Come help us, mamm!" The excited voice of six-year-old Laura floated across the lawn. Abby grinned, watching her daughter and four-year-old son, Jake, chase lightning bugs through the grass with jelly jars in hand. Despite the industrious efforts of the kinner, the fireflies successfully evaded capture to blink and glow another night.
"Why are you two off the porch? You both were already washed for bed." Abby walked back from the barn with her palms perched on her hips.
She glanced up as a squeak from the screen door signaled the arrival of the final Graber family member, her ehemann of ten years. "I thought you were reading them a story," she said with a sly smile.
Daniel slicked a hand through his thick hair, his hat nowhere in sight. Then he braced calloused palms against the porch rail. "Relax, wife. That grass looks pretty clean from where I'm standing. You won't have to start from scratch. Didn't it rain just the other day?" His smile deepened the lines around his eyes. With the setting sun glinting off his sun-burnished nose, he looked as mischievous as one of their children.
Abby watched the warm summer night unfold around her family with no desire to scold. The young ones would have the rest of their lives to have perfectly clean feet, but the summers of childhood were numbered. Besides, it was too nice an evening for anyone to go to bed on time. Walking up the porch steps, she stepped easily into Daniel's strong arms and rested her head against his shoulder. Within his embrace, and with her two healthy offspring darting about like honeybees in spring clover, she savored the almost-longest day of the year.
Swifts and swallows made their final canvass above the meadow before settling for the night in barn rafter nests or in the hollows of dead trees. Upon their exit from the sky, bats would take their place, swooping and soaring on wind currents, gobbling pesky mosquitoes. The breeze, scented with the last of the lilacs and the first of the honeysuckle, felt cool on her overheated skin.
"Everything all charged up for the night?" he asked close to her ear.
Daniel's question, the same one he asked nearly every night since she'd become a midwife, broke the idyllic trance she had wandered into --- the all's-well-with-the-world feeling one gets after a satisfying day. "Jah," she murmured. "I ran the generator long enough to charge my battery packs. And I put a fresh battery in my cell phone for tonight, but I don't expect any middle-of-the-night calls. After yesterday's delivery, no babies are expected for several weeks."
"Hmm," he concluded, nuzzling the top of her head. "We both know how well babies stick to doctors' timetables. I'm fixing a cup of tea and heading upstairs. Yours will be cooling on the table for whenever you're ready." He brushed his lips across the top of her kapp before going inside, the screen door slamming behind him.
The nice thing about being married for ten years is that a person gets to know someone very well. Daniel Graber knew she enjoyed her beverages at room temperature --- not too hot and not too cold. And she knew he needed to take mental inventory before going to bed to make sure the family's ducks were all in a row. So she didn't mind being asked about her cell phone charger each evening.
After all, a midwife, even an Amish midwife, needed to be accessible twenty-four hours a day. The Ordnung, or rules that governed their Old Order district, didn't stipulate how Amish wives had their babies. A woman could have an obstetrician deliver at an English hospital, or she could go to a birthing center where a specially trained, certified nurse-midwife would bring her baby into the world. But many Old Order Amish preferred to have their babies at home, the center of their rural lives. Unlike their English counterparts, they usually continued to work during labor --- washing dishes, picking beans in the garden, even giving the porch rocker a fresh coat of paint --- until the baby made its grand entrance.
At thirty, Abigail Graber was an experienced midwife, having assisted the local physician or nurse-midwife in hundreds of deliveries. She'd received training and apprenticed with a nurse-midwife for several years, but she'd never set foot in college because she was Amish like her patients. And though her time-honored vocation allowed Abigail to witness the miracle of creation firsthand, even without advanced education she understood how quickly things could go wrong for either mother or child.
Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two states with the highest population of Amish families, didn't license midwives who weren't registered nurses under current guidelines. Therefore, Abby's duties generally involved preparing the mother --- and the father --- for the baby's arrival. She would give the women back massages to loosen tight muscles or have them soak in warm tubs to speed the delivery. Because their rural doctor refused to sit around people's kitchens waiting for babies to be born, Abigail would monitor the mother's contractions to keep him informed. Abby loved the waiting time while fathers debated possible names and mothers crocheted last-minute socks. Dr. Weller would usually arrive just in time to deliver the infant, and then he returned to his office patients or his own warm bed. Abby would remain to wash the new mother, bathe the infant in the kitchen sink, and finish the paperwork at the table. She never left a home until the newborn was comfortably nursing at the mother's breast.
Home births were solely for healthy women with low-risk pregnancies and not for women with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or if a previous birth had been difficult. Patients were to receive regular prenatal care in the doctor's office to monitor their medical condition and the baby's development. For that reason, Abby knew none of the doctor's patients was due any time soon. But, as Daniel aptly pointed out, babies didn't listen very well.
