The most effective way to cope with unimaginable personal pain is to sit rocking a baby in your arms.
That advice grows from sorrowful experience lived by Andrew Miele, a tattoo artist-turned children’s book author from South Philadelphia whose wife, Jessie, died eight hours after giving birth to the couple’s son.
“Grief takes your breath away,” said Miele, 41, the father of Natas, now 7, and author of the self-published What is a Vegan? “But you put on Tom Waits, one of Jessie’s favorite musicians, and start rocking back and forth, and you feel like your son’s father” — not simply a widower left to endure the anguish in replaying loops.
It’s not an overstatement to say fatherhood saved Miele’s life.
“I mean, I had PTSD, just wave after wave of sadness,” he said. “And rocking my son became the best therapy ever.”
A ready supply of babies
For Miele, being a dad was almost preordained.
One of five children who grew up among lots of young cousins in Manasquan, Monmouth County, Miele had a ready supply of babies thrust at him as a boy. “As soon as I could hold a baby, one was put in my arms,” he said. “Whenever I see an infant, I just want to hold it.”
The seven Mieles lived a bath-warm existence of acceptance and unconditional love, said Miele: “It was such a happy home. I looked to mimic that in my future.”
After attending the University of the Arts, Miele knew his medium would be tattoos. He loved the link between the artist and his human canvas.
“Someone gives a piece of their body to put your art on forever,” Miele said. “They become the collector of your work in a connection other artists don’t have with their art.”
Miele’s High Rollers Tattoo studio was well-known in West Chester. His art was American traditional: sailor tattoo styles from the 1940s and ‘50s — anchors, ships, and hearts with “Mom” banners. Among his walking masterpieces are West Chester’s Bam Margera, from the Jackass films, as well as professional wrestling notable Baron Corbin.
Fittingly enough, he met Jessie at the South Street bar Tattooed Mom in 2003. He was 23, she was 21. Miele was drawn to her blue-haired punk-rock spirit. Also an artist, Jessie worked with wood, which she burned and painted using circus themes and Coney Island sideshow imagery.
“She was the most fabulous person in the world,” Miele said. “It was an instant connection.”
Jessie’s best friend, Julie Murray, 42, a makeup artist for film and television in Los Angeles, was maid of honor at the couple’s wedding in 2005. “I met this great guy,” Jessie told Murray the night after Tattooed Mom. “He’s different.”
“Drew’s loyal, a relationship guy, not a dater,” said Murray, “He finds someone, says, ‘You’re my girl,’ and makes it work.”
The couple lived in East Passyunk. “I would come home and smell the wood and know she was making art, which always put her in a good mood,” Miele said. “That’s a smell I’ll always take with me.”
Miele desired to hold a baby belonging to him and Jessie; the couple tried for seven years to get pregnant. When it finally happened, “Jessie was the cutest little pregnant nugget ever, big belly and adorable,” Murray said.
The baby was born on Dec. 6, 2013. Miele and Jessie called him Natas, a name they found online meaning “birthday of God” in Lithuanian.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” Miele said. “And then it wasn’t.”
Miele can’t discuss the details of Jessie’s death because of a nondisclosure agreement with the hospital in which she died. “It was the hardest thing I could have ever imagined: having an infant who needed constant care and me needing constant care.”
Family and friends rallied. “They took shifts holding me up,” he said. “I’d be changing Natas, get hit with a wave of grief, and someone would have to take over.”
But something clicked, Murray said: “I saw him turn around and say, ‘OK, I’m a dad. I’ve got to do this.’ And just like that he was this dedicated father. He looks at Natas with such loving eyes. He made me wonder if I was a good enough mom to my own child.”
The man who always wanted to be a father excelled at it. He was a natural, Murray said, at ease with his boy in any emotional circumstance.
A kid himself
Relaxing into life, Miele decided to act on his teenage impulse to become a vegetarian, then a vegan. In 2017, he married Ashley, 38, a Realtor and a vegan herself who was a friend of Miele’s and Jessie’s from years ago. This time, Murray was the best man.
“Drew’s a great dad because he’s a kid himself, but also a caretaker,” Ashley said. “It’s amazing to find someone like that in a husband.” She added that she and Miele are hoping to have a child together.
After 18 years, Miele put down his tattooing needle and became an author dedicated to writing for Natas and all kids. “Writing is like no other feeling in making art, because I’m making it for my son,” Miele said. “It fills me with pride, and Natas can say, ‘My dad spent the pandemic writing this for me.’ ”
The veganism book, illustrated by Justin Gray, whimsically explains the eating choice to Natas, and gives parents language they can use: “We believe people and animals are exactly the same...[and] we choose not to hurt them. … Pigs dream, dolphins name each other … animals can feel lonely, scared, or afraid. …”
Natas himself is not too shy to describe his contribution: suggesting an alternative to the book’s original cover. “There were fruits and vegetables on it at first,” he said. “But I said we should have animals. So there are. My idea.”
Asked for advice on how best to be a dad, Miele said unhesitatingly, “Treat kids like an equal. I want him to know I’m a safe place, not a shouty, scary guy.”
A good dad is also a good son, and Miele, who never golfed but learned to because his father loves it, was planning to play his first-ever round of golf with his dad in North Carolina as a Father’s Day gift.
Miele said, “My father gave me so much, and what I learned from my father I tell my son: ‘Kindness, buddy. Treat everyone and everything in the world with it.’ ”