Sylvia slowly sat up in the hospital bed, pillows tucked behind her back. She felt sore in a way she didn’t remember from her other three births. Her exhaustion mixed with a shimmer of energy – that was familiar. But something was wrong.
To her right, a window as tall as herself let in bright sunlight that made her eyes blink. Where was Joe? Where was anybody?
It had been a problematic birth. The baby’s heart had stopped beating, and Joe had been there to calm her, to help her sleep through the worst of the pain, through the worry.
She knew she was extremely lucky to have her husband with her during the birth. He had known something was wrong and had insisted on joining her in the birthing room. “I’m a doctor,” he had said calmly when told to go to the waiting room. “And she’s my wife. I’m not leaving.”
Their three previous children had been born without complication. In fact, they had gone quickly and smoothly. Joe had been with her through every one, holding her hand, stroking the dark, wet strands of hair from her forehead. She loved this man who cared more for her comfort and reassurance than for what other people thought was normal.
Her woman friends looked at her in disbelief when she first told them Joe had been there for the delivery. “Why?” They asked, so much judgment in that one word.
“He’s a doctor,” she replied, though she knew it was more than that. He was Joe. He was special.
Sylvia had met Joe walking to school. He had introduced himself as, “Joseph Aaron Spivey”. There was something about him that pulled her in. He had rich, caramel-colored eyes shiny, brown curly hair, thick brown lashes. She might have fallen in love with him for his looks alone. But his smile sealed it. It was more than a smile. It was a question and reassuring statement, together. It was kindness, caring, a strong gentleness that magnetized and warmed her.
One day Sylvia had tripped and scraped her knee badly. He had led her to the nearby stream to wash out the wound. As he cupped water in his hands and splashed it onto her knee, she felt so calmed, and barely felt any pain. She assumed it was because she was falling in love. But another factor had probably been what he eventually told her was “the healing touch”, something that ran in his family. She made him keep it a secret, though, for reasons she hadn’t understood until decades later. Only she and his parents knew about it.
“I want to be a doctor someday,” he had confided in her. And it broke her heart to hear, given the extreme unlikelihood that it would happen. It was during the Depression. His family didn’t have money, and they needed him on the farm just to get by. Even if he could leave his folks, he would never be able to afford the cost of medical school.
They married five years later, and in that time, she saw what Joe meant by “the healing touch”. He had a way with living things – which was one reason why his parents wanted him on the farm. Crops grew better when he tilled the soil, the milk tasted noticeably better when he milked the cows, chickens produced more eggs, etc. But people were Joe’s specialty. And not being able to help them in an official capacity was like a punishment for him. He was happy on one level, but she saw something in the way he walked, a little more hunched over than usual, like he had just finished a deep sigh that kept getting a little deeper every day.
One day she felt it so acutely, this suffering, like a hangnail she feared would fester and spread, that she prayed while hanging up laundry on the line, three tiny children within sight, a breeze blowing through her long, dark hair. “Please God,” she whispered, eyes closing with concentrated emotion. “Help Joe to become a doctor.”
It would be ridiculous to think that her prayer had started the war, but it was the war that gave Joe his chance to study medicine. Pearl Harbor set many things in motion, one of which was a fast track medical degree program. If you could keep up with studies, you got your education free of charge. Joe graduated, along with a small percentage of his original class. And, of course, he was sent off to the war.
Those were tough years, with him gone. Her parents were not well, and Joe’s parents were slowing down, meaning she had to do more on the farm.
Again, how could she have been responsible for him coming home, just because she had cried one lonely evening, praying for Joe’s return? But one week after that prayer, he had returned, a bandage over one eye. As always, he comforted her, even though he was the one with one blind eye.
“Actually, I’m relieved,” he had told her. “You are way too pretty for me to look at with two eyes.”
Much changed that first year Joe was back. He established a practice that served country folk, making the rounds every day. Every morning, before he set out on his horse, Sylvia would make him a lunch of bread and cheese, an apple from one of their trees, or apricots or pears she had canned, maybe a pickled cucumber from her stock. She walked the kids to school, helped the teacher with tasks around the school building, came home, did housework, and made dinner. The kids walked themselves back home, and Joe came home by six o’clock every evening.
One day, when Sylvia was feeling particularly weighed down with her fourth pregnancy, Joe rode up with a passenger – a young woman from one of the more isolated farms down the road.
“This is Lilly,” he said unceremoniously. As Sylvia came to the horse, he had just dismounted. He helped the frail-looking young woman down off the horse next, and Sylvia noticed her wince upon landing, despite Joe’s careful support. Their three girls came to greet their Papa, jumping up to hug him.”
“Kids, please show Lilly where to wash up for dinner. Sylvia, would you help me with Philly here?” He patted the horse’s neck and headed towards the barn as the three kids jumped and ran and chattered, leading Lilly to the house.
“I’m sorry for the last-minute guest,” he had told her, voice low, hand on her shoulder. There was both urgency and calm in his voice. “Ed’s on a bender, and she’s still recovering from the last time he came home drunk.”
“What happened?” she asked.
“He hits her, Sylvie. Fractured her leg. He might come here to find her.”