And God often had other plans when a woman grew too comfortable, too placid in the sheer flawlessness of her life. On that June evening, as her own two healthy children scrambled up the steps to bed, their feet surprisingly clean, Abby almost felt smug in her contentment. She rocked in the porch swing, sipping tea and contemplating the planet Venus as it sat low and bright on the horizon.
The ring of her cell phone jarred her senses. "Hello. Graber residence."
"Abigail Graber?" asked an unfamiliar voice. "This is Nathan Fisher. Ruth and I rented the Levi Yoder place here in Shreve after the elder Mr. Yoder passed on. I'm calling you from the neighbor's house."
Silence ensued as Abby wracked her brain. Fisher was a very common name, but she didn't recall meeting someone named Ruth Fisher in Dr. Weller's office. "What can I do for you, Mr. Fisher?" She finished her tea in one long swallow.
"My wife wants you to come see her. She said that I should call you and nobody else. She got your number from one of the gals in our district."
Abby frowned, feeling annoyance take hold. Her Plain brethren maintained the old-fashioned habit of never referring to a pregnancy directly, as though babies arrived under blessed but unknown circumstances. "I take it your wife is expecting a boppli? She needs to contact the doctor's office for an appointment and then be examined by him before --- "
"No, you need to come over right now. She's crying out and is in a lot of pain."
Abby's annoyance changed to fear. "Are you saying your wife is in labor right now?" She tried unsuccessfully to keep her voice calm as she paced the porch. No sense in waking the rest of the family. Her kinner had probably just fallen asleep.
"Jah, she is." His three succinct words conveyed none of the same apprehension that tightened her stomach into a knot.
"Who has she been seeing? Who is her doctor?"
"Nobody. She saw a lady doctor back in Indiana, but then we moved here so I could find work. She heard at preaching service that the doctor who makes house calls in these parts was a man." Nathan Fisher stated these facts conversationally.
Abby's knuckles went white from gripping the porch rail. "There are plenty of lady doctors at the clinic in Wooster, plus they have a van that would pick your wife up and bring her home afterward for a nominal charge." Daniel slipped out the door behind her and put a reassuring arm around her shoulders.
"I'll debate what my wife should or shouldn't have done with you another day, Mrs. Graber, but right now she is having a baby."
Despite the joyous connotation those last five words usually contained, Abby's gut clenched with dread. "I want you to call an ambulance, Mr. Fisher. Or, if you prefer, I'd be happy to call one for you."
"My wife said she won't go to a hospital, so don't call any ambulance." His tone brooked no further discussion on the matter. "If you don't want to help us, then don't come. But you have no right telling us our business."
Abby breathed in and out several times as though she were in labor, but it took her no time whatsoever to make up her mind. "Give me your address and specific directions on how to find your house." She stumbled back inside the kitchen for pencil and paper. Despite having lived in Wayne County her entire life, she didn't know the whereabouts of the Levi Yoder farm.
Nathan spoke slowly while Abby scribbled notes on the pad. He recited a complete description of road landmarks to find his farm. "So you'll come?"
"Jah, I'll be there as soon as possible. Go back and tend to your wife. Do everything she tells you to do, and don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid, Mrs. Graber." Nathan's voice lifted with renewed excitement. "Even though this will be our first baby. Danki very much." He hung up without another word.
Her first pregnancy, and she's probably had no prenatal care, Abby thought. She sent up a silent prayer.
"I'll hitch up your buggy while you gather your supplies." Daniel had followed her back into the kitchen and leaned against the sink with his arms crossed over his chest. "Don't worry, Abby. It's probably not as bad as it sounds. You know how green most first-timers are, especially if the woman doesn't have her mamm and sisters living nearby to give advice."
"It sounds as though they just moved here from Indiana." Abby covered her face with her hands and rubbed away her sleepiness, and then she headed to the sink to wash. She would scrub her hands, arms, and under her nails for five minutes, even though she would do it again once she arrived at the Fisher home.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Daniel asked. "We could take Laura and Jake along and they can sleep in the back of the buggy."
His question took her by surprise as she collected supplies and checked the first aid kit for things she might need. Daniel never offered to accompany her. If there was one job he considered "woman's work," this was it.
She emerged from the bathroom and found him where she'd left him, looking even more exhausted. He had been cutting hay that day from sunup until sundown. "Oh, no," she said. "You go up to bed after I leave. Make sure our two little ones are under the covers and not still playing. Tomorrow morning you'll have to get up with the chickens, but I'll be able to sleep in."
He flashed her a smile, and then he loped out the door to hitch up their fastest standardbred horse and attach several battery-powered lights on her open buggy. Abby changed clothes and carried out a case of bottled water along with her medical supplies.
After she climbed into the buggy, Daniel gave her a quick good night kiss and then sent her off with his usual jest. "Let's hope it's either a girl or a boy this time." He slapped the mare's hindquarter to get her moving.
Abby waved before tightening her grip on the reins. It was a silly thing to say, but Daniel's joke never failed to bring a smile to her face.
It would be the last happy expression she would wear that night...or for many nights to come.