It was our eldest son’s 21st birthday, and our family had gathered for a celebration. Before dinner, we were sitting in the living room when Hunter pulled up his sleeve, proudly displaying a motorcycle tattoo on his forearm, a gift from his roommate (who I plan to give a pony!)
In a not-so-great moment of fatherhood, I blurted out, “Please tell me that is a henna tattoo.” It was not.
My displeasure was not well concealed.
But I attempted to be positive. “That certainly is a tattoo,” I tried. Nita, his mother who birthed him with clean, beautiful arms, didn’t do much better.
He explained, “I got it to remind me of my year in Uganda, riding to the school everyday on my motorcycle.”
And I thought, There are a lot of other things in Uganda you could get tattooed on your arm – an itsy, bitsy Ugandan flag, an image of a miniature Ugandan hummingbird, or a tiny letter “u ” for instance.
I’ll admit it.
I’m old school and don’t get the tattoo thing.
I know it’s quite popular. But all I can do is fast forward to old people with sagging skin, a once vibrant motorcycle now looking like it was hit by a semi, its tires having melted in the ensuing fireball!
Fast forward to a month later when our family went to a movie during the holidays. When we returned home, Hunter went upstairs while we began to make dinner.
Soon afterwards, he called for me.
I went up to his room where he sat on the floor, looking down, tears streaming down his face.
“I can’t take it.”
“What do you mean son?”
“I spent a year in Uganda with kids in a school who had very little, but they were thankful and happy. And the Ugandan people were grateful, satisfied with what they had, not entitled to what they lacked. While they had few possessions and experienced hardships, they lived with gratitude.”
He continued to explain.
“And then a couple of hours ago, I was standing in line with people who were complaining that the line was too long and the popcorn was too expensive! It’s crazy! Dad, it’s been so hard to be back here. I miss Uganda.”
We talked for a long while – about what he’d experienced, what he’d seen, and what he now knows. And about the ache that comes with transitions.
Later that night, I thought about the motorcycle on his arm, and how he looks at it every day. It reminds him of one of the most pivotal years of his life, of hopeful children, of dusty roads and the farm he planted, of grandmothers in villages and friends who worked alongside him.
It finally hit me.
The tattoo was his journal, a story etched on his arm. And when Hunter sees it, he remembers those days when he was changed, and when love was rich and deep.
I get it now.
Sometimes it’s how they carry themselves or the way they wear their hair. And sometimes it’s the scar on their wrist or a frown or a smile on their face.
The evidence is there.
It’s up to you and me to be attentive to the story they wear, and to invite them to tell it. It means being willing to watch for a story to emerge from unexpected places.
As for me, I probably won’t be getting a tattoo anytime soon. I’m too close to that age when tattoos get distorted and droopy. But I’m going to spring for Hunter’s next one. I want him to keep telling stories the way he wants to.
Of course, if he chose to use a leather-bound book and a nice pen instead, I would not object.