The parking lot at my son's graduation is a sea of motorcycles: black, yellow, loud, smoke-belching, flame-adorned, sparkling with chrome so bright you have to look away.
Far from the dappled shade of any Ivy League campus, this blazing blacktop belongs to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, a sprawling complex of freshly whitewashed, warehouse-size buildings with red and blue accent lines. Inside are classrooms, labs, and mock repair shops for the students who, like my son, Alex, study to become certified in the assembly and repair of motorcycles.
My husband carefully steers our rented Nissan through the parking lot, searching for an empty spot among all the motorcycles. Hiding behind my dark sunglasses, I look around at the other parents and friends in their halter tops and jeans, scarf shirts, sleeveless T-shirts, and turquoise bracelets. And tattoos, of course, lots and lots of them: roses, serpents, spiders, geometric patterns, and sunbursts, brightly colored explosions of red, blue, and green.
Feeling out of place
We, on the other hand, are just in from Maryland, and I'm wearing a linen pantsuit and white shirt, my husband sports his standard short-sleeve button-down with pressed khakis, and my daughter has on a J. Crew polo shirt and hip-hugger pants. With our sickly winter-white skin, we look as if we've just been released from an extended hospital stay. We have no tattoos, not even a cute little ankle flower.
Today is ostensibly a celebration, but I've been churning with that familiar stew of hope, love, embarrassment, and worry that has generally ruled my relationship with my son for most of his 29 years, since well before his attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) diagnosis when he was eight. Just two months ago, when I thought that, with this impending graduation, he had finally outgrown his penchant for derailing my dreams for his life, it happened again. The news came in a phone call: "Mom, guess what? I'm going to become a tattoo artist."
I sat down, stunned. "But what about all your motorcycle training?" I said. "The months of hard work, the classes, the chance for a well-paying job. You're throwing all that away?"
"I've decided that tattooing will be my full-time job," he said happily. "And my band, of course. Music and art, those are the things I love. Working on bikes, well, that's what I'll do when I need to make some extra money."
Disappointment clogged my throat. How could he change his mind again? And then I turned the disappointment inward. Stupid me - I'd actually allowed myself to get excited about this, his motorcycle certification. Granted, a motorcycle mechanic son may not sound like nirvana to some parents. But in our case, I felt it was Alex's best chance for a "career" and to become self-supporting.
Life on his terms
Alex has spent most of his life poking, pushing, and prying open commonly accepted norms of behavior in hopes of finding a place for himself. Ever since he was old enough to race his tricycle down the sidewalk, with such abandon that neighbors grabbed their children out of his way, Alex has been living life on his own terms. And I, as the single mother I was for much of his childhood, have often been pushed to my limit trying to raise him and, with what energy was left, his younger sister, while working full-time as a public relations executive to support us.
In middle school, Alex clashed with teachers about his black and red hair, flying shirttails, and intermittent attendance. He was bright and wild with energy for anything but the classroom. He taught himself to play guitar, bass, saxophone, and drums, created noisy basement bands, and wrote volumes of music and lyrics.
When he wasn't making music he was drawing - birds, fish, flowers - with fine detail. I hung his drawings in my office, and dreamed of the day he would be able to channel his intellect and creativity positively, to become the kind of artist whose canvases would hang in real galleries.
Instead, he started making a canvas of himself. At 17, Alex had the word "unity" tattooed on his upper arm. He never asked my permission, and when I saw it, I told him it made him look like a punk. He said it reflected his stand on "race, equality, and acceptance" - a touching sentiment, perhaps, but despite his call for acceptance, it was a little hard for me to accept.