My Grandfather

The knock came long after the family had gone to bed. Dr. Waller answered the door nonetheless—in those days, doctors were on call 24 hours a day. Standing on the porch were two swarthy men with long black hair, wide sleeves, intricately stitched vests, and knives. Come with us now, they commanded. The doctor nodded, reached for his medical bag and left the house with one of them on either side.

My grandmother was never sure she saw her husband leave with the gypsies, but she always said she could somehow remember the knives in the men’s hands glinting under the porch light.

The men took my grandfather to their campsite and, still in lockstep, marched him to within a circle of women attending to one of their own. I don’t know that the gypsies had princesses, but she was of that caliber. The woman apparently had been in labor for many hours. She was gray with pain and close to death.

In my imagination, my grandfather stands still for a moment. He has already lost one woman in childbirth. He takes a deep, calm breath, looking at that moment exactly like the sepia photograph of him that, after his death, my grandmother always kept on her bureau. Carefully, he sets his bag down on a blanket next the woman and kneels beside her. He washes his hands in a pail of water. Then, he goes to work.

Some hours later, the knives are put away. It is not necessary for a gypsy to threaten this white man to make him do his best.

I know that the gypsy princess lived. I know this not because I remember the end of the story I’m telling you. I don’t remember the end of the story. But I do remember what my grandmother told me about my grandfather:

In a career spanning four decades, most of that time as the only doctor in Angola, Indiana, my grandfather delivered thousands of babies. He drove a horse and buggy, or later on a Ford Model T, to outlying farms where births were often already in progress by the time he could be summoned and arrive. He delivered babies with frightened husbands or children as assistants. He delivered babies in antique bedsteads, on scrubbed kitchen tables, even on un-scrubbed floors. He delivered babies with no more equipment than would fit in the same kind of medical bag you now see only in old movies. Despite all that, my grandfather lost only one woman in childbirth.

The woman was his wife.  The child was my mother.

In my imagination, the circle of gypsies opens. My grandfather sees the amount of blood on the blankets. He stands very still for a moment, grief slicing through him like a knife. Then, he takes a deep, calm breath. Life. Only life. This woman will not die. His pain will be with him forever, but this woman, and her child, too, will live.

When he goes to work, his mind is clear, and his hands are strong and steady.

A version of this memoir was published previously as the featured essay in the online bioStories and in the Winter/Spring 2014: Volume 4, Issue 1 print version of the magazine. The title in that publication is “A Deep Calm Breath.”