the news of his diagnosis and how you supported each other throughout his illness?

We texted each other, shared visits with him and even cried together on occasion. It was undoubtedly the hardest thing many of us have ever been through. His illness and passing brought us all much closer as a family. If there is one good thing to come out of such a tragedy, it is that.

Reflecting on your sister Linda's passing and your brother Rob's battle with cancer, how do you think these experiences have shaped your understanding of grief and loss?

Both of their lives are a reminder to appreciate every day. Rob's in particular has led me to live life with a renewed urgency.

Our time is short. We need to live and love hard, because tomorrow's not guaranteed. I often say that sense of urgency is their legacy to us all.

Finally, if you're comfortable sharing, how do you personally cope with the grief of losing your brother and sister, and how do you keep their memories alive in your daily life?

There are a couple of ways. Every time I go fishing, I think of Rob and his laughter in the boat. With Linda, I often wonder how we as siblings would have been different if she had lived to adulthood. Through my writing, I have written and published poems about each of them and that helps sustain their memory.

Check out Jim's inspirational video

Categories: : cancer, death, family, Inspirational, loss

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