Ah, but Ben was a difficult child, and me a difficult father. What I failed to see—what I failed to recognize, having turned my back upon my own creativity in favor of a career and raising a family, as if the two were mutually exclusive—was his nascent artistic nature. Somehow in the years of our upheaval his need to create not only matured but became essential to his being. And though it would cost him immeasurable grief and a complete sundering from family and friends, he alone remained true to his vision. What I with my blinders on failed to see became for him an unrestrainable, unquenchable need.
It’s not my intent to rewrite history nor would I want to. Nor am I a big fan of revisionist history where an author applies modern perspectives to those of another era, an endeavor that merely fictionalizes truth, or trivializes it. In our case what happened, happened, and without askance though certainly there was complicity on my part, actions both unnecessary and shortsighted and, in retrospect, perhaps unforgivable.
Forgiveness I’ll leave for others. I’ve long since absolved myself by simply shrugging off the past as a frontier once explored and passed through on our way to get to here. The basic problem with parenting is that it’s all on-the-job training, and no amount of written instruction can prepare you for the inevitable challenges. We did what we thought was right even while in retrospect it was wrong, or might have been wrong—there is, at this stage, no clear evidence of how things might have been mitigated without calling into question every facet of our lives, which is merely a form of second-guessing. Beliefs and principles evolved even as we evolved though I understand the term carries a negative connotation for a certain segment of society. Evolve, develop, transform, grow, mature, all define the same weathering process by which experience files down the burs of our dogmas, buffing our rough edges into a more polished and aerodynamic form better able to slipstream through the unavoidable travails of our times.
Perhaps a better term would be adaptation. I’m talking about adapting through coercion rather than consent, forced upon us with such immediacy that everything we felt we knew about ourselves was called into question. Resistance, my initial reaction, proved futile once it became obvious that change was warranted. Hitting rock-bottom, while in itself not the most pleasant experience, nevertheless has remarkable revelatory powers. The good news is that when you’re at the bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. The bad news is that the bottom remains fluid and forever capable of extending itself to unplumbed depths.
Over the years there were so many rock-bottom moments that they’ve bled together into one indistinguishable tapestry of pain and remorse, but that’s not the final word.
I was intolerant, the psychologist said. That was the final word, and though I fought it until I had lost almost everything that mattered, Lori’s gentle guidance incrementally brought me back. It was a lengthy and painful process, bloody at times, churning with every human emotion except love, or hope, or compassion. I like to think I eventually realized what really mattered, that family is more important than principles based on misguided and blind authoritarianism. Our world is not black and white no matter that some would have it so. Nor is it merely shades of featureless gray. Our world, our lives, our hearts, our relationships, the choices we offer, the decisions we make, are rich vibrant color. Ben knew it all along.
“Careful,” Ben said. “They’re habit forming.”
He should know: his body is his canvas. There was a time when I could not look at him; now I cannot turn away.
I will never again turn away.
My niece, Vikki, who also knows, said I needed more than one. “Get both!” she said. “Once you get one, you’ll want another anyway.”
Another niece questioned my sanity. “I can’t believe what I’m reading,” Shannon said. “Maybe those chicken wings you cooked were a little too spicy.”
My response was what I hoped sounded like mature wisdom. “We tend to become more understanding with age,” I said.
Which is not to say I’ve left my intolerance behind, as if it were a suitcase willfully abandoned at a train depot. Sometimes I say or write things without first thinking them through, forgetting the power of words to incite, to enflame, to hurt. I wonder sometimes if there are actually two forms of intolerance, one based on ignorance and the other on sagacity, or if the one is merely a reaction to the other. During my terms on the city council I tried to be open-minded and empathetic with residents seeking redress but that didn’t stop me from exuberantly dismissing idiots who hadn’t done their homework. I still have serious problems with people who believe anything they hear that plays to their own xenophobic close-mindedness, and if that’s intolerance, well, so be it.
My own concerns are closer to home. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’d want a tattoo and whether it should be large or small. A rabbit would be nice, on my shoulder, perhaps, tucked away but representative of my totem spirit. I’m also considering Lori’s name spelled out with the dot over the i replaced by a bird taking flight, but then the question invariably arises over which species of bird to use. I really like merlins, a small falcon of fierce repute—one could say a raptor of legendary intolerance—which appeals to me the more I contemplate it.
But this isn’t just about tattoos as art. It’s about tattoos as healing.
I’ve several scars on the backs of my hands carved by a knife when the pain of separation became too heavy to bear. A well-placed Zia sun symbol would transform one pale scar into a radiant shaft of light. I cannot think of anything more fitting.