Chris Voisard - Applied Creativity
Say Uncle
A preview of my memoir, Say Uncle, that gives my child's eye view of adults who have gone off the rails, then turns an honest eye on myself. A book of the power of the human spirit over the inherent obligations of biology.
A Time to be born
I was in her, waiting to be born.
My mother, lying alone under a sweat soaked sheet in the West Suburban Hospital outside of Chicago that Friday night was probably thinking, (like a lot of women do when they're in that grip-clutch of pain that is childbirth) that she was having the longest, most agonizing labor ever to be experienced by any woman in history. She hoped, like all of us who have experienced that scary-torturous, awesome-surreal anticipation that is particular to a new person coming out of one's body, that it was all going to be worth it.
Say Uncle
In the spirit of what was to become a family tradition, my mother spent her days before Christmas in a drug induced fog, inhaling a pharmaceutical called "twilight sleep" from a tube at the side of the hospital bed. Everyone, the doctors, the nurses, and especially my mother, wanted me out, it was after all Christmas Eve, a fact that didn't faze me. I was staying right where I was, thank you. I already had that characteristic, the one that pisses some people off, the needing of a little extra time. I hadn't quite come to terms with the Agreement I had made this time around, although it was a little late to be having second thoughts.
I was resting upside down in the watery maroon uterus psyching myself up. If I could have breathed, I would have been puffing little breaths the way athletes do before their biggest challenge. After the contractions began, squeezing and urging me, I continued to resist for two whole days, giving myself, as I tend to do, that little extra time to reconsider, stubbornly clinging to my warm, dark, but now cramped home. There were easier tasks I could have taken on here on earth, say triumphing over a fatal illness and then getting my smiling face plastered on every TV, showing the world that to Spirit a mere cancer cell is nothing, for example. Having my physical body filled full of Swiss cheese holes would have been easier for me to bear than being born with that one dark hole in my heart. Not the pulsing baby-beater inside my tiny chest, but rather my soul heart. The hole was a deep one passed on through generations. The one I promised to take on, with as much humor and grace as possible, and then fill, in time to tell about it. A lifetime is so short, and I am so slow, that I doubted my ability to do it. Then my resolve set in. I was ready. I was going in. Or rather out.
My grandmother, who I called Gogo as soon as I could talk, waited outside of my mother's hospital room. Gogo was sitting there with her long legs crossed, probably showing an expanse of creamy bare thigh despite the fact that the temperature outside was surely below freezing. She might have been smoking like she always did when she was nervous, forgetting to flick the ashes of her cigarette so that a long gray snake hung precariously from the lit end. She had a lot to be anxious about that night; although the least of it, I think, was caused by how well her daughter was holding up during the long labor.
My father, Toni, spelled the Italian way from Antonino, who I called Papa until I was five, was driving his bus route through Pulaski Road while I was deciding whether to join this world or not. Fathers didn't coach their laboring wives in how to breathe in those days, or offer ice chips, or videotape the water breaking. I'm sure that some of them paced back and forth in the waiting room though, at least that's how they showed it on I Love Lucy or any other TV shows from those days. The fathers were always running around with crazy bulging eyes, grabbing the suitcase, spilling its contents, and knocking stuff over, as soon as their wives announced that they felt the slightest twinge of pain. Then there was the rushing to the hospital and smoking and pacing in the waiting room until a beaming doctor would come out jubilantly proclaiming the gender, which of course was unknown in advance back then. Sometimes the dads would faint at that point. Toni wasn't There though. He wasn't in the waiting room either.
Finally, I could hold back no longer, and fighting my instilled claustrophobia, went head first down the ridges of the birth canal and came into the startling brightness of this world just as all the church bells started ringing for the evening Christmas Eve Mass, and the snow had subsided to a steady, feathery fall. At least that's how Gogo romanticized that night whenever she told me about it. The doctor probably couldn't wait to untie his blood-splattered gown, and rush out of the room calling out a few obligatory holiday greetings over his shoulder. I was howling like crazy, it was before I lost my tongue.
It wasn't the doctor, but the crackly voice of his dispatcher telling my father Toni that he had a daughter. As he has told me countless times since, he changed the routing sign at the front of his bus to read "Out of Service" and raced through the wide, icy, tree-lined streets of Chicago at top speed until he got to the hospital. There, he was greeted by Gogo in the waiting room. Maybe she took an imperceptible step that blocked her son-in-law's entrance to the viewing room, maybe she started fingering the zipper on his woolen bus driver jacket, I'm not sure, but I bet Toni picked up her vibe. He knew Gogo wanted something, and that most of the time she managed to get her way.
That night, my parents named me Margherita Christina Sottile, the Margherita after Toni's mother, although later we found out her real name was Michela but it had accidentally changed by immigration. Michela would have been a cool name to have, but it was not to be. My middle name was Christine because of the Christmas connection. No one called me Margherita for even a minute; I was Christine from that day on, by Gogo's insistence.
