My illustrated son

Virgil sang 'of arms and the man.' But he never dreamed of the arms one soldier returned home with.

By

Forty years ago as I sat in Sister Agnes Clare's fourth-period Latin class translating Virgil's "Aeneid," little did I dream that words from that epic war poem would one day come in handy in reading my son's arms.

Words like bellum and pacem. "War" and "peace." Two of the six in the Latin phrase a tattoo artist inked on Roman's forearms during a stop on his way home to San Diego after 15 months with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq.

His decision to join the Army after high school two years ago had come as a surprise. Now I was staring at another one.

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"Well, Mom, what do you think?" Roman grinned, butting the knuckles of both hands up against each other so I could see the entire line of inch-high letters that stretched in front of me from left to right. Si vis pacem, it said from elbow to wrist on his right arm. Para bellum, from wrist to elbow on the other.

We were standing in the luggage claim area of the airport where only a few minutes earlier I'd wrapped my own alphabet-free arms around him in a long and happy "welcome home" hug.

"What do I think? Well, uh," I stammered. "It's definitely, uh...." There were several words I could have used to finish that sentence diplomatically. "Latin" was one. "Blue" was another. I gulped, and settled for "interesting." After all, how many mothers' sons have the subjunctive clause in "If you wish for peace, prepare for war" punctuated by a wristwatch?

Unlike a lot of moms in this well-to-do suburb where Roman grew up, I am, for the most part, OK with tattoos. A tasteful rose here. A discreet eagle there. These days tattoos are much more mainstream than when I got mine back in the mid-70s on a dare from my younger sister.

Though we were both old enough to know better, she got one that day, too. The reason? Our shared realization that if there had ever been a contest for the "Person Most Unlikely to Get a Tattoo," the two of us would have tied for first place.

"OK then. Let's do it!" my 20-something sister giggled. The memory is with me still, as is the small heart in a place few people see. A labor-room nurse, however, did comment on it encouragingly hours before Roman was born: "Good for you, sweetie."

So why am I less than enthusiastic about Roman's "tat," as he calls it?

Maybe because it can't be covered up, like mine, with a pair of sensible underpants. From now on, anyone who sits across from him in short-sleeve weather will at some point have to process the "headline" that is part of him now. The headline in 60-point type. The headline that never changes.

And I worry that people will prejudge him. That they won't look beyond his limbs to discover that, in addition to being partially illustrated, he is also smart, funny, generous, creative, and complex. They won't get to know the dude who planted an herb garden on the side of the house for his mom, and who also designed her website. The brother who talks of surprising his older sister with a plane ticket so she can visit him in Europe, where his division is still based. The guy who ended his e-mails home with the word "Peace" at a time when his job involved machine guns and the mean streets of Baghdad.

Channel-surfing the other night, I came across a segment about a prison program that helps convicted felons become better dads. The camera panned their rough faces as they read books aloud into tape recorders, bedtime stories that would eventually be shared, via cassette players, with their children. But each time the camera pulled back from pages filled with big red dogs or cats in hats, I couldn't help noticing that all the hands that held those books were topped by tattooed forearms.

That's the kind of stereotype my son has given himself to dispel. As if life isn't challenging enough already.

But what's done is done.

"Look at it this way: at least he still has arms. Considering where he's been, we should be grateful for that," my husband says from the pillow next to mine the first night Roman's home.

He's right. It's all a matter of perspective. Specialist Diaz, I'm sure, would agree that wars have a way of changing our view of the world and our own place in it. For him, the tattoo could very well be an indelible reminder of that.

As for me, the past months and days have illustrated, more clearly than ever, what a mixed bag life can be, with its hopes and disappointments, worries and relief, heartaches and joys - both little and large.

The ancients probably had a special word for all that. Four decades after high school Latin, I'll be darned if I can remember it. But Sister Agnes Clare would be pleased to know that the opening line of Virgil's epic war poem has stayed with me all this time.

"I sing of arms and the man," the tale of the warrior Aeneas began. And as the mother of a soldier home at last, I decide that that's what I'll do, too.

Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written several articles for the Monitor about her son's military service, including: 'A Baghdad Christmas' and 'A Soldier's Hope Deferred.'

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