Rita Stonecipher sits in the lobby of Blackbeard Tattoo after getting a tattoo of her son, Tanner on June, 25 2015. Stonecipher has early-onset Alzheimer's Disease and is worried about forgetting her son who passed away three years ago. (Staff photo by Maura Friedman)


He sweeps a wet paper towel across her left forearm, snaps on latex gloves and pours black ink into thimble-sized cups. He bends a needle, tapes a picture of a man to her left shoulder.

"So," Chris Nash says in the basement of Chattanooga's Blackbeard Tattoo in June. "Tell me what happened."

Rita Stonecipher, 58, has lived in the region her whole life. But she's moving soon to live with her daughter in Ohio. Her friends say she needs to leave her trailer on Sand Mountain behind. She needs to escape the reminders.

That's what she's afraid of, though: running out of the reminders. So before she heads north, she stopped by the tattoo shop for one last order of business.

Nine years ago, Rita's memory started fading. She found herself forgetting words in the middle of conversations. She spent hours in parking lots, trying to recall where she left her car. She asked herself why she couldn't write a work memo anymore, and why she put saltines in the toaster.

Doctors diagnosed her with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She believed she could stay sharp, though. She had been a nurse at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute. She had an eidetic memory.

She began writing in a journal and trying to complete crossword puzzles. She gave up quickly, though. The missing answers only made her mad.

When her memory faded too far, she figured, her son could protect her. Tanner Cochran had done that once before, in high school. With Rita's second husband standing on the other side, trying to break in, Tanner held her bedroom door shut.

But Tanner seemed different when he returned from Iraq in 2005, around the time Rita began to forget things. He wouldn't tell her what he saw as a Marine Corps helicopter mechanic, but he didn't laugh as much as he used to. He felt guilty when he heard that service members still overseas died.

He drank more, too. Police arrested him twice for DUI in Nashville and twice more in Dade County, Ga.

One morning three years ago, Rita was at home when someone told her the Dade County sheriff was waiting next door to talk to her. She saw her daughter-in-law crying, heard the sheriff say something about Tanner in his jail cell, hanging by his long underwear. She screamed and punched a bathroom mirror.

She denied it happened, at least the way the report read. Her 29-year-old son wouldn't leave her like this. Someone killed him, she thought.

She pressed police officers and lawyers for advice. She requested jail records. She circled in red pen police statements that didn't make sense to her.

She wrote to talk show hosts, Fox News anchors, country music singers. Anyone with a platform who might look at her files and tell others about it. A forensic pathologist in Texas agreed to examine her accumulated files for anything that seemed suspicious, though he later told her he found nothing.

Deep down, though, Rita knew suicide was possible. She wondered if she put too much pressure on Tanner, expecting him to care for her when the disease became too strong. He already had a wife, two daughters, a job and the memories of three tours of duty to keep him occupied.

But Rita doesn't mention any of this in the tattoo shop. Waiting for the process to begin, she sits quietly, running her turquoise ring up and down her thumb.

When the buzz of the tattoo gun ignites and The Doors pumps through the room, Rita begins to talk about Tanner's childhood, and about the children he left behind. She is afraid the girls will forget him. She is afraid she will, too.

But she thinks about the future. She thinks about looking down at her arm, seeing him smiling back. Even then, when the Alzheimer's disease has cast a shadow over the rest of her life, surely she will recognize that face. Surely it will send a jolt of memories rushing back.

The tattoo artist needs a break, and Rita walks outside to smoke.

She looks at her forearm. She's beginning to see the man from her picture — his ball cap, his eyes, his smile.

She folds her arms, like she's cradling a baby. She rocks them back and forth.

"I can still hold him," she says.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times or at 423-757-6476.