Volume 34, Number 3


Emily Hartzog

The green calico cloth with tiny pink flowers was just what Hannah had been looking for. Her seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was the one who found it and yelled “Mommy, look!” from across the room. Hannah picked up the bolt of fabric, asked the owner to cut five yards and gathered up the three kids on her way out of the shop.

When they got home, Hannah sent her boys, who were six and four years old, out to play. She kept Rebecca inside to help her make the dress. It needed to be big enough to cover Hannah’s pregnant stomach and long enough to cover her legs. Rebecca, ever enthusiastic, was eager to cut the cloth for the pattern and to hold it steady for the sewing machine. With all the pleats and billowing fabric, Hannah knew it would be easy to hide any errors caused by Rebecca’s occasionally shaky fingers.

Hannah’s stomach was bigger and more uncomfortable than it had been with any of her previous pregnancies. She hoped it wasn’t going to be twins, but since their religion prohibited doctors, there was no way to find out ahead of time. Tending to five children under seven would be a challenge, but she was prepared for anything.

Her due date was right around the corner, so she’d know soon enough. The new midwife had stopped by earlier in the week to drop off her equipment and the waterproof sheets. Hannah went ahead and put the sheets on the bed and stored the wrapped metal pans on the top shelf of the closet.

It was sad that the midwife who delivered her other three children had moved away at the beginning of the year. Hannah had felt comfortable with that midwife, who had worked as a nurse in the past and had plenty of experience. This new one seemed young and uncertain. Hannah wondered about her training.

Hannah knew the church elders thought carefully about the women they appointed to be midwives, and she had faith in God and the church. She felt blessed to have a home in the country, a devoted husband and three lovely children to care for. It was the life of her dreams after watching her parents struggle to put food on the table.

By the time her husband came home from work, the prairie dress was finished and supper was made. The children were quiet during prayers, and everyone enjoyed the stewed deer meat and mashed potatoes. Jimmy was tired from his work at a commercial farm down the road, so he went to bed early. Hannah could only sleep comfortably in the easy chair in the den at this point in her pregnancy, but she had a book of adventures called A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains to keep her company.

The next morning felt like the beginning of spring, and the small collection of farm animals around the house seemed to sense the change in seasons. The chickens were laying more eggs than in the winter, and there was a new baby goat running behind his mother. He was white with a jagged black streak in the middle of his back. Her boys decided to name him Lightning.

Hannah homeschooled the children, so they had plenty of time to help her with the chores. They added fresh hay to the hen’s lay boxes, mucked out the goat’s stall and made sure Lightning was getting milk from the teat.

Hannah tied Lightning to the fence and showed the children how to milk the nanny goat. The children made faces when they tasted it, but Hannah had grown up on it. She took a cup of milk back to the house and put it in the refrigerator to save for later.

Over the next few days all the remaining patches of snow melted in the shadows. The next Monday, Hannah went into labor. With the last boy, her labor had been fairly short, so the first thing she did was call the midwife. Sarah asked a few questions and said she’d be on her way.

Hannah noticed the contractions hurt more than in the previous pregnancies, especially in her back. She pulled out a jigsaw puzzle to give to the kids and sat in the chair with a heating pad behind her. She tried not to worry, but this pregnancy had been so different from the others that it was hard to keep her mind from wandering.

About a year ago, her closest friend, Mary, had terrible back labor because her baby was facing up instead of down. Hannah prayed for her baby to be facing down because when Mary delivered, the baby’s head tore her vagina almost all the way through to the rectum.

The midwives had left Mary alone in the bedroom to heal for two weeks afterwards. They brought the baby in to feed but gave her nothing for the pain. The church believed the body would take care of itself naturally, but Mary’s body didn’t. She was still in pain a year later and had no control over her bowel movements.

By the time Hannah’s midwife arrived, her back pain was a little better. Sarah reviewed her plans for the birth and seemed less nervous than the first time they met. Like all lay midwives, she believed in a hands-off approach with no intervention in the natural process.

She encouraged active participation from the mother and father and wanted them both to be involved in the decision making. She also added that both of them could help deliver the baby if they wanted, but it was hard for Hannah to imagine how that would be possible. Sarah promised no medications, no stitches and no medical equipment. She told Hannah to remember three things: nature was smart, mothers were strong and birth was safe.

Sarah thought the force of gravity worked miracles to move babies down, so she urged Hannah to stay on her feet. Hannah walked round and round the yard all afternoon. The chickens finally gave up crowding the gate when she passed by, and the goats eventually tired of following her on the other side of the fence.

The children had tagged along behind Hannah for only a couple of laps and were drawing in the dirt with sticks. Her previous midwife had entertained the children while Hannah was in labor, but Sarah didn’t seem interested in children. Instead, Sarah remained inside the house all afternoon reading her Bible in Hannah’s rocking chair.

