As we pull across a small wooden bridge that spans a bubbling creek and into the tree-lined drive of Daniel Hester’s farmyard, my heart leaps. Here I hope I will find friends.
The two-story stone home, with a porch on two sides, is surrounded by mowed grass. I can tell Patience lives here, because there are bunches of herbs hanging under the porch eaves: tansy, feverfew, mint, and echinacea are the ones that I recognize, but there are a dozen more. The midwife is also an herbalist and uses them to help heal her patients.
There are chickens in the yard scratching for insects and four horses and three cows in the field. The cowbells tinkle, but other than that it’s so quiet, I decide Patience and Dr. Hester must both be out delivering babies, a little boy or girl for her, a calf or lamb for him.
Unsure what to do, I take Blum’s arm, head for a wooden bench under one of the giant weeping willows, and take a seat. The long drooping branches are just budding out, covered in yellow, like palpable sunshine, and with the tip of my finger, I reach out to touch them.
We don’t have to wait long. Within twenty minutes, a dusty black Olds rolls across the bridge and stops behind our Pontiac. My friend has come up in the world. She once rode a horse to births, before that a bicycle.
I take my time rising, watching as Patience gets out of the vehicle. She’s a small woman, thin, but sturdy, and pretty, with high color. Her brown hair, which she used to wear long, is shoulder length now, and she peers through her wire-rim glasses at our Virginia license plate.
“Hello!” she calls out, looking around, and when she turns, I’m startled to see she has a toddler on her hip.
“Over here.” I step from under the long willow fronds. “Patience! It’s me, Becky Myers.” If I had been apprehensive at all, my questions about our friendship evaporate in the time it takes a wide smile to rush across her face.
She plops the child on the grass, and with open arms runs toward me, her red-and-black-plaid farm jacket flapping like wings. “Becky!” Laughing as we embrace, we almost fall over. Though the midwife is small, she’s as strong as a pony.
“Chiggers,” I say indicating the baby. Patience doesn’t get it. “Chiggers,” I repeat, thinking she must not know about the troublesome insect that burrows under the skin and itches like crazy. “On the grass. They’re everywhere in Virginia. Very much a problem for the young and tender.”
“Oh, chiggers. Yes, we have them. Danny gets them once or twice in the summer and me too, but since it’s cooler here in the mountains, they’re not so much of a problem. You are the same old worrywart, Becky Myers! Come inside.”
It’s then that she sees Dr. Blum, still sitting immobile on the bench under the weeping willow. “Oh, you have someone with you! A new beau?” She’s probably kidding, but I don’t find it funny.
“No, it’s Dr. Blum. He’s not well. The physicians at Johns Hopkins think it’s a stroke or maybe catatonia.” I wave my open hand in front of his face. “Anyway. He’s all gone. . . . We’ve come to ask for your help.”
At the kitchen table in the stone farmhouse, Patience and I catch up over coffee. Silent as a sphinx, Dr. Blum sits staring into space on a stool in the corner.
I take in the room. . . . There’s a green enamel wood cookstove against one wall with a wooden box filled with split oak, shelves filled with glass canisters of beans, cornmeal, and flour, and a sink with a small red metal water pump. In the corner is a large Frigidaire, which means that the Hesters have electricity and probably a phone. This must be heaven for Patience, who used to live without any such conveniences.
“What happened?” Patience asks in a low voice, indicating the doctor with her eyes.
I tell her the story, how Priscilla Blum died when her auto crashed through the guardrail into the ice-covered James River and how, after that, the doctor just collapsed, lost his mind.
“Up until then he’d been his normal self. He’d actually done four surgeries earlier that day. One was an emergency appendectomy that went horribly wrong and the patient died on the operating table. . . .”
“Maybe the two deaths on one day were his breaking point, or maybe he had a stroke from the stress.” That’s Patience.
“He’s lost so much weight.” She studies the doc and I look at him from her eyes. She’s right. He’s lost around twenty pounds and his once strong jaw has gone slack. Not only that, his brown hair is thin and dry. Not a healthy-looking specimen.
“I feed him, feed him with a spoon three meals a day,” I respond defensively. “But he doesn’t care about food or anything. I was sympathetic in the beginning. Really, I was, but I expected his disability to be temporary. Now, I don’t know. . . . I’m just frustrated. In all this time there’s so little improvement.”
“This happened a year ago?” We watch as Danny, Patience’s toddler, approaches the doctor and runs a little metal truck up his leg. For just a moment, I think Blum sees him, but then he goes back to the blank stare again.
“Yes, a year ago, during a snowstorm. Like I said, as a last resort, I took him to Johns Hopkins, but it cost a fortune, and they were no help. After about a year, his brother, the older Dr. Blum, had no sympathy at all. He bellowed at Isaac to snap out of it, thought he was faking. Just a few days ago, he abandoned us altogether and we were left on our own. . . .”
Here I trail off. I don’t tell Patience how I prayed on my knees for my colleague, to a God I couldn’t locate. I don’t tell her how at first I would stroke Isaac’s head and his shoulders after I bathed him, hoping I could bring him back. I don’t tell her how once or twice I slapped him, I was so mad.
We both turn to the sound of an auto rattling up the drive. “It’s Daniel,” Patience says, standing.
From the kitchen window, I watch as the veterinarian opens the trunk of his Ford Model T, removes a satchel, and sets it on the top of the car. Then he pulls out some rope and pulleys and other bizarre-looking veterinarian equipment and carries it into the barn. He’s a tall man, with an outdoor look, wearing a long brown canvas coat.
A few minutes later, the kitchen door slams open and the vet comes in and picks up his little boy. “Who have we here? I wondered about the Virginia license plate!” he says with a lopsided grin. His light brown hair is receding in front, and his large hands are chafed and rough.
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