When the handwritten message on the wall became clear that our marriage was finished before we actually crossed the finished line (the “till death do us part” part), I was in such emotional turmoil I wanted to put some distance between me and the pain. I craved escape. Thinking out loud I said the same words to two different people, who were unacquainted with each other, from two different cities – people I deeply love and respect. To Mike in Santa Cruz and Jean in Pacifica I said, “I’m going to get on a bus, go to Mexico, and I don’t know when I’m coming back.”
“No, you’re really not!” they both replied as though they’d conferred with each other and rehearsed their lines.
“Oh yeah? Why not?” I asked with a little attitude behind it.
“Because, it’s stupid!” both of them said, or implied. “And you’re in no condition to be alone for long periods of time right now. You’re too messed up. You need people around you. You’re not going to Mexico. Not now!”
I love friends who tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. I didn’t like what they said, but they were both right – very right. They didn’t want me to screw up my miserable life any more than it already was. They knew I was so freaked out by losing my marriage that I didn’t need to isolate myself from friends who were much more objective than I was at the time.
A fool thinks he needs no advice, but a wise man listens to others. Proverbs 12:15
A few days later I was with my kids at my son’s apartment and said into the air, “If someone would go to Spring Training with me, I’d go.” They were reeling nearly as much as I was about the breakup of their family. I didn’t have to say it a second time for my son to get on board, “I’m in!” He called his boss and told him that he had a family crisis, and that he needed to take some time off to drive his dad to Arizona! Not many hours later we jumped in my beater car and headed toward the desert to watch some baseball games – laughing, crying, and cussing all the way there and back. It was a therapeutic trip for both of us, and a much better option than hiding myself away in a foreign country.
Besides all the angst we were feeling and the frustrated banter that we had along the road, we had a lot of fun together. We drove into Scottsdale where the Giants play their Spring Training games, got out of the car, after the twelve hour drive, and the first thing Luke said was, “Dad we gotta get us some tattoos!”
OK, first you have to know that he was already pretty thoroughly tattooed up. He had precious few free spaces for any more works of ink art on his body. He’s got robots and canaries and music symbols and Chinese lettering. One of his best friends, Dan, is a tattoo artist, who lived two doors down from Luke and his wife, Tori, in the same apartment building. I like Dan a lot. He’s a solid follower of Jesus and led a Bible Study in their apartment that my kids attended. I haven’t seen them all, but Dan’s got so many tattoos that it takes long pants, long sleeves, and a turtle neck to cover them all.
One Sunday I was attending church with the my kids and was sitting between Luke and Dan. Before the worship began I turned to Dan and said, “Hey, we’re gonna be here for an hour or so worshipping Jesus and all. I’m really happy about that. But I wouldn’t be happy if I got up from here with a tattoo somewhere on my person. You know?”
“Well,” he replied, “then don’t turn your back on me!” I haven’t since.
My favorite of Luke’s tattoos, really the only one I like at all – but don’t tell him – is the one that he said he got for me. After the divorce and many of my hospitalizations we were at dinner when he announced, “Dad I got a new tattoo, and this one I got for you. Do you want to see it?”
“For me?” I said. “Yeah, right.”
“No, really,” he said rolling up his sleeve past the top of his shoulder. “It’s a rendering of one of your sermons, the one you’re living right now.”
Now I was intrigued, if not skeptical. He bared a brightly colored and quite beautiful piece of art that took up the entirety of his upper arm and paused while I inspected it for clues of what Bible story this was supposed to depict. “What sermon are we talking about here?” I asked.
“You figure it out,” he said.
Don’t you hate it when your kids grow up and they sound like you?
Inked into his pores was a brawny ancient warrior wrestling a ferocious lion in a dark, cave-like background. “Daniel in the lion’s den?” I asked tentatively, since I didn’t remember doing any of my best sermonizing on that story.
Even more uncertainly, “David? You know, when he killed a lion and a bear?”
And then it came to me. Several times over the years in a variety of venues I had given a message from 2 Samuel about a member of David’s special forces team, named “Benaiah,” of whom it says: “He slew a lion in a pit on a snowy day.” He did the hardest thing (killed a lion) in the most difficult place (in a pit) in the worst circumstances (on a snowy day). My poor kids had to grow up listening to their dad every Sunday morning (in addition to all the other days of the week). But this one must’ve registered and had some impact on Luke.
“Oh!” I said, with a sense of victory – I love Bible trivia games. They’re the only ones I routinely win. “He slew a lion in a pit on a snowy day?”
“Ding, ding, ding…” he made the sound of the winner’s bell on a game show. “This is what you’re doing these days, Dad” he said, looking directly into my eyes. I grabbed him by the neck, pulled him close to me, told him I loved him, and cried.
Anyway, back to Arizona and Luke’s angst-filled declaration, “We gotta get us some tattoos while we’re here.”
“What universe do you come from that makes you think that’s going to happen?” I asked. “I’m messed up, but not completely out of my mind!” He didn’t pursue it further, but I could tell this wasn’t over.
We went on to the motel. Our original plan was to camp but all the campgrounds were full since it was opening day of Spring Training. We found a room at Motel 6, which is almost like camping if you stay on the first floor – you know, close to the earth.
The next day he came at me again, “We really gotta get some tattoos, Dad. It’ll make us both feel better.”
“Son,” I said firmly, “not in a million years.”
We went to a couple of ball games, lay in the sun, ate way too many hot dogs, and drank beer (at least he did). Maybe it was the beer (they’re pretty good sized at the ballpark), but he was emboldened to bring it up again, “I’m telling you Dad that this is our hour. Let’s get some tattoos together. You can pick what we get.”
Now I was beginning to allow a mental image of what I’d get if he knocked me out and drug me into a tattoo parlor. Is that what you call them, “parlors”? That’s a strange word for it, don’t you think? Anyway, I tried to imagine what I could get inked on my bicep that would adequately symbolize my angst and not be totally embarrassing if the angst wore off before the ink did. Then I thought, given the size of my biceps, the image would have to be so microscopic, that it wouldn’t be worth the money or the pain. Besides, did I really want to be reminded of how bad I felt at that moment for as long as a tattoo lasts?
Anyway, I dismissed the thought again until he brought it up between innings for a fourth time. “Let’s do it, Dad. It’s a father-son kinda thing.”
By this time, I was starting to cave in, and even though I was saying, “No,” I was thinking, “Maybe. Maybe it would make me feel better to rebel against – well – against whatever I want to rebel against and have some total stranger poke permanent ink into my skin. Okay, I am 54 years old. I’ve lost my wife, ministry, and my future.” (I wasn’t sick yet, except in the head.) “If he asks me one more time, I’m gonna do it!”
He didn’t and I didn’t. Thank you, Jesus!