After having strong contractions for five hours, Hannah still didn’t feel any urge to push. This was already twice the amount of time it took for the last birth. She felt fatigued, so she decided to go inside and sit down no matter what Sarah said. At least Jimmy was coming home soon so she could get some help with the children.

Jimmy was doing an irrigation project for one of the largest farms in the area. When Hannah called on his cellphone to let him know she was in labor, he promised to be home on time at the end of the day. Hannah searched through the freezer for all the food she’d prepared in advance. When Jimmy came in the door, dinner was already heating up on the stove.

Sarah wanted Hannah to eat a big dinner so she would be strong during labor, but Hannah was nauseated and had no appetite. The smell of food cooking made her feel even worse, so she headed to the bedroom to lie down. Jimmy set the table, dished out the food and told Sarah she was welcome to sit at Hannah’s place and join them for dinner.

Hannah overheard Sarah giving Jimmy instructions on how to deliver the baby if he decided he wanted to do it. At first he was hesitant, but then he became more interested in the idea. Hannah wasn’t sure about Jimmy’s involvement since the baby seemed so large, but she reminded herself that she wasn’t the midwife.

After another six hours of intense labor, Hannah finally felt the urge to push around midnight. She pushed as hard as she could for two hours but made minimal progress. This made her even more convinced something was wrong because the other babies had delivered as soon as she’d started pushing.

When Sarah asked if she could apply pressure to the stomach to help move the baby down, Hannah agreed. She was tired and wanted it to be over, but she didn’t expect such intense pain from the pressure. Hannah gritted her teeth as Sarah leaned across the baby and pressed on the top of it as hard as she could with every contraction.

After another half hour, part of the baby’s head finally started showing. Sarah helped Jimmy put on gloves, and they both stood at the foot of the bed waiting for the baby to deliver. The head came out with the next few pushes, but the body didn’t follow. Hannah felt like the baby was so big it was breaking her pelvic bones apart.

She heard Sarah yell, “The shoulder’s stuck! Quick, Jimmy! You need to move to the top of the bed and press down with all you’ve got on Hannah’s stomach!”

She screamed to Hannah, “Push harder!” as she pulled the baby with all her strength from below.

The pain was excruciating, and Hannah felt herself going in and out of consciousness. The baby was stuck and not breathing for so long that she worried he may not survive. Sarah was finally able to pull him out, but after that there was silence. When the baby didn’t cry like the others had, Hannah began to sob in despair.

Hannah heard Sarah slapping the baby and yelling, “Wake up, wake up!” but was too weak to even raise her head from the pillow. When there was finally a faint whimper followed by a soft cry, Hannah thanked God for his mercy.

Jimmy asked, “Why isn’t he moving his right arm?”

“His shoulder was stuck,” Sarah said. “I had to break the baby’s arm to get him to come out because it was the only way to save his life. God helped me save his life, and He will help the arm heal and be just like new.”

Hannah was overjoyed when Jimmy carried the baby over and rested him on her chest. He was much bigger than the other ones, but he looked pale and weak. She offered him her breast, but he was too sleepy to eat. She felt dizzy so she put her head back down on the pillow, and Jimmy took the baby back to the crib.

Sarah was still watching things down below under the sheet. Hannah was half asleep when she heard Sarah say that the placenta didn’t want to come out. She felt a bout of tugging and cried out in surprise when it was followed by something that snapped.

Jimmy asked, “What happened?”

Sarah said, “That darn umbilical cord broke off from the placenta. This placenta is plain stubborn, and now I can’t do anything about it. We’re going to have to wait until it decides to deliver itself.”

Soon after that, Sarah packed up her things and left the house. Hannah fell into a deep sleep and woke up in a puddle of blood. She overheard Jimmy talking to the children in the kitchen. It sounded like they were having breakfast.

She called out, “Jimmy, could you come in here a minute?”

He came in smiling, gave her a kiss on the forehead and said, “The baby’s sleeping. He’s been quiet as a mouse so far.”

Hannah said, “He needs feeding so bring him in as soon as he’s awake. By the way, when is Sarah coming back? My bleeding is really heavy. More than with any of the others.”

Jimmy said, “Sarah said she’d check back in around noon. She said she expected heavier bleeding since the placenta hasn’t come out yet. She didn’t seem too worried though.”

“Well, I’m worried. I’ve never heard of this happening before.”

“I’m sure Sarah knows what she’s doing.”

Hannah choked back her tears. “I’m not.”

“You’re in the Lord’s hands. Sarah was appointed by the church to help you through this, and you need to have faith in her.”

