I found Mom sitting outside crying this morning.
Dad recently died, and she’s been adrift without him. To be honest, we’re all struggling to find our footing in this new reality. However, that’s not the point of this tale … or maybe it is.
“Danny, what’s that on your ankle?” my wife, Laura, asked our fifteen-year-old son as he walked barefoot across the patio. Panic washed over his face and settled in with a frozen, awkward grin. He first looked at Laura, as if trying to devise an answer, then to his older sister who was staring at him with an uh-oh expression.
“Gotta blast!” Katie Jo exclaimed as she launched out of her chair and abandoned her little brother to his fate.
With an impressive amount of nonchalance, Danny confessed. “It’s a tattoo.”
“Oh, wow,” Laura smiled, surely recalling the innocent joy of press-on tattoos from Cracker Jack boxes. “That’s cool. It looks real.”
“Probably because it is real,” Danny replied. His widened eyes and downturned grin revealed a comedic confidence.
“No it’s not,” Laura argued.
“Yes, Mom, it is,” Danny laughed.
“Let me see.”
Danny put his foot on the armrest of Laura’s chair and my wife, the veterinary surgeon, began investigating the inked image of a boat anchor with her knowing fingers.
“Danny!” she cried. “What the heck? That’s real!”
Indeed, it was real, just like the tattoo on his wrist he’d kept hidden beneath his watch band.
“Danny,” I asked, “who would be dumb enough to give a fifteen-year-old kid a tattoo?”
A look of pride blossomed in his face, rendering the answer unnecessary. “Me,” he grinned.
And there it was. With one word, my teenage son pointed out the source of all my stress, anxiety, and frustration in life: Me … and my insistence on having everything under control.
In Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou writes, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Indeed, life happens, and often in spite of our best efforts.
As I stared slack-jawed at Danny’s tattoos, all the effort I’d poured into guiding and nurturing my adventurous son snapped back like a rubber band and walloped me right across the face.
I’d taught Danny about responsibility, respect and empathy for others, sex, drugs, education … (the list is endless). However, not once did I ever think to tell him …
“Danny, someday you’re going to download an app on your phone that lets you watch ads to earn Amazon credit. You might then feel like searching for something to buy, and you could possibly come across a really cool tattoo gun and ink kit. You might want to order that kit, hide it in your bedroom when it arrives, and stay up late one night—when your parents think you’re studying for a test—and have prison-style craft time while tatting yourself up. But—listen to me—when you have those ideas, I’m telling you now … DON’T!”
I suppose we can never prepare for what we can’t even imagine.
However, we can prepare ourselves to respond in ways that strengthen (rather than diminish) ourselves and the people we love.
“Embrace the chaos, man.”
My buddy says that to me all the time, mostly because he knows how this recovering control freak struggles with that notion.
I’ll confess: I’m the guy who once mapped out a plan for every detail in my life, weighed every option and possible outcome, and refused to take a single step forward until all variables were secured under my thumb.
Then we had kids.
Being a dad has delivered an odd sort of freedom into my life. Through many trials and tribulations, I’ve slowly surrendered my banner of control.
I only wish I’d done it sooner.
Dear ones, we grow up believing that—with age—we’ll learn to gain more and more control over our lives. However, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Life is actually one long journey of unlearning and letting go. I’ve wasted so much precious time and energy trying to control an uncontrollable world when I should’ve been embracing the adventure of life … and teaching my kids to do the same.
My kids are all adults now—even Danny made it!—and if I could give one piece of advice to young people, it’s this:
Stop raging against an unpredictable world that will always remain beyond your control.
We need to give ourselves (and each other) permission to NOT have everything nailed down and embedded in concrete. You can never cover all the bases. There’s no way I could have ever prevented Danny’s clandestine tat-shop or Dad’s death; and it’s not enough for me to just accept it. I have to embrace it.
Embrace the chaos, indeed.
Over the years, Danny’s DIY tats have faded, but the lesson remains: life’s uncontrollable storms can take you out to sea … or they can anchor you to your better self, the self your loved ones need, the person who can adapt, make course corrections, and live joyfully in spite of a wild world that will never bow to your command.
The choice is yours.
I know what I’m choosing. I’m going to publish this piece and go play dominoes with Mom.
I’m going to #EmbraceTheChaos and provide an anchor of love.
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