“Now, honey, tell us what you want us to do. I can stay all day and all night, and there will be several others here as well. I suppose half of Liberty knows by now if the telephone operator is her usual self.”
I give her the worst job. “We are all so tired, can you clean up the blood?” Mrs. Miller doesn’t hesitate. While the preacher tends the stock and splits more firewood, she takes my red rubber gloves and a bucket of water and goes right to work, starting in the kitchen and then the stairs and then the Hesters’ bedroom. By evening you wouldn’t know that the tidy home had been the scene of a near tragedy.
“The baby?” Patience asks, and I know that she’s back. Then she notices Danny standing next to her, patting her hand. “Oh, Danny. Mama’s so glad to see you. I missed you.”
“Uncle Isaac gives me cookies.”
Dr. Blum rises from the rocker where he has been tenderly massaging the baby and holds her out to her mother, but when Patience reaches out, she drops back in pain.
“Don’t sit up yet,” I admonish. “Do you want to try to breastfeed? I can help you get started.”
“For sure!” Patience smiles, and it’s as if the sun has come out at the end of a long, rainy day.
February 28, 1935
When Patience abrupted, I was surprised I could still operate, but there wasn’t much choice. “Please!” Hester begged. “Save my wife. Save our baby!” What else could I do? There’s no way Daniel was able to do it. He was trembling all over and he didn’t even know where to cut. I’m an asshole, but not a total asshole.
Surgeons have an unspoken rule that we do not operate on our loved ones . . . or our enemies. Emotions run too strong, cloud our judgment, and make our hands unsteady.
On the morning Priscilla told me she wanted a divorce I had thirty minutes to cool down before I got to Martha Jefferson, but I used it, instead, to fuel the fire.
Who was this John Teeleman from Eli Lilly? Even his name enraged me.
Drug detail men came and went in the office, and my brother and I gave strict orders to the staff to let them stay only ten minutes. I imagined Teeleman as affable, always ready with a laugh or a funny story, calling me by my first name as if we were pals. “So what do you think of our new elixir, Isaac, have you had a chance to prescribe it?”
Okay, I’ll admit I was shaken to the core. My home and marriage had just exploded and lay in rubble at my feet. Was I really that bad of a husband?
Maybe I wasn’t much fun. She had me there. When I wasn’t practicing medicine, I was reading medical journals, playing solitaire, or sleeping, but a physician who works ten hours a day needs a little mindless relaxation, doesn’t he? He needs his sleep too. . . . Okay, I was a selfish jerk.
Priscilla used to beg me to go into Charlottesville, to eat at a nice restaurant or see a picture show, but I was too tired, too edgy. I craved peace and quiet. Maybe I deserved to be dumped, but still she couldn’t really mean it.
In the parking lot of the hospital, I pulled my collar up against the sleet, took a few deep breaths, and cut through the emergency room. A few minutes later, I walked into the OR as if all was routine.
Surgeons are trained to do this. Nothing must interfere with our concentration. Lives depend on it. If you can’t pull the curtain down on your personal feelings you don’t belong at the operating table.
Recovery has been slow, but this is not unexpected. Each person heals in his own way and in his own time. You can be supportive, but you can’t make it happen.
It’s more than one week since Patience delivered, and day by day she’s getting stronger. We don’t have to beg her to eat anymore; she knows what to do, and unlike before in the late months of her pregnancy, when she seemed to be fading away, she now has something to live for.
Patience is not allowed to do any work, not even to take care of Danny, only herself and the baby. Danny has had a few temper tantrums, but Blum handles them well, silently swooping the little boy over his shoulder and taking him out in yard.
The doctor has pretty much returned to his old silent self. He’s fixed up a swing in one of the willow trees, and I realize, by looking at the new leaves on the willow, that we have been in West Virginia for almost a year. The long weeping willow branches are budding with yellow and the trees are bright balls of sunlight.
Most days, Patience just lies on the sofa listening to the radio, though the news isn’t good. It’s mainly about the nationwide drought, the devastation of the Midwest by wind and dirt, and the rising unemployment rate, now 25 percent nationwide, much worse in West Virginia, though in rural areas we can at least live off the land.
Patience likes Will Rogers’s show out of Pittsburgh best. Will rambles on about politics and the common man, not quite a Red, but not a capitalist either. “The short memories of the American voters is what keeps our politicians in office,” he said, and it made Patience laugh so hard I thought she might bust her stitches. Even Dr. Blum smiled.
After our midday meal, Patience sometimes gives the baby to Daniel and sits at the piano playing old show tunes. (She once was a chorus girl on the stage in Chicago, though it’s hard to picture that now.) Then she goes upstairs, taking each step slowly, to nap with Danny and breastfeed the baby. No cooking. No cleaning. No gardening. No attending deliveries.
At first, because of the dehydration and blood loss, she had almost no milk, but she’s determined to nurse and always feeds first from her breasts to build up her supply. Afterward we give the baby a bottle of Borden’s canned formula mixed with Moonlight’s milk.
Hester is concerned about the dangers of the tuberculosis bacterium, even though our cows have been tested, and he insists that his baby will have only top milk, heated to one hundred forty-five degrees for thirty minutes and later stored in the Frigidaire as the USDA recommends.
I, on the other hand, am concerned about the dangers of postpartum infection and check Patience’s incision each day. She’s a setup for septicemia, but so far, so good. Some angel must be watching over her.
At first I was worried that Patience might slip into mother depression. I’ve seen this before after a difficult delivery or sometimes for no reason at all. It happened to the Hamlin girl in town, five years ago. She tried to slit her wrists in the bathtub. Fortunately, Dr. Blum was able to save her, but she had to be taken to the State Lunatic Asylum in Weston and may still be there.
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