Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My day among the Amish

My friend Mama Midwife caught a baby.

Two weeks ago, she called me, breathless with excitement, and told me the story of Kathryn, a little Amish baby. She is the eleventh child in the family. Though the Amish women do not talk about their pregnancies around their children, I had the sense that Kathryn was eagerly anticipated and greatly loved by her siblings.

Her birth was "routine"--if any birth could ever be described this way. There were no complications, nothing out of the ordinary. About an hour after Kathryn was born, though, the primary midwife (my midwife, too--Chris) said quietly, "Kathryn has Down's Syndrome."

Things were going well for the first few days. Kathryn ate well, and seemed to be doing fine. The midwives checked on her often--perhaps more often than they normally would. On Saturday, they took her to the children's hospital. Mama Midwife drove them.

Kathryn was very fussy, wouldn't eat, had horrible diarrhea, and was becoming limp and lethargic.

She had surgery yesterday morning, and she'll need another surgery in about six weeks.

This is the first time the parents have been away from their children for so long. They were worried about them, wanted to see them, wanted them to come see Kathryn. They were worried about what it would cost to hire a driver. It's about 80 miles from their house to the hospital.

Sometimes when the Lord speaks, it's plain. He spoke plainly yesterday.

We left here at about 4:30, meaning to arrive at the Yoders' farm at about 5:20. Leaving town is always calming for me. I love the transition into the hills of farmland, where the neatly laid-out fields sprawl and the shadows of clouds make large undefined shapes on the rows of corn and alfalfa and wheat. I love looking across the landscape, seeing the glow of the rays of sunshine beaming down through the dust of the earth to touch the distant treetops. The farther we go from town, the more narrow lanes can be seen peeking out through the trees. Sometimes you can see wheel tracks from the buggies turning in and quietly leaving our world and entering theirs.

We slowed and turned along the network of country roads, finally coming to the farm. The large house with its narrow black trim and clean, shining windows stood at the head of the drive. Two tall posts bearing purple martin houses cheerfully welcomed us. The hitch chains at their posts swung in the soft breeze. The sign over the mailbox saying "Brown Eggs for Sale" had been neatly covered with a plastic bag. The eleven cows, having been milked by the children's hands, were already put to pasture for the afternoon, and the horses had been fed and watered. The dog barked a greeting to us, the English drivers who had come to take the children to their sister's bedside.

We knocked on the screen door and walked into a spacious kitchen. A long table with equally long benches stretched before us. A large wood stove sat on a metal plate. The only light in the room was from the big windows on three sides, leaving no want for a lamp. There was no sign of meals having been eaten; everything had already been cleaned up. It smelled good. To the left, an even bigger room, mostly barren, but not lonesomely so. It was comfortably quiet, with the sound of hurried steps to get braids tucked into nets, under black scarves, and into black bonnets. The eldest girl checked her reflection in a small mirror above a sink in the kitchen. She has the straightest, whitest teeth in the most dazzling smile I have ever seen. She radiates joy and youthful exuberance.

One, two, three red heads with hundreds of freckles. A few blond heads with soft, green eyes. A couple of dark heads, with hair conformed to the shape of a hat. Bright blues, greens, gentle browns and greys. The black stockings and shoes usually reserved for Sundays.

Two-year-old Wilma scurried about from one room to another, peeking shyly around the corner, catching my eye and then tucking out of sight. She did not understand my English, but she understood my smile. She grinned back at me and stole my heart, possibly forever.

"We're almost ready," said the eldest daughter. "The boys are lagging upstairs. I think they're looking for their socks."

The girls each carried something--several plastic ice cream buckets with lids, a paper sack, one with a plastic bag. One of the buckets is decorated with dark red velvet hearts and flowers. The top says "Lydia Mae." They talked quietly amongst themselves in their low German, deciding who would ride in which van. They saw that there was a baby in each, and a 13-year-old English girl in mine. The choices were made, then, and they climbed into the vans.

Some had been on the long ride to the city before, but not all of them. I could hear whispers, but could understand very little. Every now and then, a few words were spoken in English.

