Once, when I was in second grade, my grandpa came to Dallas for a surprise visit. He and my grandmother lived in Massachusetts, so we didn't get to see them very often. For some reason, my second grade class had recess at the end of the day, and I happened to round the school building at one point and saw my mom standing with him in front of the school to pick us up.
I was completely surprised but fairly sure it was him, so I waved to make sure and they both waved back. I ran as fast as I could to ask my teacher if I could leave early, but she said 'no,' so I got down like a track runner in the starting blocks to wait out those last two minutes. I think I remember my friends telling me to come play, but I wouldn't. When Ms. Linden finally said we could go, I bolted. I've never in my life tried harder to run faster than I did in that moment.
I think that's the best example of why my grandpa was my favorite person: I've never loved anyone more than that or been more excited to see anyone. Maybe I'm supposed to love my parents the most, but they got me in trouble for all kinds of things, and he never did.
He was well-read and whimsical, and he had theories for everything, but one of my favorite things about him was that I felt like he was the only adult who didn’t talk down to me. He got on my level, of course, but I always felt like he cared what I had to say.
On one of his rare visits, he mentioned constellations at the dinner table for some reason. I didn't know what they were, so he pulled out one of the pens he always had in his shirt pocket and drew Orion on a napkin. We went outside after dinner and found it in the sky; that's most of the reason why Orion was my first tattoo.
I'd always follow him outside when he went out to smoke, and he'd start the same exchange every time:
"What do you think?"
Then, he'd think of things to talk about or ask me until my mom made me come back inside. I always wanted to be as near to him as I could. He died 20 years ago this fall when I was a freshman in high school, and my biggest regret is that I never got to talk to him as an adult. I'm convinced he'd still be my favorite person. But maybe it's because I never knew him as an adult that he never lost his hero status.
Of course he was a flawed human like everyone else, but I don't think there's any use in remembering him "accurately" – to find out all about his failures and shortcomings. His memory—the way I remember him—is one of the last threads that connect me to that seven-year-old's wholehearted love, trust, excitement, acceptance and feeling of safety. It's not the same written out into words, but I hope you know that feeling. These days, getting to play with my friends’ kids is the next best thing, which is why I love them so much.
I'd never claim that my life has been harder than anyone else's, but it feels like most of my post-adolescent life has been marked by melancholy, sadness, disappointment and rejection. Things are good right now and getting better, so I don't want to sound like a sad sack, but I want to remember, always, that day in second grade, running as fast as I possibly could to my pawpaw’s arms.
I knew that he had studied Hebrew, and I've had one of his books on the subject for years. I finally started reading it a couple months ago, and it was all about the word CHESED (the middle word above), which means kindness. The forward of the book mentioned Micah 6:8, which I confirmed with my mom was my grandpa’s favorite verse:
"He has told you, O man, what is good. For what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
That gave me the idea to get a tattoo of JUSTICE, KINDNESS, HUMILITY in Hebrew characters. A friend of mine just happened to be taking Hebrew in grad school, and he helped me with the wording. I’ve done calligraphy off and on for years and wanted to do the design myself, so I spent many, many hours and late nights over a couple weeks knocking the rust off. I doubt I'll ever learn to speak Hebrew, but it turns out the characters are a ton of fun to draw.
Even though Michael was a big help, I wanted to make doubly sure that it didn’t accidentally say "Happy Falafel Kittens" or something, so I found a professional Hebrew tattoo translator/spell checker online and paid her $30 to check the design for me. She had me change JUSTICE to a different form of the word that has a nicer meaning (more social justice than court justice), and here is the final result. As always, the lovely Joi Bailey did the stabbing and I'm super happy with how it turned out:
Postscript: You may not like tattoos, and you have every right not to get any, but I'd ask you to examine why they offend you (if they do).
The verse in Leviticus that tells the Israelites not to get tattoos is the same verse that tells them not to shave their temples. God was teaching the newly freed Israelites to be a people set apart from the Egyptians whom they'd been living amongst for 400 years. So if you don't also get indignant over people shaving their heads, you're not defending the Bible, you're just trying to use it to bolster your own opinion. And without a Biblical argument, all that's left are opinions, which are usually worth about two cents apiece.
The late Anthony Bourdain once said something like, "One more tattoo won't make me any cooler...it's just one more dent in a beat-up old car."
I like that. I'm ashes and dust, and my tattoos and nose ring don't set me apart from either the world or the church in my present context. As far as I'm concerned, it's an amoral issue and not even particularly interesting. What should, however, set me apart from the "Egyptians" are these: JUSTICE, KINDNESS, HUMILITY. It's sad that these things are now countercultural, but a positive rebellion is one I can get behind. Shalom.