Suzy Vitello • Frank McCourt Memoir Prize Winner
Your son is so little, so young, his thighs still rolls of fat, his hair silk fluff. You lie in a fetal C around him. The hours of the night melting together in a ball of sticky sweat.
In the minutes before dark turns to sky, bird call assaults you. How can life go on all normal? Nature proceeding per usual. Human activity resuming. Ka-wrrrrr, from the kitchen. A coffee bean grinder? “Damn it!” you hear. The fuses again. You squeeze your boy against the lump of unborn child. People. People. So many people. Today and tomorrow and the next day there will be a lava flow of arms and lips and voices.
At the doctor’s, your pliable cervix is a hot rubber band. “I can manually dilate her to nine,” says the doctor to not you. Who else is in the room? Your father, the other doctor. They are speaking doctor speak, and you’ve morphed into a metric. A de-personed multipara. You’ve worked in the medical world, you know the drill, so you join them. “How much time does she have?” you ask about yourself. Wow. And. How is your voice so calm?
“I’d do what you have to do soon,” says the doctor.
Meaning, acknowledge the death of the husband in whatever ceremony can be done on the quick.
“So, no contractions yet?” the doctor says for maybe the tenth time.
“Braxton Hicks,” says your calm voice.
“No bloody show?”
Who in the ever-living fuck named the waxy cunt-cork to sound like a Brit going to a shitty play? Struck voiceless, you blink twice for no.
“We’re planning on a service at Lazear-Smith Thursday,” says your father.
Your father turns his face to you, “I just confirmed with the mortician. We’re headed there next.”
A Sound of Music song dances in your head. You are 26, going on 16.
Your baby kicks hard, and the doctor sees your stomach leap and says, “You have a strong one in there.”
Twenty-four hours ago he was alive, and now you are looking at a brochure of caskets. It’s arranged like a furniture catalog, with the nicest, most expensive products first: mahogany, walnut, cherry, pine. The tiniest photo at the bottom of the page shows a plain, gray tinnish one.
Metal? Your heart squeezes into a knot with the thought of your young husband spending eternity inside of an icy steel box like a science experiment. But it’s half the price of the cherry one. You don’t have room enough on your Discover card for any of these, however.
Like he’s reading your mind, your father tells you to choose whatever casket you want. You can settle up later, after the various insurances come through.
The undertaker doesn’t mean to be rude, but since the viewing needs to happen quickly, tick-tock.
You point to a middle-of-the-line model, one with the adjective “solid” in the description, and then lumber off to your next task. On your way out, underneath the hearse portico, there stands a familiar man in the somber attire of a funeral services worker. A large man with a brick-shaped head who, a few years back, was your social studies teacher. The awkwardness of this sighting is compounded by the fact that there are two historically prominent characteristics of this particular teacher. One: an overly large crotch region that led the entire student body to speculate on the possibility of ball sac elephantiasis, and two: his personal credo, God, Country, and Family in that order. A phrase that, perhaps, should not have been voiced whilst teaching American History in a public school.
You don’t meet his eyes—or his crotch, for that matter. You wish he didn’t know you, your family, your story. You don’t want intimacy from this lurch of a man. You don’t want his acknowledgment. He’s from a long-ago part of your narrative, and how dare he not stay there.
Like you, he seems frozen in the awkward moment of recognition. How could he not be, with your swollen belly, your puffed-out sob-soiled face? The moment stretches and stretches, and, at last, still avoiding eye-contact, he tells you, “Bear up.”
You are appalled, but also relieved. Relieved and redeemed for your uncharitable thoughts. Bear up. What a fucked up thing to say. You are no longer his student; you owe him nothing, not even a thank you. Fuck him. And, yes, okay. Bear up, you will. You follow your father to his shiny white sports car and he zooms you and your pliable cervix back to your little shack in the woods, where more arms, lips, voices await.
A knock at the door. It’s your gay neighbor with an enormous platter of fried chicken fresh from the pan.
“I’m Irish,” he says, as you collapse into tears from the kindness. “This is what we do.”
More love arrives, and more, and more. People with shovels to fix the broken cesspool in your front yard. People with arms to hold your son while you take a bath. People who drive you to get your hair done, because somehow you have to stand in a room and receive condolences all the while crossing your legs so your baby doesn’t splat out of you onto the mortuary floor and it’s really important that your frizzy hair isn’t a rat’s nest.
Finally, finally, at long last, evening blows cooler air over the shack and the people, you and your babies both outside and in. Moths commence their nightly dance.
The soup-lava of shock thickens once you stop moving. The very first 24 hours of his non-life have elapsed. The second night of your new life opens its long, spidery arms.
Another decision that’s easy: No, you do not want to see him.
• Skull fractures.
• Traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhages.
• Lacerated spleen with hemoperitoneum.
