Robinson was a good doctor, don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t the problem. He’d trained at Meharry, and we’d had many discussions sitting in the dark on his back porch, sipping his homemade apple wine and talking about new medications and different approaches to surgery, but Mary Proudfoot died on his operating table before he could perform the surgery. The delay in transfer cost the woman her life.
What kind of physician does that? And why? Was it laziness? Was it because of her color? Was it because everyone in town knew MacIntosh had lost his fortune and didn’t have a red cent to pay me? Whatever the reason, I beg Mary’s forgiveness and Robinson’s too.
Snow, like feathers, falling softly, down and down and down. “I hope the installers from the Mountain Farmers Telephone Co-op come today, although with this snow they might not,” I worry out loud.
“I lived for a long time without a phone before I moved here.” That’s Patience, resting back on her pillows. She has good days and bad days and I never know what each will be. Lately she’s taken to knitting little things for the new baby, tiny booties, a sweater, and this seems to cheer her, give her hope.
“But it would be so nice to know that you had a pedestal phone like Lilly’s on the bedside table.” I hold out a blue-and-white-flowered chipped teapot filled with hot water. “Raspberry tea?” She nods her head yes. We’re eating breakfast up in her room off a wooden tray that I constructed myself and then painted with flowers.
“I hate leaving you alone today. Daniel and Blum are out on a call. We don’t even know when they’ll be back. What if you need something? Maybe I should quit my job.”
“No, Becky. You can’t quit. You’ve done a lot for us, just moving in. I’ll be okay.” Patience turns, smiling. “I love the snow.”
“So do I. I grew up in the north country, Brattleboro, Vermont.”
“I was raised in Deerfield, Illinois, near Chicago,” Patience offers, and I realize how little we know about each other.
Then there’s silence as we both stare out the window.
The roof of the barn is covered, the lawn, the meadows, the branches of every tree and shrub. And the snow is still coming. Up on the mountain, the fir and spruce are dark against the white. Here and there a golden oak that hasn’t lost its leaves brightens the scene.
“So beautiful,” Patience whispers. “You asked me about my previous births the other day. . . .”
“Don’t talk about it if it makes you sad.”
“It’s okay. I think it’s important that you know. You are my midwife.” Here she gives me a sly smile, teasing, because she knows, unlike her, I’m a reluctant midwife.
“I’ve been pregnant four times. I abrupted my first when I was sixteen. I was an orphan and conceived unexpectedly with my love, Lawrence, an art student in Chicago.
“He was killed in a train wreck on his way to tell his parents that we wanted to marry. I read about it in the paper and lost the pregnancy a few days later. The baby was stillborn and, having plenty of breast milk and no other employment, I became a wet nurse.”
I listen without comment, but my eyes widen thinking of so much sadness. To lose your lover and your child in one week! How could she endure?
“What happened to your parents? Couldn’t you turn to someone in the family?”
“My only grandma died of consumption, a slow, lingering death, then my father, a first mate on a freighter, died in a storm on Lake Michigan, leaving my mother and me deep in debt. A few years later, when I was twelve, Mama died of TB. She hemorrhaged in her sleep and I found her in her bloody bed in the morning. That left me alone and that’s how I got sent to an orphans’ asylum in Chicago.” She recounts all this as if describing the weather, a drought, a blizzard, a flood.
“Is this too much for you?” she asks, squeezing my hand. The midwife has noticed tears in my eyes.
“No, I’m just amazed. I had no idea you’ve had such a hard life.”
Patience laughs. “We all have hard lives, Becky. Don’t you know that? Sometimes you just have to take your wounded heart out, stitch it up, stuff it back in your chest, and go on. . . .” Here she pauses and I picture myself doing that. Stuffing my wounded heart back in my chest.
“Anyway,” Patience continues after smoothing her hair. “I mourned deeply, but I was young and eventually fell in love again. This time, the man was a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Pittsburgh, Ruben Gordesky. We married and were together seven wonderful years until he died in the Battle of Blair Mountain when he was only thirty-five, along with a couple of hundred other union men. I thought I’d never love again, then Daniel came along and we conceived our first time.”
Here she gets a faraway look in her eyes. “We weren’t married or even engaged and since I’d never had a baby with Ruben, I assumed I was barren. . . . It was just something that happened in the middle of a thunderstorm. Oh, that sounds so bad!” She smiles and raises her eyebrows.
“Here I was, trying to establish myself as a reputable professional and then I get pregnant and I’m not even married. I was distraught. The community would never accept me as a midwife. I even thought of taking some herbs that would make the baby go away, but I decided I deserved to be happy. If I wanted a baby, I would have one, to hell with what people would think.
“Daniel found out I was expecting and we decided to marry. We had a date for the wedding and everything, invited the Maddocks and the Dreshers, one of Daniel’s big clients. Well, the wedding came off, a quiet one in town with Judge Wade, on a snowy day like this, but I abrupted a second time months later, went into painful contractions out in the fields bringing in the hay. I should have known better. By the time I got to the house, the baby came out on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. I named her Rosie, because she was so red, and I buried her behind the barn on Wild Rose Road with that other baby. You remember, the dead premature baby someone left in a carton at your clinic?”
I let my breath out and consider coming up with an excuse to get out of the room, but Patience needs to talk, so I hold my seat. When something traumatic happens to you, whether it’s the loss of a limb, the loss of a lover, or the loss of a child, talking it through is part of healing.
“After that,” she continues, “I thought for sure that I couldn’t have children, but within six months I was pregnant again. This time, Daniel and I went to Torrington to the specialist and were told that I must have a blood disorder. He was pretty sure I would just keep losing babies and wanted me to have a termination and get sterilized.
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