“Thank you,” Alvin says again. “I have a few dollars. I’m sorry it can’t be more. I just got laid off at the Cumberland Lumberyard. That’s why we’re moving to Torrington, to live with her folks. Had to leave everything but what we could stuff in the car. You’re an angel sent from heaven, Nurse.”
“No, you keep the money. We don’t need it. We’re almost home.”
“Thank you, Angel,” the mother says, and I realize she thinks that’s my name. Angel! Bernice’s eyes are closed and she has the blissful expression of a person who’s just experienced an earthquake or a wildfire and come out alive.
Alvin finds a towel, which we put between the mother’s legs. I show her how to rub her uterus to be sure it stays firm and assist her in getting the infant to the breast. Then I take my coat off the hood of the DeSoto, say good-bye, and go back to the Pontiac to wash my shaking hands with water from a bottle I’d refilled at the last gas station.
“So,” I say to Dr. Blum, dropping back behind the steering wheel, my heart still pounding. “I delivered a baby. Did you see that?” Blum is snoring and drool is running down his chin. I look at him sadly, my once brilliant colleague, now a baby himself.
“You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” I hiss at my charge. “To punish me, and for what? I didn’t have anything to do with your losing your mind.”
The waitress, a bleached blonde, watches through the back window of the Four Leaf Clover Cafe just outside Oneida, West Virginia, and I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass, a small woman with a short light brown bob, an aquiline nose, a pinched mouth, and a puckered brow. Nurse Becky Myers, fallen on hard times.
The doctor just stares at a spot about a foot in front of him, seeing whatever nightmare he imagines or seeing nothing at all. The mountains leer over us, sandstone covered with red maple just budding. I blow out and begin the cleanup.
For more than seven years I worked with Dr. Isaac Blum, as his part-time surgical nurse while I ran the Women and Infants’ Clinic in Liberty, West Virginia. Then, in 1930 when the bottom fell out of the economy and the clinic lost its state funding, I followed him to Perrysville to be his office nurse in the private practice he shared with his brother for another four years.
I’d always admired Blum, the kind of physician who delivered babies, did surgery, made house calls, stayed up all night at the bedside of a sick child, and still saw patients in the office the next morning. He was a brilliant diagnostician and a careful surgeon, with gentle, competent hands.
I’ll admit he wasn’t perfect. He often talked like a professor, used big medical terms that the patients couldn’t understand, and he lacked social skills, but I always smoothed things over. We were a team, and when you face life-or-death together, year in and year out, you form a strong bond.
Now, here I am, a forty-two-year-old registered nurse with an advanced degree in public health, taking care of a grown man who poops his pants, can’t talk, and requires complete care just to survive. Maybe, I sometimes think . . . he doesn’t want to survive.
Blum’s collapse a year ago was a sudden one. After his wife plunged down the bank of the James River and died in that auto crash, it was like someone pulled the plug, and his life force just swirled out of him. It took two days to find her body, trapped under the ice.
I wasn’t a relative or even his lover, but like a good nurse, I took over his full-time care. What else could I do? Watch him starve, or rot away in his own feces? Thinking it was temporary, I moved him into the spare room of my rented apartment and devoted all my time to his recovery. . . . Only he didn’t recover, and we lived on his savings until it ran out. A year of grief later, his brother, Dr. Leonard Blum, senior partner and owner of their two-person practice, finally washed his hands of him.
“For god’s sake, Isaac,” Leonard yelled, the last time we saw him, just two days ago. “I have a living to make and a family to support. You can sit there like a living corpse and starve if you want to, but I can’t carry the practice alone. I’m bringing in another physician.” He slammed the door and roared away in his Packard.
I’d just brought Isaac home from Johns Hopkins (my last hope), where, after studying him for four weeks, the neuro men recommended experimental electrotherapy. They’d shoot a strong current through his brain and hope the pain would jolt him out of his lethargy, but I drew the line at that. (If Blum ever came back and had lost even one brain cell, I’d get the blame.)
Then, just yesterday, our landlady, Mrs. Jenkins, knocked on my door and stood there, her chin up and hands on her hips.
“Nurse Becky,” she said. “You owe three months’ back rent and my patience is as thin as snow in Atlanta. Twenty thousand people in the U.S. are being laid off every day and my husband is one of them. These are hard times, and I’m going to put you out if you can’t pay by Friday. We need the cash.”
I had only forty dollars, not enough for one month’s rent, let alone three. The rest of the doc’s money had gone to Johns Hopkins, but that night, Blum shocked the pants off me. As I was putting him to bed, he spoke for the first time in more than a year.
“Go home.” His voice creaked like a door hinge that needs oiling.
“We are home, here in Perrysville, Virginia.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Other Virginia!”
By this I realized he meant West Virginia, where he still owned a house and his old clinic. So . . . having no other options, I loaded up what I could and we escaped in the night.
Now, we follow the wooded ridge on the county road past small farms with grass so green it makes your eyes sing, past waterfalls that cascade down sandstone cliffs, past mountain streams that laugh for the joy of it, and as we begin our descent my spirits rise. The old worried Becky is replaced by the other Becky, the optimistic one.
“We should be in Liberty in another ten minutes,” I say to my mute companion. “The electricity at your house may be turned off and it will be dusty and dirty, but we can manage.” The doctor doesn’t comment, but then I don’t expect him to.
Finally, after twenty hours in the Pontiac, we enter a high mountain valley, and I feel my tight stomach soften. There in the distance, I catch sight of a familiar landmark, a winding ribbon of silver they call the Hope.
A Poor Welcome
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