A male nurse in plain blue scrubs tells me to keep my daughter from moving. “Hold her shoulders,” he says. “In case she jerks.” My daughter lies still on the examination table. “Her legs, too.” I lean over her, my body pinning her legs, and put my hands on her shoulders. On the other side of the closed door someone hurries by, heels clicking. A baby wails in a room farther down the hallway. “I’m going to give your arm a hug.” He rolls up her long-sleeved shirt and ties a blue tourniquet above the bicep of her left arm. Her smile wavers. “Can you make a fist?” She curls her hand, thumb on the outside like someone with self-confidence, not thumb tucked inside of fingers like I did as a child. “Such a big girl.” She wonders aloud about the stickers she saw at the nurse’s station. Can she have two? “Of course, sweetheart!” says the nurse. “Take three because you’re three!” She watches the nurse remove a needle from plastic and uncoil plastic tubing. He traces an olive vein with his index finger, and then taps a spot in the crook of her arm. “Who’s your friend?” he asks about the stuffed elephant she’s clutching. Her bottom lip quivers.
“Nelly,” I say. “Smelly Nelly the Elephant.” She looks at the alcohol wipe in his hand. “Look at me,” I say. She does. She’s a good listener sometimes.
“A little discomfort here,” he says.
“You might feel a little sting,” I blurt, but I don’t remember if hearing that—”sting”— will make the pain more endurable or worse. I see the glint of thin metal out of the corner of my eye. Her pupils widen, her eyes moisten—the needle slides in. “It’s okay to look,” I say. We watch silently as blood fills a small glass vial.
Afterward, in her car seat, she studies her arm where the bandage is. “I hurt,” she says.
“You were so brave.” Our eyes meet for a moment in the rearview mirror.
I turn on the radio, find a song that she likes. “Oh darlin’, sweet darlin’,” she sings. We sit in our parked car. I put on my sunglasses for a private cry. She isn’t ill. The blood draw was for a routine test. She’s had a needle in her arm for immunizations—before her long-term memory developed. She has no recollection. My crying only lasts a moment, and then I steady my foolish heart. She doesn’t shed a tear, though. Not one. You don’t need to cry over the small hurts, I’ve told her before. They aren’t worth it. There are so many of them, you’d be crying all day long. Like a piece of gravel trapped in your shoe.
In the rearview mirror, I watch her pry at the corner of her Band-Aid and then put a cat sticker over it. I think about the big hurts, the ones that are coming. Maybe it will be a fall from a tree and the perfect-sounding snap of a collarbone. Or a much-loved grandmother, with hands as frail as a bird’s bones, who suddenly can’t remember the names of her children. Whatever it is, I won’t be able to stop it. She’ll learn that pain is more than discomfort and hurt doesn’t make sense. It will always feel like the early memory of the prick of a needle, piercing the soft flesh of your arm while your mother holds you down.