These are all listed in the “cause of death” box at the bottom of the certificate you just received from the Public Register of Deaths. Also on that list is the benign note: Fractured right clavicle. There. Good. You erase the smashed skull and blunt trauma to vital organs and decide on the generous image of a broken collarbone. No need to sully your future memory with the truth.
Your mother-in-law and your father-in-law and your sister-in-law, however, will view your husband before they seal the casket. But no, you tell them, these insults to his body will not be available to the masses who are coming to the “viewing” tomorrow.
Along with the death certificate, here are other objects delivered today:
• A photo of the wrecked car
But his actual clothes? Shirt, trousers, underwear, socks? Obviously not.
You take the pile of your husband’s effects, neat and tidy and cleaned of gore, and place them in a ceramic bowl. One given to you upon your wedding less than three years earlier. The bowl is a mustard color, hand thrown in Maine. The Nunn Bush shoes stick up out of it like a spy-hopping orca.
Privately, you are chatting with Frankie non-stop. He answers everything you ask. What shirt do you want to be buried in? Shoes or no shoes? He answers all of these questions. Should I buy a suit for you to wear? Ring or no ring?
Ring! Where is it?
Envelope, says your not-really-dead husband.
Yes, right, there are still more items in the manila envelope which sits on the counter—from which you’ve already snatched the lying death certificate. The envelope has your name on it. Surviving spouse: Suzy Freisinger.
Why your maiden name? You are a good Catholic apostolic wife who took the name Vitello in a heartbeat. The lyrical Italian easily snatched up for the coarse Austrian Frei-sing-er.
An image of your wedding rehearsal three Augusts ago swims in back of your eyes. The church was so hot, you blacked out. Fainted, right there at the altar. That day was your last day as a Freisinger, until now, according to this damn envelope. Inside of it, Frankie’s wedding ring is sealed in a small baggie like a carnival prize. You pull it out.
The warm metal circles your thumb.
Also in the envelope, your husband’s wallet.
The soft heft of the wallet weights your palm.
You open the folds and slip his driver’s license from the plastic sheath. This is the identification that the state police used to hunt down “next of kin.” You picture an emergency medical worker pickpocketing your allegedly freshly expired spouse. Who has the right to do such a thing? How dare they! Who are these attendants of death and birth? The doctor who pries open your cervix. The emergency technician who seizes a wallet.
Your body is doing something weird now. A jolt from your brain stem, down your spine. Is it rage or intense sorrow? Is it labor? Your body has not revealed which.
You close your fist around the paper license, and then you open your hand and bypass the photo, zooming in on his signature. The adolescent cursive Frank Richard Vitello you’ve seen a hundred times. A thousand, maybe. Even though Frankie whispers secrets and answers and private jokes to you, it is clear that he will never write this name again.
The warm metal circling your thumb—an identification band like they put on bird’s legs—you are a piece of data: widow with a ring.
And then, it happens. Your body shakes with sobs and sputters like a car that won’t catch. The ring and your thumb and your whole hand swims in a blur of tears. You grip the counter before sliding down to the floor in a crumple of full-term mass. Ripe fruit dropping from a limb.
Your sister and your mother somehow found a black summer maternity dress that fits your minutes-from-delivering girth perfectly. Your face is still puffy from the crying jag but who you see in the mirror is somebody else entirely.
Staring back at you is an actual grown-up woman. Gone is the freckle-faced girl with the frizzy hair. You’re taller. How is that possible? Those photos of Jackie Kennedy come to mind. Polished hair. Sunglasses. An actual purse from who-knows-where looped around your arm, dangling from your elbow’s crook.
You are an imposter robot widow and you are about to receive the sad queue of well-wishers who will try not to look belly-ward. Many will bite bottom lips when they hug you to avoid falling apart.
Back at Lazear-Smith, they have the capability to accordion open walls for the more popular dead people, and seal them for those with few visitors.
A tragically killed 25-year-old married to a small-town doctor’s pregnant daughter requires a double.
The casket, as requested, is closed. Vases of lilies, roses, and mums loom above, below, and to either side of the sturdy, hard-polished coffin. The robot widow eyes the bereaved as they form a line as if buying hot lunch at Warwick Valley High School. At the kneeler they kneel and mostly cross themselves and mesh their knuckles in prayer.
You let the robot widow receive the hugs and dab her eyes with Kleenex. Meanwhile, the real you continues to focus on the warm metal of your late husband’s wedding ring where it circles the thumb of your right hand. Your own band presses into the pregnant flesh of your left ring finger.
Mostly the robot widow says, “Thank you,” and “Yes, he was,” while you carry on the conversation with Frankie because you are getting more pressure about being induced since the baby inside of you has not come out yet. There is the matter of the funeral back in Buffalo. The matter of flying the body up there. The matter of your sister- and brother-in-law who had agreed to take Frankie’s place at the birth, but they are torn because they also want to be in Buffalo when they lower him in into the hole.