Hannah said, “I think I need to see a doctor.”

The kids came running into the bedroom and crawled on the bed with their mother.

Rebecca yelled, “The baby’s awake and he’s crying!”

Jimmy said, “Let your mother have some peace and quiet. She’s so exhausted she’s not even thinking straight anymore.”

After the kids left, Hannah needed to go to the bathroom. She was in so much pain that Jimmy had to help her stand up. She steadied herself on the wall as she walked across the room and left a trail of blood on the floor. She couldn’t bend over but managed to use her feet to move a towel with her and mop it up as she walked. Since the maternity pads weren’t working, she decided to truss herself up with another towel. She brought two more back to the bed so she could have a dry place underneath her.

When Jimmy brought the baby in, the feeding went surprisingly well. They decided to name him Noah. His right arm was positioned at an odd angle, and there was no movement below the shoulder. Hannah thought it was unlikely it would heal just like new without medical attention. Sadly, she knew it wasn’t an option with their religion.

Sarah brought herbs with her when she came back at noon and made a healing tea with them. Hannah choked the tea down and hoped it would help. Sarah said she’d be back around noon the next day and would be praying for them in the meantime. After she left, Jimmy made Hannah promise to be patient until Sarah’s return.

Hannah felt feverish the next morning, but Jimmy told her it was probably just the herbs working. When Sarah came at noon, she seemed startled by the amount of new bleeding, but then decided it must mean the placenta would be delivering soon. She told Hannah to push if she felt any pressure during the day. If the placenta didn’t come out after that, she said to call her.

Throughout the day, Hannah continued to bleed but didn’t feel the pressure Sarah was talking about. As soon as the children had gone to bed that night, she asked Jimmy to come in for a little while so they could talk things over. He reluctantly sat down and waited for her to start.

Hannah said, “Jimmy, I want to see a doctor.”

Jimmy said, “Why are you asking me about something you know isn’t possible?”

“I’m asking because I’m weak with a fever, and my bleeding is dark and smells worse than yesterday. The placenta isn’t coming out on its own. We need some help with this.”

“This is our community, and my father was a deacon in our church. We would be excommunicated if we called a doctor. I’d be out of a job, and we’d be on our own out here in this canyon. Is that what you want?”

Hannah said, “The church must make exceptions. You have a cellphone. How could having a cellphone be okay but not doctors?”

“We don’t believe in doctors. My father always said that God’s healing rate is much better than any man’s striving. You need to stop worrying and have faith that He will take care of you.”

“I can’t, Jimmy. I’m afraid I’m going to die.”

Jimmy stood up and said, “I’ll call the church elders, and they’ll come to the house tomorrow and pray for you. It will be okay. Their prayer of faith is much stronger than any medicine.”

Hannah rolled over to face the wall so Jimmy wouldn’t see her crying.

The next morning, six men dressed in somber clothes appeared in her room with their Bibles. For modesty’s sake, Hannah had covered herself with an extra blanket even though she was burning up with a fever. Still, the men would not look her in the eyes and seemed uncomfortable in her presence.

They anointed her forehead in the name of the Lord and said Jesus had the power to raise up the sick from their beds. Jimmy told Hannah he was encouraged by their words of prayer, but over the next few days, Hannah only felt worse.

She sent Jimmy out to buy infant formula because it didn’t feel safe for the baby to breastfeed when she had such a high fever. She eventually became too weak to stand up, and Jimmy had to find an old pot for her to use as a bedpan because she couldn’t get to the bathroom.

Sarah came every day to pray by the bedside but had fewer suggestions as time passed. Hannah pleaded again to see a doctor, but the church elder told Jimmy that he needed to place his faith in either God or medicine, but he couldn’t believe in both.

A week after Noah was born, Hannah was drenched in sweat and had severe fits of shaking. She stopped eating, and it became harder for Jimmy to wake her. Two days later, her eyes became blank and unfocused. When Jimmy tried to talk to her, he could tell she didn’t hear him. The children had begged every night for Hannah to be the one who put them to bed. Jimmy told them she’d be well soon, but now he didn’t believe it.

He called Sarah who said she was sorry about the situation, but other than prayer, there was nothing else she could do. The church elder didn’t answer the phone when Jimmy called, so he left him an urgent message. When Jimmy opened the door the next morning, the room was totally still. Hannah had died during the night, and Jimmy realized that he hadn’t done anything to help her. He sat down by the bed, held his head in his hands and cried.

When the church elder called later that day, he assured Jimmy that he’d made all the right decisions. The issue was not whether Hannah lived, but upon whose shoulders Jimmy had decided to put his faith.

He said, “It wasn’t God’s will for Hannah to live. When you go, it’s God’s choosing.”