The Tattooed Child

The Tattooed Child

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Tattooed Child

What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?

George Eliot

It is impossible to tell what a casual observer in the waiting room at the clinic in the children’s hospital might expect to see. The reason for this is that no one ever comes here just casually to observe. Here, people bring gravely ill children for treatment. But, as I found out, what I observe and what others, my small daughter included, see here are not necessarily the same things.

I had brought my six-year-old daughter, Elli, to the hospital to have a specialist check out a birthmark. It wasn’t in a noticeable place, wasn’t life-threatening, but the pediatrician just felt that it should be watched. So, once a year, I brought Elli here. The birthmark was one of those small imperfections that cause mothers such as I to walk out of places like the children’s hospital grateful—very grateful.

On this particular visit, the doctor was running far behind schedule. Elli and I settled down with a book to wait our turn. Elli also took some markers and paper to draw on while I read to her. I looked around the room. I noticed that the walls were brightly painted—cheerful without being cloying. In some places, the pictures were of animals—true-to-life ones, not cartoons. They were all families, I saw, parents nurturing their young in various poses of play and rest. Other pictures were of sports figures, silhouettes caught in midmovement—active, vibrant, joyful.

The room itself is divided into several stations to accommodate children of all ages and interests. There is a music-listening area with headphones and a wide selection of CDs. There is an art area complete with clay, paints, markers and other art supplies. And there is a reading area. The chairs, I noticed, are big and comfortable— large enough to accommodate two adult figures cuddled close. The reason for this, I learned, is that children of all ages like to be read to. This is especially true when the child is undergoing a painful treatment. Reading gives them a respite.

I learned this from Anthony. And I learned some other things as well.

When Anthony first walked in, I instinctively moved closer to Elli. He was big—over six feet tall, very muscular and generally intimidating. His head was shaved and he wore several earrings in various places—both ears, his nose, his eyebrow. His black jacket, slung over the back of the chair, had some insignia on it, but the symbol did not mean much to me. His jeans were faded and torn. On one arm was a huge tattoo from his knuckles to his shoulders. Anthony was imprinted with a giant, coiling snake. Its fangs and tongue ended just over his ring finger. After surveying the room, he chose one of the large reading chairs close to us. He made me very uncomfortable.

But my daughter had no such inhibitions. She started a conversation with Anthony, asking him all kinds of questions: “Why do you wear earrings? Did it hurt to have your nose pierced? Why do you have the snake on your arm?” I moved to take her away, thinking that what Anthony did was his own business and that he probably did not like the intrusion of an inquisitive six-year-old.

But Anthony looked at Elli and calmly answered her: “I thought they looked good. Everybody I know did it. And yes, it did hurt to have everything pierced. I thought the snake looked tough.”

Then, Elli asked Anthony the one question I did not want to know the answer to: “Why are you here?”

Anthony was not offended. He said, “The medicine they give me for my sickness hurts. Today, they are giving me something for the pain.”

“Good,” said Elli. “I hope it works fast.” I did, too.

Then I opened Charlotte’s Web, one of her favorite books, and began reading to her. Elli’s six-year-old imagination loved talking animals, ones who were sensitive and caring. Anthony closed his eyes. I thought he was trying to sleep, so I suggested to Elli that we read elsewhere.

But then I learned why Anthony had chosen to sit near us. He said, “No, please read here—to me.” I did.

The time went by, and we were so caught up in the book that I did not notice that my creative daughter had found an unusual outlet for her drawing. On the other side of her new friend, while his eyes had been closed, Elli had been drawing on his other arm with her markers. Now to my horror, I saw that this young man’s left arm was completely covered with red, green and blue hearts and flowers!

“Elli!” I said loudly. “I don’t think Anthony is going to like that. You’ll have to wash that off for him right away!” I was more than a little afraid of what this big, tough stranger might say or do to my little girl.

But Anthony hadn’t been sleeping. He opened his eyes. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. Please could you read more? It . . . helps me.”

And then I saw what my daughter saw—Anthony wasn’t any different from any of the other children in that room who were in pain, who had come for treatment, except for one thing. It wasn’t his size or his dress or even his scary tattoo that made him different. No, what set him apart, I realized, was that he didn’t have a mother there to read to him. And he needed one.

Elli was called in for her appointment. I stayed and read to another woman’s child, one with a tattoo on one arm and a six-year-old’s drawing on the other.

When it was time for us to go, Anthony smiled at us and said thank you. He seemed to feel better. I thought for a minute about what had just happened. I had approached Anthony with fear. He looked so tough, so different from me and anyone Elli and I had ever known. And maybe I also was afraid of him because I wasn’t ready to let my daughter know that there are serious diseases in the world, diseases that cause pain, that may or may not be treatable. That was information I wanted to protect her from for as long as I could.

But Elli hadn’t seen any of that. She had only seen another child in that hospital setting, one who, like her, enjoyed being read to. And one who liked drawings on his arm.

I guess what you see depends a lot on what it is you’re looking for.

Elli smiled and said good-bye to her friend. And even though I knew perfectly well how to get to the elevator, I took my daughter’s outstretched hand and let her lead the way.

Marsha Arons

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