Are we being selfish? you ask Frankie.
Maybe the baby will come tonight, Frankie says.
You nod in agreement, but you don’t share, even with Frankie, that you hope the baby stays put. You don’t know why you hope this, but you do.
Meanwhile the robot widow tells the guests, “Come to the reception. It’s at my dad’s up the street,” as if it’s a wedding.
Your father’s house is also the house you partly grew up in. The only difference is that now, instead of your mother, sister, and you also living here, a woman named Julie does. And Julie’s young daughter. Julie is four years older than you are. She smokes a lot of weed. The house is a large Victorian with a doctor’s office attached. The post-viewing gathering is on the back screened-in-porch. There is no sign of Julie. You worry a little that the grow room she’s set up in an old bathroom upstairs will be discovered. Or that Julie will emerge in a bathrobe, bong in hand, as she did the first day you met her.
Bereaved guests are huddled in clots, not wanting to be the first to disrupt the mountain of cold cuts and sliced cheeses. The robot widow makes the rounds, table-touching your father’s colleagues and long-standing patients.
“Eat something,” your father says, pointing to the catered food.
The robot widow holds a sandwich, but it does not venture past her lips. Eventually, she crams the sandwich in the toaster oven for safe-keeping and wanders away from the guests and into the void of forever.
The decision is made. Today, you will be induced. “You have to think of others,” a relative lets slip.
There is a precise appointment, like a tooth-cleaning. Like an abortion. You will report to L&D at St. Anthony’s Community Hospital at 12:30 p.m. You will be given an enema, they’ll puncture the water bag, you’ll shit out your shit, then the needle of Pitocin, they warned, will be threaded into your vein.
You will not let them stick a needle in your arm. Frankie won’t let that happen.
Your toddler is in the care of someone else, and you are at your mother’s house in town.
Today is an interface, you realize. The line between before and after. You have an idea. Or maybe it’s not really an idea, per se, but a jolt in your heart that springs up to your brain. The cartoon of a light bulb over a head comes to mind.
You hand an overnight bag to your mother and wave her off. This half-mile trek to the hospital—the same hospital with a wing dedicated to your long-deceased Opa who delivered your little sister; the same hospital where your father now serves as Staff President—is lined with backstory shrapnel.
“I’ll meet you there,” you inform your mother.
You walk a few blocks to Main Street. Behind you are the railroad tracks upon which you occasionally placed pennies. At 14 you should have known better, but watching a train roll by, the power of it flattening money to copper mess, and then peeling the warm coins from the metal tracks afterward, the hot discs searing your palms just a little was more proof of life.
On you trudge. Past the latter teen years, into adulthood. Ah, Garcia’s (pronounced GAR-shuz), with its 80-cent cocktails you mostly drank for free. Foosball tournaments, Allman Brothers on the juke box. Blowjobs given in restrooms and cars messily parked in the alley-sized street.
A half-block later, there’s the old stone church. The church that was partially destroyed when a couple of hooligan classmates accidentally set it ablaze in the late ’70s. The church roof now bears the smoothed newness of plastic surgery, but before the arson, when the church could still proudly boast authentic historic-ness, inside of it, your Opa—a physician and a composer you often brag—held symphonic concerts to benefit the American Lung Association.
Before he died of a broken heart, Opa dedicated original pieces to you and your sister, and the two of you, in matching dresses sewn by your mother, would stand up in the audience and curtsy lightly when summoned. At the time, you were mortified, but also, the privilege of such a thing—the honor of it—cemented in you a helpful arrogance that helped you withstand years of taunting during your ugly duckling days—Frizzyhanger! they mocked. Your late-bloomer, bespectacled, rat’s-nest-hair-often-hidden-under-a-bandana self was an easy mark. Your teeth were criss-crossed with orthodontia and your wire-framed eyeglasses Coke-bottle thick, but your grandfather was a beloved man in this town, and music he wrote had been, once upon a time, dedicated to you.
Warwick Valley. Such a quaint, quaint village. The entire history and hijinks of your formative years compressed on this short walk. A non-linear movie trailer of Suzy Freisinger’s childhood and adolescence. Images of you at various stages of awkward, curious, shy, and adventurous pummel you as you step, dance, twirl through your narrative. As you lumber through the town. This is who you were before you were a wife. Before you were a widow. How did it all happen so fast and so haphazardly? Can this be a dream? A dress rehearsal? Can you get a do-over?
This summer’s stroll down memory lane may have been too bold a call. Dizziness is setting in. You are perspiring like an obese marathon runner. June departed yesterday, and today it’s July. Finally no longer the month in which you were born. Finally, no longer the month in which your husband died. In a few hours you will push new life from your body.
