In July 2020, I unexpectedly lost my father. In July 2021, God invited me to meet him again.

Israel looms. I reread the checklist and pretended to be calm. In April, I was asked to help staff a summer trip for Passages. In July, I returned to the Holy Land. It took one serological test, two PCR tests, and three entry permits to get there. Although Israel is not open to tourists, Passages gained admission through the country’s pilot program to test the efficacy of their Covid procedures. No lines snaked through customs; a lone bag circled on the carousel in the baggage claim. Makeshift PCR testing tents on the left, a closed Aroma Espresso Bar on the right. And while the world had changed, God’s promises remained the same. We were home.

My round departed from Chicago O’Hare on July 11th, a day after the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing. I marveled that God invited me to journey back to His land after the darkest day of my life. And not only did God call me back, but also used my grief for His glory.

I believe in Altar moments. Those sacred moments where time stops, Providence points, and the present meets the eternal. It was here, in a tattoo shop in Jerusalem, where I experienced the most breathtaking Altar moment yet.

I wanted a tattoo for years, but I kept waiting for the right reason. On the first anniversary of Dada’s death, I read the last card he wrote to me before he walked on. While reading, I discovered both the phrase and the reason.

After I finished reading his card, I texted a dear friend the following: “I think I’m going to get ‘our dearest son’ tattooed in Jaji’s handwriting while I’m in Israel. I read his card again tonight—to hear his voice and to feel his love. And as the tears fell, I thought, maybe that’s an even better way to remember him than getting ‘Jaji’ tattooed.” (In the Ho-Chunk language, Jaji means dad).

She agreed.

When I arrived in Israel, I emailed Razzouk Tattoo—the oldest tattoo parlor in Jerusalem—to ask Wassim if he could tattoo “our dearest son” in Dada’s handwriting from his card.

He responded, “Yes, we can do that for you with pleasure.”

I burst with enthusiasm and tears, excited because Wassim could tattoo it in Jaji’s original handwriting, and because I could get it in Jerusalem—Dada’s favorite place to watch me travel. It was yet another reason.

It was a quarter past noon as we walked to Razzouk Tattoo. The sun scorched our backs. A woman dressed in white plucked her harp at the Jaffa Gate. Bearded men dressed in black coats and shtreimels stood on a street corner holding their Torah. The smell of shawarma lingered in the alleyway.

Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem. Photo by Renee Ghert-Zand at Times of Israel.

 

Wassim was as polite as he was kind. He asked about the tattoo’s backstory and listened as I shared the significance behind it. I said “our dearest son” came from last year’s Christmas card—the final card Dada wrote to me before his unexpected goodbye. The orbit of the planets paused, our eyes misted, and an unspoken sorrow spread through the room. Shared grief is shared humanity. 

He placed “our dearest son” on my left forearm, and I wept the whole time he tattooed it. Cathartic tears. Nostalgic tears. Hopeful tears. With each painful prick, Jaji came alive. The ink darkened and his love deepened. But even as the tears tumbled, Jesus caught every one, used every one, and redeemed every one.

After we finished, Wassim asked if he could take a picture of his masterpiece. I said sure. He told me his family has been tattooing pilgrims for over 7 centuries, and that not only did I join the chorus of pilgrims, but that my story—our story—was one he will now share with others. A story of sorrow, but also a story of hope.

Now, every time I look down, I am reminded of not only Jaji’s love for me, but also my Father’s love for me—claiming me, calling me, comforting me.

After we said our goodbyes and I departed his shop, a brother of mine remarked, “It’s not his name on your arm; it’s his heart.”

A beautiful revelation straight from the heart of God. Dada began his card as tender as he ended it, “As Mom and Dad fade into the background of your life, we want to tell you what a pride and joy and blessing you’ve brought to our lives. Your love for Jesus, your spirit, your dedication, your integrity adds to a bright future of promise for God’s glory.”

You see, his love for me always channeled Christ’s love for me. Whether writing or speaking, on every occasion, he brought it back to the Altar.

I miss you, Dada. On sunny days and on cloudy days. When I’m alone and when I’m with friends. But your love lives in me. And your testimony for Jesus continues to live and touch the lives of others. I know you never made it to the Holy Land on this side of Heaven, but how special it is to know your story did.

You continue to teach me the good news found in the Christian faith is not in avoiding the pain, but in living through the loss, knowing Jesus will use our sufferings in a redemptive way. And with each Altar moment, our God shows us on the other side of grief, is grace.

 

Until the New Jerusalem, Jaji.

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