tattoo thoughts on thanksgiving

Posted: November 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

Earlier this month I had my annual “skin check” with a new-to-me dermatologist.  Getting checked yearly is important after having a melanoma removed, though I can’t say truthfully that I’ve been greatly faithful to do so over the years. There was a long stretch of time when I was without health insurance and battling to keep up with bills and it didn’t feel like I could afford it…so I didn’t.  I recall the somewhat angry dismay of my first dermatologist appointment after that – how the doctor shook his head upon realizing how long since my last check, and commented ruefully, “Well, at least you’re not dead.”

I recall my first skin check, which was just a couple of weeks after the original melanoma removal.  My doctor, the G.P. who had handled all of my health issues for the preceding 15 or so years, had performed that surgery, and had instructed me afterward that at our next appointment, “We are going to count all of your freckles and moles, measure them all, and map them out on paper.”  This would be a full-body check.  I was mortified – I don’t do nudity well, period.  I thought I was being pretty brave about it, and didn’t realize how bothered I was until I was sitting in the exam room, waiting for him to come in and talk to me.  It was a warm , brilliantly sunny day in early fall, and in that moment I stopped to assess what I was wearing.  My tallest socks.  My heaviest sweats.  My biggest hoodie – with the hood pulled up over my head and halfway down over my face, and my hands pulled up inside the sleeves and stuffed into the pockets.  I was practically curled into a fetal position in the chair, as I waited.  Suddenly “seeing” myself, at last I fully understood the level of my dread, which I had been suppressing while telling myself continually and sternly, “You’ll be fine.”

The skin check didn’t take as long as I had thought it might.  It turned out the doctor was overwhelmed, upon seeing how many freckles and moles I had.  “There are hundreds!” he sighed, and gave up on measuring and mapping them out on paper, choosing instead to just look me over carefully.  I survived the indignity, and there was no new bad news.

This time around, I surprised my new dermatologist, as I ended our session with a question:  “Can I get a tattoo?”

I explained to her that the spot where the melanoma was removed is a problem with others.  I am thrilled at how it came out – right after the surgery, it had looked like someone took an ice cream scoop and just dug out a scoop of my arm about an inch deep.  It was a horrible crater in my arm, and the doctor had said with delight that the skin graft from my thigh had “taken” perfectly, but he had also apologized gravely, saying, “This area will never fill in.”  I hadn’t known the level of my vanity until I faced that moment – I was kind of crushed at the prospect of a 1-inch deep perfect circle of a crater, probably 3 inches across, at the top of my arm.  It looked like some sort of horror show to me, and I struggled not to break out in sobs when he said that.

Within a year or so, though, in defiance of the doctor’s prediction, that spot DID fill in.  The former crater is at perfect level with the rest of my arm, so it just looks like I’m wearing some kind of patch on my arm or something, where the skin is so markedly different and the circle outline is so pronounced.  I am overjoyed that it filled in, and I don’t even mind the scar – it’s a kind of trophy to me.  It’s where cancer didn’t kill me, and I see it only with gratitude.

Others, though, don’t know what to make of it.  When I go sleeveless, it makes people weird.  Oh, there are the awesome people like my daughter in law, who just openly look at it, reach out to touch it, and ask me what it is.  I love those people.  They open a conversation and I get to celebrate what God did for me.

I can even deal with the folks who get it wrong but are at least open, like the father of a guy I was dating once, who asked whether that patch was for birth control, or was I trying to stop smoking.  He’s not the only one that has presumed it was a medicinal patch, but that one was especially awkward, since the guy’s church and my own standards didn’t allow for smoking, nor for me doing things that required birth control.

Others, though, don’t know what to make of it – those nice folks noticing and kind of horrified.  Looking at it but trying not to look at it.  Trying to figure it out, but dead set on me not knowing that they’re noticing it.  If you don’t have any such disfigurement, you may not know how obvious you are when you’re “looking but not looking.”

