Taking my shots in game of life
VISITS TO INDIA require preparation months beforehand. Plane tickets, passports and vaccinations are the big three. I was still young enough, in the summer between high school and college, to have my parents arrange all of those for me. But they couldn't take the needles on my behalf. So my mom took me down to the local Kaiser Permanente.
I can't remember a time in my life when I've been less comfortable. This isn't to blame Kaiser; everyone was competent and professional. But there was the waiting, and the pinch of the needle, and the time of year. I've never liked summer, and that one seemed gratuitously hot. I sweated under the sun, and under my mother's gaze, hoping and praying that she wouldn't discover that I was going out with a boy.
I'd been as careful as any spy I could imagine. But then, visiting the women's restroom during a double date, I found out that I was marked for discovery. My counterpart, washing her hands and fixing her makeup, notified me that I had a hickey on the left side of my neck.
Noticing my panic, she advised me to hide a spoon in the freezer and to press it on the bruise at intervals to keep the swelling down. I did, religiously. I also tried to arrange my shirts and my ear-length hair to cover it. But I couldn't plausibly wear turtlenecks in 90-degree heat, and it looked a bit awkward for me to walk around the house with my head tilted nearly to my shoulder.
A few days later, the other shoe dropped. My mother and I were sitting in the living room, folding clothes fresh and uncomfortably hot from the dryer, when my mother asked, "Sumana, what is that mark on your neck?"
It's a good thing I could blame my sweat on the heat. I babbled something about a bug bite I'd gotten at the county fair, but my mother remained concerned.
Now I was at the doctor's office. I had blood drawn for routine tests, and recited the dates of historical events to distract myself. (Only later in life did I hit upon singing ritual Hindu chants, which calms me much more effectively.) I got jabs for hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, tetanus, diseases whose very names scare me. But in retrospect none of that was nerve-wracking.
Because, of course, my mother asked the nurse who'd vaccinated me to look at the mark on my neck.
I gibbered that it was a bug bite and looked, pleading, at the nurse. She saw the desperation in my eyes.
And, in the most generous act I've ever seen at an HMO, she said to my mother that it was a harmless insect bite, and would go away on its own in a few days, though ointment might help.
Forget Schweitzer, forget Teresa. I want to build a hospital wing in honor of that deceptive, wonderful woman.
The hickey went away. The guy and I broke up, then got back together, then broke up again. We saw each other for the last time in a fast-food place near my house, on the day I left for college. I thought about confessing to my mom in the car, but didn't — my best friend wisely persuaded me that it would accomplish nothing. The next day, I watched, along with a bunch of students from my new dorm, a speech by President Clinton in which he admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, I saw no parallels at all.
That winter, I went to India with my mom and admitted to her the new boyfriend I had, the one I'd met in college. She took it well, and revealed that she'd known I was going out with that other guy over the summer, the one who already seemed so long-gone.
Maybe my mother always knew the tiny stash of boy stuff that I tried to keep secret. Maybe she allowed me that small rebellion as a vaccination against really dangerous wildness or complete ignorance of that aspect of grown-up life.
You can give a kid her passport and her tickets, but she has to take the needles herself.
Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at