by Catherine Doherty.
Catherine liked to reminisce about her early years in Combermere. Here is one of her favorite stories—and one of ours, too.
The day had been hard. The bed was so wonderful. Sleep was instantaneous and deep. So was the dream deep. Deep but far away. Endlessly someone was calling me. Faintly. Faintly and not so faintly. Someone was shaking me.
They couldn’t do this to me. I was too sound asleep. It would be a sin to wake me. But they were waking me. I opened my eyes and saw my husband and the doctor. I must get up to help a woman. She lived far away. Her time was come, and it would be a hard time for her. The doctor was worried.
Half asleep, half awake, I got up, dressed somehow, got the things I needed, and started out into the night. The air felt cold. I was glad to get into the doctor’s car and to sleep, or to try to sleep.
The car sang a lullaby of tires against the asphalt road. I dreamed again, and woke with a start, hearing the song of the tires change to the sound of sand crushed by the weight of the car. We must be off the road, bogged down.
I got out and looked around. We were mired in a rutty country lane. The heavens were full of stars. Spring was everywhere. Spring and new life. The ground was soft and full of icy water. The road was almost a muddy lake.
The doctor got out too, after a time, and convinced himself that the car could go no further. He picked up his cases of instruments, and I picked up my nurse’s equipment, and we started walking. We had, I judged, a mile or so to go. The doctor walked ahead. I followed.
We saw a light bobbing up and down, like a will-o’-the-wisp. It turned out to be a kindly neighbor come to give it to us. Gratefully I took the oil lantern from him.
I tried to light the way. But there was no way. We were walking over fields, up a hill, down again. Now we were on solid ground, now ankle deep in mire. The beauty of the night was a song around us, but the walking grew harder and harder. From a ridge, the lights of a town shone like a thousand glow-worms. That town was far away.
At the bottom of the last hill, a tiny house nestled, half drunk, leaning sideways, peering at us with one sleepy drab eye—the dim lamp in the window. A quarter of a mile down the slope, and we were there.
The kitchen was big. A man and a woman waited for us there, and a baby in a homemade crib. The woman’s time had come, but not just yet. We must wait. So we waited. The husband, the woman, the mite in the cradle, the doctor and I.
What a strange waiting that was! Tiredness filled my bones yet sleep would not come … because there was a woman with child waiting her time, counting the minutes of her pains.
Sometimes she dozed fitfully, and so did I, stretched out on the floor near the warm stove. The woman moaned. I got up. She relaxed but I could not. I made a cup of tea. There was fresh-baked bread, and honey. It tasted good. It woke me up.
The woman moaned again, and again. No one could help her. Her time had come, but she was still not ready. We would have to wait a little longer.
What a strange waiting indeed! Waiting for a new life to begin is a most peculiar waiting, apart from all other kinds of waiting. There is a hushed and holy quality about it. It is as if one were in church. It is both hard and sweet on all, the husband, the doctor, the nurse, and even the woman in pain.
It is as if one were listening—listening with one’s soul—to hear God’s words of command, of creation. Yes, a strange, peculiar, unique kind of waiting.
Eventually the pain rushed in more swiftly. And still the woman was not ready. It was going to be a hard delivery. The doctor was worried. He thought he would have to take the patient to the hospital—if he could. This house was too small for the operation he had in mind.
She would have to get up and walk the mile and more to the place where he had left the car. And then, if he could get the car moving—perhaps the neighbor had already succeeded in doing this—he might reach the hospital in time. If not, well, there was a bigger house not far from the car, where the operation might be performed.
Maybe somebody there would be willing to take in the woman and the doctor and the nurse.
We got the woman up and made her ready for the long walk. It was morning then. The air was cold and fresh, most welcome after the humid atmosphere of the tiny house.
We walked slowly, the doctor going on ahead. We paused every now and then, the woman and I. The pains made her stop.
Oh, the grit of our women! The quiet courage! The rare humor! The laughter that seeps out of God’s friends in this corner of the rural apostolate!
We went up the first hill with painful slowness. It began to rain, and the woman said, "First you’re wet on the bottom"—meaning my shoes and stockings—"then on the top"—meaning all the rest of me. She leaned against a boulder, racked with pain, but smiling.
I thought of immaculate white hospitals and of rich women surrounded by nurses and doctors—women fearing the advent of a child with great fear, slim women, streamlined, painted and primped and worried about their figure.
"This will be my tenth baby," the woman said. She said it not exactly with pride, but certainly with joy.
She mentioned the first nine trials, trying to disregard the waves of pain that shook her. And we went slowly on.
"I can remember my mother telling me about women having their children in the fields," she said. "I had one of my own all by myself. My goodness, I was scared. I remembered only one thing I must do. I remember the doctor said I must boil the scissors. So I boiled them. And they’re still rusty."
We rested again, and there was in her face a light that could not be caught by any artist, light like a shadow of God’s face. I shivered a little from sheer awe.
The doctor was far ahead. We could not even hear him.
"It doesn’t matter," the woman told me with a brave grin. "He has the instruments, but we have the baby clothes. We have the most important things."
I asked Our Lady, silently, to let us reach the neighbor’s house, at least, if we could not get to the hospital before the baby was born.
The doctor had thought the walk might shorten the woman’s time and might also make the operation easier for the patient and himself. He was right. The child would be born soon now—maybe before we were half-way to the car.
We kept on walking slowly, resting, the woman giving way now frequently to pain. We got to the car.
But pain laughed at the car. Pain would have nothing to do with the car. We got the woman into the neighbor’s house, made a fire, heated water, sterilized the instruments, and went desperately to work, and to prayer.
The silence was broken only by the crackle of fire, the whisper of the doctor’s voice, the groans of the woman—and then, the wonder of it! The cry of the newborn boy. A moment separated from all others. A baby merging his new cry with his mother’s last one. A man was born. Alleluia!
The sun outside was warm. The birds sang. The trees showed new green shades. Presently we were off, back toward the waiting blue door of Madonna House. The door painted blue in honor of Our Lady, the door that blessed whoever ventured through it.
Back to sleep in the bed I left so many hours ago—to sleep without dreams—and to wait the next call for help that should come through the blue door downstairs.
—Adapted from The History of the Apostolate of Friendship House and Madonna House, Vol. II, (begun in 1962), pp. 547-552, unpublished.
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!