I have a Mama Mirror on my dashboard--I can angle it to keep an eye on my kids. Yesterday, I saw the black bonnets and hats and big eyes of the children riding in my van. As the country roads gave way to the county road, then the state highway, and eventually the interstate, their eyes grew larger and brighter. Their heads turned in unison as we whizzed past other cars, buses, semis. One truck was carrying mushrooms, and said so. I heard the word, "Mushrooms!" exclaimed, along with the German I couldn't understand. I wondered at their thoughts. Imagine never having seen an entire truck full of just one kind of food--enough of that kind of food to feed your entire community several times over, and then go bad for lack of wanting more!

They stared at all the stores. The gigantic, over-filled buildings of stuff. Such an excess that there is a store amidst the stores where people take the things they do not need and no longer want, so that others can buy them. For children who have only the things they need, how can I explain this concept to them?

We exited from the Interstate onto the freeway which bypasses the city, with roads intersecting like the veins from the stem of a great leaf. For a time, we drove near a truck with a sound system blasting so loud it hurt my ears. They couldn't not stare. When the truck mercifully exited, there were sighs of relief from the back. "Imagine how loud it must be in his truck!" I said. The bigger ones laughed and told the joke to the little ones. I hoped they were distracted from the billboard advertising "Whole Body Hair Removal!" I was glad the Frog had brought along a book and didn't see it, either.

We exited the freeway, and began our trek into the center of the city. We passed apartment buildings, houses, shops, restaurants. We passed people riding bikes, people walking, people jogging, people walking dogs, people waiting at the bus stop, people going home from work, people carrying groceries. The children craned their necks to see the variety of the English.

You and I live in a world where everyone tries so hard to be different. My hair is longer than yours. Your shirt is a groovy cut. Man, those pants are cute. Hey, look at that pretty dress. Where on earth did you get your shoes? We describe one another by what we last saw each other wearing. "Mary is the one in the cute pink top and the short black skirt with the bow in her hair."

The Amish live in a world which draws attention because they do not draw attention. Their clothes are the same. The girls begin wearing the long dress with the long apron and the white bonnet the very first time they are dressed. The boys wear the button-up shirt, pants and suspenders the very first time they are dressed. Their eyes, their smiles, their voices--these are things which distinguish one from the other. "Mary is the one with the green eyes and the lower voice."

Here I was with a van full of children who have never seen the city, and their eyes surely had a feast. A woman jogging wearing shorts, a sports bra, an iPod on her arm, movie star sunglasses, and her hair in a swinging pony tail. A man sauntering along carrying a backpack, his dread locks coming nearly to his waist. Two women talking animatedly, one with a sack of groceries, one with a big dog on a leash. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, but no one seems to be doing anything.

We pulled up to the hospital, only to find that my gigantic van would not fit into the ramp--I got to park in front. We went in and got our visitor bracelets, which made us look like a group wearing way too much clothing at a water park. The younger children looked tentative at allowing an English woman with a whole lot of makeup put a weird thing around their wrist. The older children went first, showing their bracelets to their little brothers and sisters, telling them it was alright.

Our children's hospital is new. There is a lot to see, even for someone who isn't Amish. We all crowded into one elevator, Mama Midwife and I joking that we were hopefully under the 3500 pound weight limit. When we got to the fourth floor, where Kathryn was, we disembarked next to some large windows. The children made a bee-line for the windows, marveling at how high up we were. "Look at the trees! Look at the little houses! Look how far you can see!"

We moved from the windows to the security door which led to Kathryn's PICU room. A nurse on her way out of the ward asked us, "Are you guys all here to see the same person?" We told her we were. "Okay, the family waiting room is there to the left. Only two at the bedside."

We ignored her.

As we wound around the nurses station, about fifty pairs of eyes fell on our little parade. They all knew who we would be coming to see. There was only one Amish patient on the floor. No one else told us where the family waiting room was. We walked slowly toward Kathryn's room.

Mama Midwife and I told the children to go ahead of us into the room. The girls placed their ice cream buckets on top of a cart in the room, and began shedding their black bonnets and scarves, immediately taking their white bonnets from the buckets and popping them over their hair, loosely tying them under their chins, the older ones helping the younger ones. The boys took off their hats.

When the flurry of activity settled, Rachel and Ervin went to each child in turn, taking the faces of their children in their hands. Their greeting to each was quiet German. It was affectionate, but not overtly.

Wilma clung to her mother's skirt and her father's trousers.

