I have a question I always ask phlebotomists, and I always get the same response.
As the hospital worker tightens that rubber snake around my arm, swabs my popping vein with alcohol and preps the needle for insertion, I ask: Who faints more in your experience, men or women? And the phlebotomist replies, “men.” And then we discuss the reason this is so. And the pair of us always stop short of saying, Well, if women fainted at the sight of blood, they’d be unconscious for several days at a stretch on a monthly basis! And wouldn’t that suck! HA HA HA HA HA!
Friday morning, I was having a routine (non-scary) blood draw. The phlebotomist was a lovely young Indian woman with a kind and comprehending face. As she strapped and swabbed and prepped, I asked my usual question, and she answered the usual way. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn toward the profound.
In a jokey mood, I said: Women can’t be squeamish, can’t we?
The phlebotomist smiled knowingly, then slid the needle into my arm, inserting a vial.
I added: What with childbirth, and everything. There’s no passing out, or we’re in trouble!
She smiled again. “We are lucky,” she said. “When we give birth, when we have a child, we have a second life.”
A second life? I hadn’t thought of it that way, I said. But you’re right. Our lives expand when we give birth.
“Not just our own life any longer. When we have a child, we have a second.”
Swapping out the full vial for an empty one, she added: “We have many lives. Sister, mother, wife, daughter.” And again: “We are lucky.”
And sitting there in a large teaching hospital, tourniquet on my arm, red stuff spilling into a little plastic tube, I almost wept. I didn’t. But almost.
I know what you mean, I said. I have so many lives. With each new person I love, I have another life.
She nodded. I kept talking. I couldn’t shut up.
I have three kids, I said. My husband died a few years ago, but my life didn’t stop. I didn’t stop. Because I had my children’s lives, too. Not just mine. Theirs. And everyone else I love, too. It just keeps going. It just keeps growing.
She slipped out the needle. Whipped a piece of gauze into the crook of my arm. Taped it over.
I watched her, thinking about the gift of loving another person. Each instance of love, whether it yields a baby or a bond of friendship or a quiet act of charity, takes us out of ourselves. It gives us something better, something bigger, than just those endlessly navel-gazing disconsolate selves. It gives us others, their ways of seeing and feeling and being, and we learn to see and feel and be with them. And that’s the best and only rebuttal to death and its scruffy wayward cousin, fear of living.
“Always, new life,” the phlebotomist said.