Now I walk through the Hesters’ side yard toward the house, carrying my little black medical bag. Daniel and Dr. Blum are waiting on the porch and don’t say a word, not that the doctor ever says much.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Daniel asks, gently leading me inside. I shake my head no. “Mrs. Stenger called,” he goes on. “She heard about the boy’s death from Sheriff Hardman, who got the shortwave radio call and had to notify the mortuary. . . . Patience wants you upstairs. Can you take her some tea?”
This seems like an odd request, but ever the nurse, I carry the tray up to her room. The midwife is waiting for me.
“Sit here,” she commands, patting the side of the bed. I haven’t the strength to argue. “Did you eat?”
“I’m not hungry. . . . Oh, Patience. He shouldn’t have died,” I let loose the tears. “I went to lunch, so sure I’d done a good job and that he was going to be okay. I set his arm in a cast and everything. The physician at the other camp said his death was inevitable, that I wasn’t to blame, but it shouldn’t have happened. He was just a kid, really.”
Patience pours hot water in a cup, but forgets the tea ball, and instead takes a cloth, dips it in the warm water, and wipes my face. Tenderly, she wipes my hands and neck. She pulls up my sweater and undoes my bra. She drops a long white flannel nightgown over my head, like I’m a child, and pulls me down on her bed.
“You can sleep here.”
“I’ll be better downstairs.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll sleep with me. It’s healing to lie next to someone after a great loss. Once I had a woman die in labor; she seized too. Eclampsia. I slept with Daniel that night. He washed the death off me.”
There’s no arguing with the midwife. We sleep together in her bed, both in our flannel gowns, Daniel politely taking the sofa.
In the night I dream of falling. Linus and I are falling from the tower. The earth is rushing toward my face, but Patience catches us.
February 27, 1935
I am worried about Becky. The death of the young man, Linus, has hit her hard and she’s withdrawn and not herself. If a pan drops or little Danny makes a loud noise, her head jerks up as if expecting disaster. At meals her hands shake.
I have lost patients; every physician has. If you work in the medical field long enough, you will lose a patient whether you are a physician, nurse, midwife, or vet, but you can’t blame yourself.
Easy to say and I say this now, but I blamed myself plenty after the pharmaceutical man expired. The thing is, I never should have operated on him. As soon as I heard his name, I should have thrown down my scalpel and insisted the nurse find another surgeon. The trouble was, he was in shock, and if I hadn’t tried, he would have died anyway. That’s what I tell myself now, but I doubted it then.
I watch Becky closely, worried the death of the corpsman will be too much for her and she will slip into the same black hole that I did after Priscilla and John Teeleman died. The sky is gray. The woods are gray. The snow is melting and dirty and gray.
“I’m so glad you don’t have to go to the CCC camp for a few days, Becky. It was nice of them to give you the time off. You need to rest,” Patience says. We are all up in the Hesters’ bedroom listening to her read a bedtime story from her Hans Christian Andersen book, and Danny, in his blue footie pajamas, is snuggled between his mother and father where he can see the pictures. Blum and I sit in the extra chairs.
Patience is right. I need the rest, but not just sleep. Since Linus’s death, my confidence has gone and I find myself expecting disaster wherever I turn.
“Once upon a time, an old poet, a really nice and kind old poet, was sitting cozily by his potbellied stove eating apples . . .” The phone downstairs rings shrilly two times and a cold dread runs through me. Not a birth. Not a birth. After Linus’s death, I feel so weak, as if all the courage has drained out of me. There’s no way I could go out in the cold and face another mother alone.
Daniel groans, jumps off the bed, and stomps down the stairs to the telephone. “Hester here. . . . How long? . . . Okay. . . .” I can’t hear what’s said on the other end, but he clumps back upstairs. “Well, Blum . . . looks like we’re needed.”
“Oh, hon, do you have to go out?” Patience asks.
The vet shrugs. “It’s one of Walter Schmidt’s sheep, his prize ewe. You know him, hon. His wife died of pneumonia a couple of years ago and he’s raising his boy and taking care of the farm alone. The ewe is carrying triplets. Huge. Why don’t you come, Becky? It will be fun and it won’t take long. Patience will be okay for a little while, won’t you, babe?”
“That’s okay. I’ll stay and put Danny to bed,” I offer.
“No, go,” insists Patience. “It will do you good, after witnessing death, to witness new life. It will be healing. Danny’s almost asleep already. Just take him to his crib, Daniel.”
I’ve had an afternoon nap and everyone has been so kind to me, I have no good excuse to stay home, so thirty minutes later, Daniel, Dr. Blum, and I pull into a small farmyard on Elk Run. In the clearing, the lights of the Ford illuminate a henhouse, a barn, and a two-story log dwelling, and I’m surprised at the humble setting. When Hester mentioned the prize ewe, I’d assumed we’d be going to one of the bigger spreads.
The vet gets out his doctor’s bag and hands it to Blum, then the two men head for the barn. I follow, unsure what my role will be.
“Hello!” Hester booms out. “Hello!”
A child wearing a woolen knit cap and a plaid wool jacket peeks out the double barn doors. Inside, there’s a kerosene lantern hanging from a beam and in the center of the circle of yellow light a farmer kneels next to the biggest sheep I’ve ever seen, a strange creature with strings of long, curly wool hanging all over it.
“Is the lamb dead, Pa?” the little boy asks.
“No, watch. It’s still wiggling.” He turns toward the door. “Hester, thank God you’re here. Hated to call you at night, but this ewe is really suffering. She’s the one I got at the auction last year, a Leicester Longwool. Can’t afford to lose her. Been laboring now for five hours. I can’t get her to stand on her feet and she’s stopped straining, a bad sign.”
“Have you been inside to feel around?”
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