In a room designed to hold two hospital beds, there was only one. Besides that, there were two couches, a wagon, two chairs, Kathryn's bed, her IV pump, two medical carts, and a laundry bin. Still, there was so much excess floor space, that we could all comfortably mill about without bumping into one another. The children all spend a good amount of time just looking at little Kathryn. She is so tiny, so plainly beautiful, and has a mop of hair that is almost unimaginable on such a small baby. It covers her ears.

Ervin and his eldest son, who is 20, sat next to one another and spoke at length in German. Their faces were peaceful, but serious. I imagined their conversation. "Things are fine at home. The cows have been milked and fed, and the horses. The fields look good. There's talk of rain this week. The cow that calved last night is doing well. Her calf is healthy and taking a good amount of milk. We put a bag over the sign advertising our eggs so we don't have strangers coming to the door." I could be completely off, but if I were a father who had left my son home to be the man of the house and watch over the farm, those are the things I'd want to know.

Rachel and Ervin sat on the couch nearest Kathryn's bed, and though there was so much empty space in the room, their ten children sat so near one another that they only took up about 20 square feet. The room was so peacefully quiet, with whispers and low voices here and there. Each time a nurse came into the room, one or two would stand near and watch what they were doing with Kathryn. Mama Midwife asked lots of questions and translated the answers for Rachel and Ervin. The three youngest girls took turns looking out the window of the room door, watching the high-tech, hurried world of the English. They smiled, but did not wave, at the people who rushed past.

At one point, Rachel wanted to show the hospital to her children. "It's something new. Most of them have never seen a hospital." The eldest daughter had seen one, once.

They went up into the elevator to see the fifth floor, marveling again at the view.

I am afraid of heights. I stayed on the fourth floor, well away from the window.

When it was time to go, the bustle began again, with the girls trading their white home bonnets for the black scarves and bonnets usually reserved for Sundays. The boys put their hats back on. We were to leave one of the older girls with Rachel and bring Ervin home with us.

We again loaded into the vans. As we headed down the hill toward the main road, I said, "We're going to stop for something to eat. Do you like cheeseburgers?" Ervin said, "We'll never turn that down!"

I ordered double cheeseburgers for everyone, and a large orange soda for them to share. I asked if they wanted fries. Ervin was almost too shy, and said the cheeseburgers would be a great plenty.

As darkness pressed on, Ervin softly played his harmonica to soothe Wilma. I recognized "Mary had a little lamb."

We passed through town and stopped at home to drop off the Frog and the Bug. Ervin saw our project. He said, "You remodeling your house?" I told him no, that we were adding on. "Adding on?" he asked. "Why didn't you just build it the size you wanted in the first place?" he joked. We had a good laugh about it. I told him we were nearly three years into our addition, and that My Darling is doing it all pretty much by himself. He seemed to appreciate that fact, though I wondered if he thought it strange. The Amish come together to help one another get things done when they need to get done. We live so much closer to our neighbors than they, and yet we exist so much farther apart....

It was late when we got home. The stars were bright and low, and their light was enough to see the steps to the house.

Ervin asked us what we wanted in return for bringing their family together for the evening. Mama Midwife and I had already discussed it and quickly came to the conclusion that we would take no payment. We didn't want to insult Ervin, though, and said, "Maybe some eggs or a pie." He grew quiet. He said, haltingly, "You don't know what this has meant to us."

I said, "What kindness is there in the world, if no one ever goes to trouble for someone else?"

He said, "Well, that's the truth then."

Mama Midwife spoke with Rachel this afternoon. Kathryn has been moved from the PICU to the regular peds floor. She's doing well. Hopefully she'll be home very soon, to be held and loved on by her family. They miss her terribly.

We're to be paid in strawberries.


Carrie said...

Prayers for you, little Kathryn.

Melanie said...

What an adventure! I loved reading your retelling!

hf52771 said...

Praying earnestly for the Yoders. Looney, thanks for sharing your story. You really, REALLY must write a book.

Robin said...

Beautiful story! Thanks for sharing!!

Moni Rose said...

what a beautiful story! how lucky (blessed) for you to have been a part of it all!

my parents had some amish men build our house and once my mom and i took the women with us to go cherry picking for the day - it was an awesome experience!