Joe didn’t make his rounds as usual for the next few days. It was lovely having him home, having lunch with him, watching him with the kids. She even appreciated having another woman in the house. Though she didn’t like the looks Lilly had for Joe. Sylvia wanted to say, “Stop looking at my husband.” But she bit her tongue.
A couple days later, Ed, came riding up on a horse. Joe told Sylvia to stay in the kitchen and keep Lilly from coming outside. Sylvia peeked out the window from behind the curtains just in time to see Ed dismount clumsily, then run to Joe, swinging his fist. Sylvia had never seen Joe fight, but there he was ducking expertly, jabbing and jumping, side to side. He landed a blow on Ed’s jaw, sprawling him into the grassy dirt.
Calmly, Joe came back in, “Can I have two cups of coffee, Please Sylvie?” She obediently poured two cups from the pot on the cook stove, handed them over. He kissed her on the cheek and went back outside.
Joe and Ed sat outside talking, and later Sylvia brought them bowls of stew. Several hours later, Ed and Lilly rode off on Ed’s horse. When Joe finally came in, he looked exhausted, with dark shadows under his eyes, which he could barely keep open.
“Lilly and Ed will be fine,” he said, seeing the question on her face.
“What about when Ed drinks again?”
“He won’t.” Joe walked to their bedroom, where she found him hours later, fast asleep, sprawled face-down on top of the covers, still wearing the same clothes. He didn’t wake up until after noon the next day.
That was the first time she had been worried for his safety since the war. Sylvia had always revered Joe’s healing talents, but now she feared them as well, how they drained him of energy, knocking him down.
“Hello?” A nurse in with a white rectangle hat had appeared at the foot of her bed, holding a tightly-blanketed bundle about the size of a loaf of bread. “Are you ready to see your baby, Mrs. Spivey? He’s been fed and is sleeping like a baby,” she said with a smile.
“He’s a boy,” whispered Sylvia. Joe had thought it would be a boy. Their first. “Where’s Joe?” Sylvia’s voice raised in concern.
The nurse kept her practiced smile on as she adjusted the lilac-filled vase on the bedside table, then put a glass of water next to it. “The doctor will be with you shortly,” said the nurse as she left, calmly but quickly.
Sylvia’s heart froze. The nurse was following the edict, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Her throat tightened, and words squeezed out of her mouth into urgent calls that eventually turned into screams when no one responded. “Where’s Joe! Where’s my husband? Damnit, somebody tell me where Joe is!”
A kerfuffle of nurse activity showed itself beyond the windowed wall at the end of her room. Soon a white-coated, gray-haired doctor walked through the door.
“Please, Mrs. Spivey! You’re alarming the other patients.”
“Dr. Pike! Tell me where my husband is!”
She could see the impatience and disdain in his eyes. If Joe were here, he would know how to calm her down. He did that with all his patients, and the contrast between the two doctor’s manners made her hate the doctor before her and resent the absent one.
“Please, I will tell you, but you must first calm down.”
Sylvia held her breath immediately.
“And calm your baby, for goodness sake.”
Sylvia’s breath came back in a whoosh, and she suddenly noticed the wailing little lump in her lap. Instinct led her to unwrap the head of the little bundle, to open her robe and offer the little boy her breast.
The boy latched onto her nipple and sucked vigorously and slurpily, gradually slowing with sleepiness. “Must you? the nurses just fed him.”
Sylvia’s stare became murderous, but she kept her heart beat still, the way Joe had taught her. She almost growled “I calmed my baby. Now tell me, where is my husband?”
Dr. Pike stuck his hands in his large white jacket pockets and looked away, his calm, in-charge demeanor now slightly cracked.
“You remember the birth?”
“Something was wrong with the baby,” Sylvia replied, looking down at her little boy’s head covered with dark peach fuzz hair.
“Yes. We couldn’t hear a heartbeat. At one point you passed out…”
Joe helped me fall asleep, she corrected him in her head, but said nothing, not wanting to delay his point.
He pushed his glasses up his nose, looking at the baby at her breast, then away.
“The umbilical cord was around the baby’s neck. We got him out as quickly as possible, but he was blue.”
Tell me where Joe is. She didn’t dare speak it, but her mind was screaming.
Dr. Pike cleared his throat in a fist-covered cough, then forced himself to look into her eyes.
“Joe insisted on helping with the birth, practically pushing me aside. As soon as the baby came out, he unwrapped the cord from around the baby’s neck, then – the nurses tried to take the baby…” Dr. Pike’s eyes wandered up, into a memory. “But he elbowed everyone away and held the baby. I – I would have held the baby by the feet, upside down, slapped its bottom. But he…” his hands recreated Joe’s unfathomable actions. “…he sat down on the floor, demanded a warm blanket. Nurse Sally brought it, and he had her put it under baby, on his lap. He just – sort of rubbed the little feet, massaged the back, rocked back and forth.”
Tears were welling and falling from her eyes, her lips fluttering.
“That baby was not alive, Sylvia,” he said conspiratorially . “And then, five minutes later…”
Sylvia knew what had happened. She hugged the now-sleeping baby a little closer.
She tried to hold the emotions in by squeezing her eyes shut, but the tears flowed, drops falling gently onto the face of little boy who would be named after his dead father.