Frankie? Are you still with me?
Both of your hands circle the sides of your distended belly through a thin, cotton dress. You are amazed at the hardness of an abdomen at full-term. Later this evening, deprived of its sacred luggage, your stomach will deflate. Skin will fold over on its fleshy, flabby self. And then your tits will take up the hardness as your milk comes in. You know the drill. The push-me-pull-you of baby producing. But right this second, you need water. The dots of heatstroke are turning black before your eyes as you reach the road sign imperative: HOSPITAL – QUIET. You need to sit, but where? There’s not even a spot of lawn on which to casually plop.
You breathe deep and ask Frankie to spare you the embarrassment of fainting as you continue to walk toward a bizarre collection of disparate additions cloaking the once-majestic original stone entrance to the Catholic hospital and its namesake statue, Saint Anthony. It had been the erstwhile entrance through which you occasionally accompanied your grandfather for the Sunday, post-mass viewings of new babies. Your Opa called you Schatz, and he’d lift you up to the nursery window to witness the fresh bundles of swaddled life. These were your fondest memories of Opa. He smelled of an aftershave Oma referred to as toilet water. He wore a bowtie dotted with flowery circles that you called his cookie tie. His freshly shaved cheeks. His tonic-toned, gray-white hair combed over a chalice-shaped pink scalp.
The newborns were mostly asleep, recovering from their harrowing journeys down vaginal channels to an inhospitable container of too much space and air. As much as your little heart warmed at the sight of them, even then, you felt sad that they’d never again feel as safe as they did inside of their mothers.
It seemed that Opa did too. The melancholy tiredness that always clung to him. A tear at the corner of his eye. The babies in their bundles and their crinkle faces and cone-shaped heads.
As you skirt the old entrance for the new one, as the automatic door yawns open for you and your unborn child, as you navigate the halls and ascend three floors up via elevator, this is what you are thinking: Frankie and Opa will protect you. They will guide you through childbirth and this baby will carry them back from the spirit world on its journey to life. This is what is meant by sacrament, right? Prayers in action? The interplay between suffering and the promise of everlasting life. Let’s do this, you tell your spirit guides. Let’s pop out a baby. Up to the L&D floor you go.
You have a goal: no intravenous interference, and while your body is ridding you of waste, you map out the details:
• Insist on being able to walk throughout labor.
• Refuse the Pitocin.
• Visualize the baby corkscrewing through your cervix while your uterine muscles contract.
The Bradley Method instructor had you and Frankie practice resisting intervention in the hospital setting. You recited declaratives and learned how to advocate for natural childbirth during all the various stages of labor.
“We will have our baby without drugs,” you reassure Frankie now as you squirt some sort of disinfectant on your asshole after your enema purge.
“Don’t bear down,” the OB cautioned you before your trip to the potty, “or the baby might just be born in the toilet.”
As you leave the bathroom, a new pressure blossoms between your stomach and vagina. Not exactly like menstrual cramps, but in that neighborhood. Deep and tight, this feeling butts up against the overall numbness coursing through the rest of your body.
Don’t think of it as pain, the instructor had advised. Instead, embrace your body’s most amazing ability. Relax into abdominal breathing.
Visualize your baby’s head pressing, turning, pushing. Breathe into the sensation.
A cramp doubles you over. Your belly harder than granite. You shuffle to the labor and delivery room where you are helped into a bed that sits under a massive light. A nurse is preparing something nearby. Something that looks like intravenous medicine, so you recite your resistance speech.
The nurse bites her lip. If she wants to bitch-slap you, she’s holding back. You are the special patient, after all. The newly widowed daughter of the top brass. Instead of arguing, she wraps a cord around your belly and shoves a wire up your vagina. “To monitor the baby’s heartbeat.”
After one or two more rounds of cramps, the doctor comes in and checks the dilation and effacement.
“Wow,” he says.
“Wow?” you say.
“You’re ready to push,” he says. “Aren’t you feeling the contractions?”
“If you say so.”
Your father and brother-in-law are in the room, silenced by miracle and gravity. New life on its way. The doctor and a nurse are busy poking your genitals. And then:
“I see the head, bear down and push through the contraction!”
Now you feel it. A real contraction. You visualize and breathe through your belly and push. It hurts. It hurts! This is the first real feeling you’ve felt since Monday. You want more! You want this part of labor to last all day! Pain! Yes!
Another burning, tearing, wrenching cramp, and then your daughter slides out into the waiting hands of the doctor.
She screams, her red little body. Her head covered in slick, charcoal hair.
They suck the cheese from her nostrils and wipe the mucus from her mouth. They clamp the cord that connects her to you and slice through it. They place your daughter on your deflated belly. You grab her and lift her up to your lips and kiss her warm, bloody forehead while she screams for the both of you.