I have handled this differently over time.  In some seasons, I have gone sleeveless anyway, in a kind of defiance.  In other seasons, I have kept it covered at all times, just not up for the stares and discomfort of strangers, or – worse – of friends.  Sometimes I’ve felt gently forgiving of the awkwardness – slightly humored, even.  Other times I’ve been downright angry about it.

Over the years, a proposed solution has been forming in my mind.  What about a tattoo?  What if I were to turn this scar into the image of my one of my very favorite flowers – a sunflower?  What if I could shift it from a disfigurement to something people are open in looking at and asking about and even celebrating?

I kept pushing the idea aside, my reason being that in my life I have changed my life greatly about so many things, to such severe degrees.  What if I got a tattoo and later decided it was a bad idea?  Better to not take the chance, I thought sometimes.

(If you’re wondering whether my faith entered into my reservations – not so much.  I wear mixed fabrics, which is a no-no in the same area of scripture that bans tattoos.  I don’t wear a head covering, which is a directive in there somewhere for the ladies.  And – more importantly – the tattooing that is forbidden is a ritual thing that was done for the dead, not just decorating for fun.  If you disagree with that, I understand…but it’s where I am on the subject.  I have no beef with tattoos.)

Also, I knew I couldn’t do it right away – that the surgical site probably needed many years to heal before I could even consider it.  Somewhere around the mark of 10 years post-surgical, I began to read up to see whether the area even would take a tattoo.  My research seemed to reveal that there had probably been enough time – even skin that has been  severely burned will take a tattoo, after enough time, with a skilled enough artist.

Then I had to work up the nerve to ask – I figured it was only wisdom, under my circumstances, to get the okay first. I set my mind to ask at this appointment.  Early in the exam, I almost decided not to ask, as I noted how closely the doctor and her assistant examined that area – how they measured the one freckle I have in the midst of that circle, how the doctor used many descriptive words for the record in my file, how carefully the assistant drew a map to document it all.  She wasn’t going to want ink on something she was examining so closely, was she?  I almost didn’t ask.  But then I did, explaining why I wanted it, and actually verbalizing my doubts aloud about the likelihood of her giving it the okay.

She was surprised by the question.  “No one has ever asked me if they could get a tattoo,” she commented.  Really?  Does that surprise any of you as much as it surprised me?!  No one ever asks a doctor first?!  EVER?!!

She went on to say first that they *never* advise anyone getting ink, in general.

Next, she said that if I do, I should not get red – a lot of people react badly to the red, and the process to take care of that is pretty awful.

Finally, she sort of gave her blessing for me to do so anyway.  She advised that only very light-colored ink be used, so that she can still monitor what is happening there.

My idea has been that the circle itself does not need to be colored – just some strategic leaves around its perimeter would turn it into a sunflower, I think.  I guess I have permission now.

This doesn’t mean I’ve decided.  I still have to work myself past the issue of the pain – my son is pretty tatted and I’ve spent time with him right after the process – I see how sore and angry the area always looks.  I know the aftercare is kind of a pain for awhile.  And even if I work up the nerve to do it, I need to come up with the funds for it as well.

Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.  I think both my kids are rooting for the “yes” option – I suspect my son would even gladly enjoy accompanying me for the procedure, though my own very-tatted hubby would fill that role nicely (and yes, he’s enthusiastic about the idea as well.)

Is the subject of getting a tattoo a strange one for a Thanksgiving morning?

Only if you don’t understand my level of gratitude that melanoma didn’t kill me and continues to not show its ugly face again, year after year.

Only if you don’t understand what a victory that perfect circle of a disfigurement is in my life.

Only if you don’t get how fun it is to think about getting the tattoo…or how free it is to be under no pressure to decide anytime soon.

I’m one grateful lady.  What’s weird in YOUR world that you’re grateful for?  I’d love to hear about it.

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