"Is it always like that, Dad?" Jem asked as the buggy rolled down the moonlit road, away from the house where Joe and Molly Churchill had just welcomed their first child.
"Not always," Gilbert answered, smiling. "But often enough."
"I knew Molly MacAllister at school," Jem said. "I always thought of her as a timid little thing, like a sparrow. I never imagined she could be . . . like that."
Gilbert chuckled. "It's amazing to see, isn't it? Watching someone turn into a warrior? She did very well, especially for her first time."
Jem shook his head. "I can still scarcely believe it. There's Molly, so tiny you'd think her arms would snap if she carried a bucket of water. When I saw her with that enormous belly, I thought for sure she was going to break in half."
"The body is an astonishing creation," Gilbert said. "Sometimes, it seems so fragile — such a delicate balance of pulse and breath that the tiniest poke should push it out of order. And sometimes, it can endure or achieve more than you could imagine. Make no mistake, birth is an honest-to-goodness miracle. We help, but the main thing is helping mothers find their own strength."
Jem sat quiet for a moment. He had gone on simple calls with his father for years, but this had been his first birth. After a year of medical school, he had felt he was ready to assist, and Gilbert had agreed to take him along.
"How many babies have you delivered, Dad? Give or take?"
"One thousand seventy-four."
Jem was surprised, not by the number, but by its specificity. "That an estimate?"
Gilbert chuckled. "I do keep case notes, you know."
"But you know how many births off the top of your head?"
"The ledger for births is numbered," Gilbert shrugged. Then he grinned. "James Matthew Blythe, number 93. When we get home, you can enter little one-oh-seven-four yourself."
Jem sat a bit taller. The ledgers in the library were confidential; all the Blythe children had grown up with the explicit understanding that so much as touching one would incur swift and severe punishment. If his father would actually let him write in one, Jem knew that he had begun to think of him as a fellow-physician. A colleague.
"Can I ask you something, Dad?"
Gilbert nodded, letting the reins slacken a bit.
"I've often wondered," Jem said, shifting on the seat, "and even more now that I've started studying obstetrics. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But I wondered . . . what happened when Shirley was born?"
Gilbert swallowed audibly. It was too dark to be sure, but Jem thought that the shimmering moon was not wholly responsible for his father's pallor. "Placental abruption," he answered in a dull tone.
Gilbert nodded. "Not a complete abruption, but plenty to be going on with."
"Mum . . . hemorrhaged?" Jem asked cautiously.
"It was severe?"
Jem was not due to start his practical obstetrics course until the fall term, but he had attended enough lectures to know the truth.
"Dad. You . . . saved her."
Gilbert's mouth gave a grim twitch that could not have been called a smile.
"How?" Jem asked in awe.
"If I knew, I'd tell you."
"Couldn't you have taken her to town? A Caesarean section . . ."
Gilbert was shaking his head. "There was no time."
"No. Not really. I thought . . . I thought that maybe Shirley was a bit on the small side, but it's very difficult to tell that sort of thing before the birth. And then, all of a sudden . . ."
Gilbert exhaled and did not finish his thought.
Jem prodded the recesses of his mind for everything he had ever read about fetal development. "So . . . there must have been a small tear, asymptomatic, for a long time. And then it tore away all at once?"
Gilbert merely nodded.
"Risk factors for placental abruption . . ." Jem said, as much to himself as to his father. How old had Mum been when Shirley was born? Thirty-two? Thirty-three? "The risk goes up with age," he mused, "but she wasn't very old."
"No. She wasn't," Gilbert said faintly.
"Do you think it made a difference that she had all six of us so close together?"
Jem kicked himself. What a stupid thing to say. "Seven," he agreed.
Jem was thinking hard, now. But if births close together were a risk, why would they have had Rilla so soon after Shirley? And Mum was only thirty-four when Rilla was born — plenty of women in the Glen had children into their forties. Why . . .
Suddenly, Jem realized that any answers to this line of questioning would provide more information than he cared to have. He changed tacks in a hurry.
"And Shirley? Was he healthy?""
"Tiny," Gilbert said. "Full term, more or less, but delicate."*
"And Susan took care of him?"
"I don't think she put him down once for the first three months."
"But he's alright now, isn't he?"
"Nearly as tall as you are, if you haven't noticed," Gilbert said, a note of pride in his voice. "And still growing."
"And Mum . . ."
"It was a very close shave." Gilbert's tone indicated that he would say no more about it.
Jem sat stunned. But why should he be? He knew that his father saved lives. Maybe not every day, but often enough. That was the job, wasn't it?
"Promise me something, Jem," Gilbert said, his voice husky.
"When your own children are born, call me. Wherever you are, I'll come to you. If they're easy deliveries, you can do them yourself. That can be wonderful. Truly. But if they aren't . . . I would spare you that."
Jem let himself imagine, just for a moment, what it might feel like to hold Faith's life in his hands. He wondered whether it really was too late to pursue a career as a greengrocer.
"Alright, Dad. I will."
"Good. Never forget what you're up against, Jem. Death is greedy. Celebrate the miracles, like today."
"Are there many like today?"
"Every baby is a miracle."
Gilbert twitched the reins, telling the horse to pick up the pace. He took a single deep breath. "Don't worry, Jem. You'll do fine. And so will Faith."
Jem flushed. "I haven't even proposed yet."
"I imagine it won't be long now."
"Someone advised me to go slow," Jem muttered.
"And you listened!" Gilbert said, regaining his customary grin. "See? Miracles abound."
*"After [Shirley's] birth Anne had been very ill for a long time, and Susan mothered the baby with a passionate tenderness which none of the other children, dear as they were to her, had ever called out. Dr. Blythe had said that but for her he would never have lived." Rainbow Valley, chapter 1, "Home Again."