Today is my oldest son Caleb’s 41st birthday. He wears it well. When my daughter-in-law Alisha told me at her surprise 40th birthday party a year and a half ago that she was going to start running, and wanted to run a marathon eventually, I was both surprised and mildly skeptical. When I found out not long afterward that Caleb was joining her in this commitment, I said, “Yeah, that ain’t happening.”
But last January, I took a quick trip to South Carolina to see them run, Caleb in a marathon (his second) and Alisha, nursing a knee injury, in a half-marathon. They both finished the event as I followed their progress on my phone during the race, and then at the finish line, in awe. Jeanne and I will be flying to Denver to see Caleb and Alisha run in another marathon in June (coronavirus permitting), an event that will hopefully move him closer to his ultimate goal of running in a future Boston Marathon. The distance running pair has lost a lot of weight, and have retooled their lives with a purpose and focus that is impressive to behold.
Caleb is a tattoo artist with extraordinary talent. Jeanne and I always knew that he would do something impressive with his native artistic abilities, but had no idea that it would be tattooing. For my sixtieth birthday four years ago, he tattooed my beloved dachshund Frieda on my left arm; now that Frieda is no longer with us, I’m glad that just a glance down and to the left can connect me with her. Jeanne does not yet have a tattoo—but, as she tells everyone, “Caleb is the first artist that makes me want to have a tattoo” (if they just didn’t hurt so damn much).
In the summer of 2010, I participated in a week-long writer’s conference; during that week, I was working on developing a style of writing in short essays, the style that I have been using in this blog for the past eight years. Short personal essays are not the sort of writing that academics naturally resonate with, and I was finding the transition from an impersonal style supported by footnotes and bibliography to brief, revealing forays into myself to be challenging. My writing coach and the other participants had been kind, but reserved and cool, in their reactions to my attempts.
For our last meeting on the evening before we left for home, each of us was to read a new essay, written that week, to the group. I didn’t have an idea or topic that morning–and then my cell phone rang. It was Caleb. After our brief conversation ended, I sat down and wrote an essay in one setting. It was a breakthrough for me, not only in essay writing, but more importantly in understanding my relationship with my oldest son. It brought tears to the eyes of my fellow writers that evening, and brings tears to my eyes even now, ten years later. With only a couple of minor adjustments, here is that essay. And oh yeah—Happy birthday, dude! I am proud of you. I love you.
This morning, I was seated on the sofa in the common area and licking my wounds after getting worked over by _______[the writer in residence]. My pocket vibrated. “Why is anyone calling me at a writer’s conference?” It was Caleb.
“Hey, Dad—it’s me. Got a question for you.”
“You know I’m in Minnesota, right?”
“Yeah. This’ll just take a minute.”
“Well it’s got to be something that ends with ‘all’ or ‘everyone.’ How about ‘Loved by All’?”
“That’s not going to work.”
“Hated by all?”
“Nah. We were thinking ‘Feared by All,’ but thought you’d maybe have something better.”
“‘Feared by All’ sounds good.”
My son, the tattoo artist, relies on me, his college professor Dad, as his “go to person” whenever words and phrases are involved as well as his answer man for any question whatsoever, all at a moment’s notice. Sort of like a 24-7 lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
I have never doubted Caleb’s artistic ability, from crayons through tattoo needles, but just about everything else about our relationship has come into question, such as our inability to connect emotionally. Were we too different, too similar, both of the above, none of the above? Was he too much like his mother? I interpreted his lack of respect for school work and books as a direct affront to his egghead, bibliophilic father. Why didn’t he cry when his grandmother, his favorite person in the world, died of cancer years ago when he was eight? Where did his barely submerged anger come from, and why couldn’t I do anything about it? Why did he resist becoming a real part of his new step-family so tenaciously? Years later, why did he piss away two years at a top ranked art institute, majoring in beer drinking then flunking out?
“Hey Dad, it’s me. Got a minute?”
“A couple—what’s up?”
“I’m designing a tattoo for this guy, and he wants it to say ‘Get out of my face.’ How do you say that in Latin?”
“In Latin? Why?
“Because he wants it in Latin.”
“You know Latin’s a dead language, right? Why does he want it in Latin?”
“I guess he thinks it looks classier or something.”
“Let me think about it. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”
I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t translated any Latin since my dissertation almost thirty years ago. I didn’t remember “Get out of my face” in Ovid, Virgil, or Julius Caesar. So I did what any college professor not wanting to let his son down would have done. I Googled “English to Latin translation” and had it in a couple of minutes.
“Hey guy, it’s me. Got a pen and paper?”
“Just a second. Okay, shoot.”
“Adepto ex meus visio.”
“Can you spell that?”
“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o.”
“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o?”
“Thanks, Dad. Talk to you later.”
Caleb spent his high school years with his mother and I didn’t see him much. He loaded up on body piercings and tattoos. When he and Alisha, his wife of two months, moved from Colorado to Rhode Island a number of years ago, looking for a fresh start, and settled into our half-finished basement with two cats and two dogs, I didn’t know what to expect. His work ethic was impressive. Alisha brought out a tender and emotional side of Caleb I’d never seen. Who was this guy? One day he opened up about how tough his years with his mother had been. In response to my wondering why he never asked to come back and live with Jeanne and me, he said “I didn’t think you’d want me.”
Recently he told me about a conversation he had with someone who has been at my house frequently but doesn’t know me very well.
“The last two times I was there your Dad was playing Christian music. Is he becoming a religious fanatic? A Jesus freak or something?”
“Dad plays music he likes wherever it comes from. He likes classical music and Led Zeppelin too. He’s definitely not becoming a religious fanatic. Trust me, I know my Dad.”
And I’ve come to know Caleb too. I embrace the man he’s become (virtually—we seldom do hugs). It seems like just yesterday that he bought out his partner at the tattoo shop and launched his solo career in skin design, but it has actually been several years. From the outset, Caleb’s shop has reflected the man. His hero Leonidas from the movie 300—“TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL!”—looms on a poster over the tattoo chair, where Caleb turns a canvas of flesh into art of astounding beauty and creativity, with a delicate touch and grace bordering on the other-worldly. That’s my son.
“Caleb, that butterfly tattoo you did is unbelievable.”
“Oh, you like that one? I just put that one on the website a few days ago.”
“It’s incredible—the detail, the flowers, the color. With the way you did the shadows under the stems and the left wing, it looks like the butterfly’s flying off of her skin. It’s gorgeous. What’s that darker area over to the right?
“That’s her butt crack.”
I’m so proud.