My dad and I got matching tattoos – it means so much more now he's gone

Growing up in Hong Kong, wherever my dad was, I was with him – he drove me to school, extra curricular activities, sleepovers, his office, the beach.

He would even take me shopping for books, clothes and sanitary pads as I got older. 

My dad, Henry, was my best friend. I felt like I could tell him anything.

After I moved to England in 2014 to do my A Levels and then attend university, Dad and I talked almost daily on the phone about mundane details as well as big milestones in life. I looked forward to holidays when I’d go home or he’d visit me in the UK. 

My dad had been ill my whole life. He had cancer before I was born, was extremely overweight and dealt with severe health complications. 

But no matter how bad it got, I never thought his illnesses would lead to his death. 

When a parent dies, you’re left with feelings of guilt, breathlessness, and the desire to cling to often incomplete or hazy memories. 

But my final memory of Dad is a lasting one. In September 2017, he flew over to London to help me move into student accommodation.

I didn’t own a car so he rented one and piled my stuff into my new room, despite being 64 and not exactly in the fittest physical shape. 

I’d also given him another reason for coming to London: to get a tattoo. A few months earlier, I had joked with him about getting matching ink and, to my surprise, he wasn’t against the idea. 

We discussed what to get and, eventually, we settled on a coffee cup. We shared a love of coffee and it would celebrate our tradition of enjoying coffee trips together; no one else was invited along, it was always just us. 

Dad was staying in a hotel near Oxford Street and I knew the ‘Big Topshop’ had a tattoo studio in the basement, so it was convenient for us to go there for our appointment.

We were scheduled in for 2pm, but we wanted to get a coffee and do a bit of shopping first so we arrived an hour or so early. Dad let me choose the design and decided he wanted it on his arm so that it would be hidden underneath his shirt at work, but visible at the beach. I chose my ankle for similar reasons; I could show it off or hide it when necessary. 

Dad loved the tattoo, but I think he loved it more because of how happy it made me for us both to get it. 

Every time I cuff my jeans or lace up my shoes, when I take a bath or cross my legs, I see that little coffee cup and I’m reminded of getting the tattoo with my dad.

When I waved him off on the plane back to Hong Kong, I couldn’t have predicted that by December – just three months after we shared that special day – my dad would be in a coma due to kidney failure. 

My godfather, Dad’s best friend, had put off telling me how sick he was for fear of how I would cope with the news, particularly as I was studying for university exams. I only found out after calling Dad multiple times with no answer. 

I told myself the doctors were being overly cautious and that Dad would improve. My godfather kept up an optimistic and brave face for me but sadly, my dad never came out of the coma. 

That Christmas, I was supposed to be flying to Hong Kong to be with him and usually it would be a time filled with decorations, a tree, music and delicious food cooked by Dad. 

I was advised by family not to visit him as they thought it would upset me too much. All the presents I bought for him were left unopened – three years later, I still haven’t touched them. 

Four months on, in April 2018, my dad died in hospital with family friends nearby. They expected me to be distraught but I was numb, and kept my focus on university assignments and student journalism. 

I can no longer ask my dad for advice, I can barely remember his voice, but when I look at the tattoo I’ll never forget him

The last time I spoke to him was in late November around our birthdays, which are just days apart. Despite trying, I can’t remember what we talked about – he had sent me a gold necklace, that I still wear to this day – so I guess I was thanking him for it. 

Sometimes I regret the lost time because I moved to the opposite side of the world, but it didn’t seem so bad because the distance never changed how close we were. 

I can no longer ask my dad for advice, I can barely remember his voice, but when I look at the tattoo I’ll never forget him. 

I’ve been told that grief comes in waves; it can hit you at the strangest of times. 

A death anniversary or a birthday might not affect me in the slightest but on a random day in the middle of March, I might be reminded of my dad and start sobbing. 

Losing a parent, especially at a young age, is extremely difficult – the child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish report that 41,000 children and young people lose a parent before the age of 18. I was freshly 19 when my dad died, not quite a kid or young enough to fit into that statistic, but not really an adult either. 

For me, losing a parent was something I imagined would happen in my thirties or forties (though I’m sure age doesn’t make it any easier) and I would have my own family – 19 years old felt far too young to be left to figure out the world. 

It was recently reported that the Big Topshop may close, and I was extremely sad to think of losing it. As cities change, and gentrify, we all must cope with the loss of certain institutions that may have been the site of celebration, love, friendships, break ups. 

I cherish the memory of our trip there and our matching tattoos. I’ve told the story as my go-to fun fact in university seminars, on first dates, and now in introductory work meetings over Zoom.

Since Dad died, I often visit Oxford Street and I always go into the Big Topshop to get two Lola’s Cupcakes – before getting our tattoos, we were told we had to eat so we bought two (I like red velvet and Dad liked lemon). 

I’m unashamed to say I now buy and eat both flavours, remembering some of the final happy moments I shared with dad while he was alive. 

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