I can. I will.
(Originally written October, 2013)
On Mothering, Letting Go and Tattoos
The moment I found out my son got a tattoo, I had no choice but to be transformed, but not before I held off that new reality for as long as humanly, motherly and old-fashioned valued-ly possible.
James is a freshman in college, far from my grasp, in Pennsylvania. I still receive his bank statements at home in California. Like any good, responsible mother, I opened the last one – just to check on things. I looked through all the entries for food and gas and more food, and then a misplaced entry smacked me in the face: Premium Tattoo – $60. I read it over a few times slowly, giving the words time to auto-correct from this obvious error. In the conservative, middle class world that I was raised in, tattoos are for washed up sailors, Hell’s Angels or gang members, and, of course, other people’s misdirected children. I could picture my mother shaking her head and whispering, “So unsophisticated.” I wrinkled my nose, blew out a lung full of dismissive air, and marched directly into denial. My James would never get a tattoo.
My James was born 15 days fashionably late, weighed in at 12 pounds, 3 ounces and was 25 inches long. He was the second biggest baby, at the time, ever born at Kaiser Oakland.
“Now don’t forget, Lisa. You just had a C-Section. You cannot lift anything heavier than 10 pounds,” the nurse told me as I prepared to leave the hospital.
“But the baby . . . . “ I begged as she walked out the door.
Of course I picked up the baby! And I began a journey of endless decisions that I would make in the raising and care of this precious child and his perfect little body. Every decision I made, from smashed peas or sweet potatoes to how to tell him, at three years old, about the divorce, was meant to protect and nurture him until he gained confidence, strength of character and the ability to make decisions for himself.
Now, James is a bona fide adult weighing in at 200 pounds, ducking under door frames at 6’6” and buying his shoes online – size 14 ½ is hard to come by. His green eyes come from me, his thick wiry hair from his dad, and the uni-dimple on his right cheek can’t be traced to anyone in our family – it is a James original.
I sat at the kitchen table staring at the September statement from Bank of America and tried to figure out the genesis of this error. Someone must have stolen his debit card, I thought. No. James would have called me if he had been robbed. I thought about My James’ beautiful, light olive-toned skin that tans so easily in the summer, flawless and perfect. How could he possibly allow someone to taint it with needles and ink? More importantly, he knew how I felt about tattoos!
My malevolent mind forced me to picture My James lying on a table in this so called “parlor,” at the intersection of Bad and Worse, complete with sputtering neon signs, loitering deviants, smoke-filled rooms and a toothless tattoo artist.
My husband, Jim, James’ step-father, came into the kitchen and asked why I was shaking.
“I think James paid for a tattoo for one of his friends,” I said as I gasped for breath and pointed at the line item on the statement.
“He paid for someone else’s tattoo?” Jim questioned.
I fired up my computer, clicked on the Google link and typed in Premium Tattoo.
“Yep. It’s a tattoo parlor,” I said to Jim.
“Looks like James got a tattoo,” He said.
“No way,” I said brushing him off, convinced that Jim didn’t really know James like I did. Jim and I married when James was 10 and my daughter, Julia, was 9. Jim didn’t realize that this was simply not possible.
“Oh! Look at this,” I chirped with self-validation. “Premium Tattoo sells vintage clothing! He must have bought something for Emma.” Emma was James’ girlfriend.
“Lisa,” Jim said gently, placing his hand on my shoulder, “I am going to text James right now and ask him who got the tattoo.”
I sat up straight in my chair, heart pounding, left eye twitching. Jim texted. James replied: I did.
Those two words hit me like a violent labor contraction, sharp and specific, with no epidural.
My husband and my son texted back and forth as I stared at the floor, shocked and betrayed. I had failed, it seemed, to live up to my own parenting standards. James said that he got the tattoo, on his left hip, just before leaving for school, that he had a compelling reason for doing it and that he wasn’t planning on getting “all tatted up.” Thank God. I was in too much pain to talk to him. But now he knew that I knew. My daughter, who already knew, now knew that I knew. “I think it’s cool,” she said. I was not OK with that either.
Jim held his cell phone out to show me a picture of the thing. I very slowly leaned in, shoulders hunched, mouth turned down, and eyes squinting, like I was being forced to watch the dissection of a fluffy kitten. The black ink on My James’ faultless skin glowed.
I Can. I Will.
You’d think that I would be OK with this. I live in Oakland, California, for crying out loud. Every other person in this town has a tattoo. Every other person on the planet has a tattoo, for that matter. But the tenets of my upbringing held me hostage. Tattoos are bad!
I looked away and then looked again. I didn’t cry. I just pouted. I pouted for a really long time – if you come over to my house right now and ask me about it, I will pout for you.
Later in the fall, we went to family weekend at James’ school. We took a tour of the standard college sights: the quad, the library, the dorm room – complete with unmade beds and empty boxes of Frosted Mini-Wheats on the floor. I still did not discuss the tattoo with him.
We went to watch him at basketball practice, his spot on that team fought for and won by this determined son of mine.
“I want to play college basketball,” James had said to me at the very end of his junior year of high school.
“Anything is possible,” I had replied, hiding my fear and worry for a boy who was benched his entire freshman year, struggled for playing time his sophomore year and barely made varsity his junior year.
At practice that day, we sat in the bleachers of the sweltering gym. The time came for a scrimmage and the players divided themselves into two groups: shirts v. skins. I watched My James grab the bottom of his t-shirt and stretch it up over his head and toss it onto the bleachers. And then I saw it, dark and vivid, radiating its presence just below his rib cage. It screamed out at me like a cheerleader with a megaphone: Look at me! I am a tattoo! I am a tattoo on your son’s hip! I see you, I muttered as I willed it to melt off of My James and into a puddle on the gym floor.
I Can. I Will.
I wiped the sweat off the back of my neck with a used piece of tissue paper from the bottom of my purse and tried to remind myself that I am, first and foremost, a truth seeker. James’ tattoo was a remembrance, an inspiration, and a tribute of sorts, to the coach who had encouraged and worked with him as he moved from Benchwarmer to Varsity Starter to College Athlete. I looked at my son, who was practicing with his college basketball team, and then I looked at those permanent words. I knew that they could not have been truer. His tattoo is his personal reminder that he is independent and capable. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their kid? Or am I just as good at justification as I am at denial? And where does this leave MY personal values?
James is my son, but he is his own person in charge of what he says, what he does, where he goes, who he goes with and how he cares for himself and his body. Although the transfer of that responsibility happened over a period of 18 years, there’s nothing like a good old tattoo in year 19 to make it feel down right sudden!
An unexpected breeze rustled in through the double doors of the gymnasium, cooling my face and neck. I pushed back the slight lump that was presenting itself in my throat. Then I breathed in a lung full of – what I suddenly recognized as – gratification, and I watched him sink a ball in the net.
I Can. I Will.
And My James did.