Let Your Kid Get a Tattoo

Tattoo shops have a certain intimidating charm. Despite Rancid and Disturbed (punctuated, thankfully, by the occasional and soothing Pearl Jam or Green Day tune) piped in through the sound system, they are orderly (even if Arizona has virtually no oversight or regulation — most of this state's few laws relate to age) and oddly serene. The artists are not just coolly aloof; they're quiet and focused. You get the feeling that nothing much impresses them, which is somehow reassuring — and ironic. I mean, don't most people get tattoos to impress others?

Certainly, my 16-year-old son's tattoo impresses his friends. Zach hears a lot of "Is that real?" and "Your parents let you do that?!" Even the 50-ish nurse who drew blood for his workup the other day turned his wrist to have a better look and said, "Wow. This is really cool." The doctor cast no aspersions but worried that an EMT might not notice or read it, what with tattoos being so common.

Zach has type 1 diabetes.

He was diagnosed at the beginning of seventh grade. Per his endocrinologist's orders, I bought Zach a bracelet, which he didn't like. I ordered him a personalized dog tag, but he didn't like wearing that, either. He does wear a bright blue insulin pump that is about the size of a deck of cards and is attached to his body by a subcutaneous port and tubing, so he's constantly fielding questions. A middle school teacher even tried to confiscate the pump, assuming it was a cell phone.

I'm the one who suggested a tattoo — as a joke. But at the diabetes camp Zach attends every year (where all the campers and the counselors have type 1 diabetes), he noticed that some of the counselors did have tattoos. "Lame ones," he said. But still.

Zach's endocrinologist, who is a rock star in our lives, told me in the early stages of Zach's diagnosis, "This is your disease. Zach is going to have to manage it for the rest of his life. You need to manage it now."

Dr. H said that "rest of his life" part with such genuine sadness and as soon as he said it, I could see his mind backspacing. He tried to reassure me that he really believes there can be a cure in Zach's lifetime, maybe in as few as 15 years.

But Dr. H realizes that hope doesn't change the reality of now. And for right now, Zach's life pretty much sucks.

I mean, if your kid's going to have a disease, type 1 diabetes is not the worst deal. Before we knew for sure what was wrong with him — drastic weight loss, lethargy, dark circles under his eyes — I worried, of course, that Zach was dying. Leukemia. And then when he was admitted to Phoenix Children's for five days, I saw those kids being wheeled around with their big eyes and bald heads.

So we live with this instead, along with what I think is a pretty healthy dose of perspective. Still, in arguments, Zach knows he can win with a final, "At least your pancreas works!" And we know that the "betes," as we call it, is a tricky disease for a kid. He has a lot to figure out: low blood sugars and driving; high blood sugars and their awful side effects; compromised immune system; alcohol; diet; weight (it's actually really easy for diabetics to get skinny by under-dosing or withholding their insulin).

Zach's not-under-my-roof father, who thinks tattoos are stupid, period, was vehemently opposed to Zach getting one. But Zach changed his mind. He wanted one. And the more he talked about it, the more convinced I became that if he wanted one, I wanted him to have one.

A friend of a friend is a tattoo artist, and she is gentle and kind, so I asked her advice. Andra doesn't like to tattoo kids, but she was also open to Zach's particular story. She counseled us to think about it. We looked at drawings and medical ID tats online. Zach was right; they were all super-lame, or at least uninspired and utilitarian. Who wants a tattoo like that? After about a year of wearing him down, Zach received his father's unenthusiastic blessing; we commissioned Andra to draw up some designs and set a date.

"You're a terrible mother," my sister-in-law pronounced while my brother commented on the drawings. She meant it but loves me anyway. Someone else I know pulled me aside and gave me a stern talking-to. "I don't understand why you're letting him do this now. Wait until he's 18 and he knows what he wants."

As if 18 were a magical age when all is revealed to us. I'm 40 and don't know what the hell I want! "With all due respect," I said, "parent your own kids."

Andra dug designing Zach's tattoo. She really listened to him and did some research on her own. After we arrived at the shop, she painstakingly redesigned it to Zach's specifications. Then he spent hours in the chair — the inside of the forearm is a relatively pain-free zone — as she outlined and shaded and perfected.

Remember those coolly aloof tattoo artists? Each one stopped by Andra's chair to watch the work in progress and, uncharacteristically — tattoo artists are stingy with praise — complimented her design. Each one made eye contact and conversation with Zach. Not one asked him a single question about his disease. Not one.

So, even if an EMT doesn't "read" Zach's tattoo, it's already done its job. He has always been a really cool kid — so much more than a defective pancreas — and if this bright green snake on his arm deflects attention from the bright blue pump on his hip, right on.

Andra charged us $150 for Zach's tattoo. His insulin pump, which isn't covered by insurance, cost two grand. He knows this tattoo means that he probably won't be seeing those new EMG 81/85 pickups for his electric Epiphone. Zach told me that he and his friend Frisco are changing the concept for their band anyway; they want to start playing more acoustic and blues. The "betes" blues? Ah, teenagers. So much to lament.

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Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker