Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tattoos and Memories

Ever wake up with a pit in your stomach? You did something wrong. You said too much, you drank too much, whatever. This morning I rolled out of my beach house bed, gazed out at the serene ocean, and shook my head as I recalled a late night conversation with my father-in-law.

It happened because I’m on vacation with my in-laws. They’re pretty much the coolest family in the world. My brother Shane, twelve, is a phenomenal athlete and one of the most generous guys I know. Shannon is so clever it’s scary. At fourteen she wields a formidable arsenal of facts and a tongue fast enough unnerve any college professor. My buddy Rachel, sweet as a rose, funny as a comedian, and musically talented enough to play piano on Broadway is sixteen going on twenty-one. And Danielle, beautiful and spunky, I married because she is out of my league in every imaginable way.

Then there’s Dad and Mom O’Grady. Mom is the most like me. She’s a natural leader, she loves people, and she’s much too hard on herself. Her laugh is contagious and her hugs make everything ok. Dad is my hero. He’s strong but not controlling. He takes time off work to attend Shane's ballgames. He's funny, farty, and easy to talk to.

But I, being the foolish son-in-law that I am, offered unsolicited advice about raising his teenage daughter. Really Matt? That seemed like a good idea to you? You don’t remember all the stupid things he let you do while you were dating Danielle? You don’t remember his patience with you as you fumbled around with his world’s most precious treasure, silently waiting for you to get it right? You think you actually have anything to say to him besides a sheepish thank you?

But alas, I opened my mouth in defense of a tattoo. Rachel wants one. She’s sixteen, of course she does. But there’s more to it than that. Tomorrow is the three year anniversary of her older sister Kelly’s tragic death. Four years ago, on their final vacation together, Kelly acquired a small Jesus fish tattoo on or around her foot. Now Ray wants one to commemorate Kelly.

I tell Dad that I think he should let her get one. That Danielle and I will get them with her. He gently explains that Ray is too young, that there are other ways to grieve, that he’ll give Ray a hug, and that she can get one someday. All perfectly rational explanations that make sense this morning.

Unfortunately, last night I wanted to press my point home. So I took an extra minute to restate my case, pointing out the differences between this tattoo request and your average tattoo request. As if he, her father, didn’t know. What a tool I am.

He was still patient with me; he listened. He took time to explain that when you’re a father you have to learn how to stick to your guns, that you have to be willing to be wrong sometimes, and that the best you can do is stand with your convictions and apologize when you mess up.

This morning I woke up mulling over the wisdom of his words and considering the irony of an immature, meddlesome guy like me speaking up to a mature, servant-hearted father of five amazing children. The pit in my stomach was the snarling shame of an exposed fool.

Maybe someday Ray will get a tattoo, and maybe someday I’ll stop trying to control everything. In the meantime I hope Dad O’Grady will forgive me; that’s the only way this pit will go away.


  1. sounds like Dad already forgave you - his patience in listening and discussing this with you shows how much he loves you.

  2. Matt you are so 'articulate' its scary! Yup, know all about the 'I said too much last night' thing ... need to learn to shut up and go to bed!