Justin Ricklefs


Tattoos, Tears and 15 Years of Marriage

“There was desperation in the streets in those days.”

The hum of tattooing provided the white noise, drowning out some of my confusion. I walked in off the street that Friday night.

In sweat pants, a hoodie, and a world of pain.

A toothpick dangled from his bottom lip, so close to falling, I just knew it would end up on my lap. He was telling me a story, helping pass the time.

Or maybe helping me calm my anxious body. Or maybe both. I’m not sure.

But his story was riveting.

He told of a time a decade or so ago when he was given a chance as a tattoo apprentice, how his mentor allowed him to open this new shop with him. How it was all kind of a blur and kind of a perfect photo in his mind, all at once.

He said midtown KC, where his shop is, was different back in those days. Not the thriving, foodie, hipster, cool spot.

Desperation in the streets, that was his description. Drugs, violence, sadness.

The street of my home, the one I had left about an hour before, wouldn’t appear on the surface as desperate.

Long driveways, big front porches, three car garages, friendly people, quiet.

I can’t speak for all the neighbors, but the home I left that night felt more like desperation than it did peace.

My world was coming unglued. The very thing I built my image around was coming unhinged. The picture perfect and blog-worthy marriage smelled like desperation.

And no one saw it coming. Especially me.

The needle dug into the inside of my left wrist. The toothpick never fell from his lips. And his words resonated deep into the open wounds of my heart.

If he only knew.

The desperation was mine, not the streets around his tattoo shop.

The lowercase B I had permanently inscribed on my wrist was a doodle Brooke made on our oldest daughter’s iPhone at some point.

A throwaway scribble on a random night.

But all of a sudden, in my desperation, that scribble meant the world to me.

B for Brooke. B for Beloved. B for Broken.

It’s a story better told over a beer than a blog, but let’s just say part of this long, hard year, well actually nearly all of it, was my doing.

My shortcomings. My insecurities. My immaturities. My masterful job of pointing in different directions saying “everything is fine, move right along, nothing to see here…”

That system had to break, it had to fall apart, it had to hit a desperate point – in order for something new to be born.

As I sat in that tattoo parlor, I didn’t know what would unfold. I didn’t know what was to come.

But I knew that B needed to be with me forever. Maybe as a sign of love, maybe as a sign of grief. Maybe a messy combination of both.

You know what they say about desperate times…

Hard to believe that particular Friday night was over a year ago. In some ways it feels like yesterday. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it happened.

Because today, on our 15th wedding anniversary, it feels like a marker of sorts. Not a night to be celebrated necessarily, but a night to be grateful for, I guess.

A couple years ago, had it been our 15th year, I would have worked really hard to write 15 tips on marriage and make you think I had my shit together.

Part of that was noble. And part of it was a cover-story. Hiding the imperfections and hoping the hurt would never catch up to my foot speed.

But now, all I can say is that by the very real grace of God and through a lot of hard, ugly pain, our marriage is deeper, more connected, raw and more beautiful than we ever thought possible.

Certainly with a sprinkling of volatility mixed in. If you know my wife of 15 years, you know “quiet and gentle” isn’t her default. 😜

I can’t make 15 points out of that. But I can tell you that hope sprouted up from the desperation.

It’s filled with imperfections. And thankfully, those imperfections are accepted, in spite of the pain the’ve caused.

I can’t wait for the next 15. It feels like they’ll be filled with adventure.

Happy Anniversary Brooke, I love you wholly.

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