Even though she had to spend the holiday in the hospital, my mother told me she didn't mind; she was too excited with the thought of having a new baby girl. The next day was Christmas morning, and I was around half a day old, fresh from the Source. Of course I can't remember what went down that day, but maybe I was new enough to be omniscient still, and that first Christmas is stamped squarely somewhere in my soul.
Gogo came into the room, her high heels making a click-click sound on the linoleum. She was there very early, even before my Papa arrived.
Say Uncle
"Good morning, Duckie. Happy Christmas to you," Gogo said to my still-groggy mother lying in the hospital bed. "Oh, the sweetheart. Look at her; she'll be a Miss America some day, see if she isn't. Duckie, be careful, now, look you're smothering her. Here, give her to me," and she tugged on my small arm. I rolled my eyes back in my head and took a blurry look at my grandmother upside down, and thought, "No way."
I felt my mother's belly tighten beneath me when her mother came into the room, and the tension radiated up through me. Not even a day old is too young to be feeling the first pangs of worry, but the apprehension went up my spine quickly and started to settle in the blank slates of my brain cells. My mom gently took me off her breast, and I belted out a fresh wail of protest. This didn't deter Gogo, who started rocking me back and forth cooing, "There, there now Duckie, it's all right. I'm here now."
My mother stared from her prone position at my grandmother holding me.
"Duckie," Gogo said to my mother over my head. "Now, I know you and Toni haven't been getting on well, have you? He told me that he really wasn't ready to be a father, and was actually thinking of, well, moving on. I'm sure he's said that to you too." Gogo stared directly at my mother, the two sets of blue-gray eyes locking.
My mother wriggled up in her bed and winced a little before she spoke.
"Well, he's a little frightened of the situation, but I'm sure once I get Christine home, he'll see that everything will be fine. He saw her last night, and seemed very fond of her immediately. He even held her for a minute or two." My mother squirmed to change position. "She's so small. He'll hardly notice her in our apartment."
"Zbysczek and I, on the other hand," Gogo said, ignoring my mother, "are desperate for a baby, you know that Duckie. He's barely over the disappointment of the miscarriage last month."
My mother rolled her eyes a little at this.
"Haven't you thought you were pregnant the last three months?" my mother murmured low enough for me to hear, but apparently not loud enough for Gogo who went on.
"Zbysczek might not have enough manhood in him, you know, I'm sure that's the problem," Gogo said in a low voice, like she was telling us a secret.
"So Duckie, I was thinking, now you needn't answer right away now, mind...but why don't you give the baby to me? You and Toni would be free to separate, if that's what the both of you want, and having a baby would make me and Zbysczek ever so happy, I know it would. I wouldn't do wrong by her Duckie, you know that, I'd love her as my own. I mentioned this to Toni a few months back, and he wasn't adverse to the idea." Gogo was talking very fast now.
I started howling anew at this. Even at one day old, I knew I didn't want to be given away. My mother's mouth was a straight line. Much to my relief, she shook her head 'no' making her short curls bounce.
"Yes, but he's seen her now, and he's very pleased. I shan't. I want her." I noticed my mother's voice trembled as she said this.
Gogo looked at my mother without blinking. From my vantage point in Gogo's arms, I could see my mom scooching down further under the covers. Her face and neck were red.
"Duckie, Toni already agreed," Gogo said in a softer tone, and her face changed from mad to sad in a second. At this I started crying harder, as loud as I could. I started kicking my legs for the first time ever. Gogo switched me over to her other arm.
"I don't care what Toni said. I had her; this baby is mine! Hand her back to me! Look she's miserable."
"You never wanted a baby before!" Gogo said, half real and half fake crying now. "You know how much I've wanted one! Oh, Dorothy, let me have her now! You can have as many babies as you like, and with Zbysczek's problem... I might not ever have another one!"
Gogo started crying in synch with my own howls. She jiggled me up and down, boo-hooing into the top of my bald head.
My mother watched Gogo and me from her bed, her face turning even redder; little drops of water were on her top lip. She seemed to be thinking hard. I held my baby breath, waiting for her decision.
"Well," she said slowly, "maybe, I could have another for you, I don't know..." She said this last part all in a big whoosh.
Gogo and I both stopped crying and the room was suddenly very quiet.
I looked at my mother with a surprised hiccup.
"Yes, perhaps. That's right, Duckie." Gogo's hysterics stopped as suddenly as they began. "You could get pregnant again easily enough, now couldn't you? You can have as many babies as you like, and I'm only asking for one. Here, take Christine." She handed me quickly back to my mother, where I nuzzled my nose into the smell of her skin. "I'll go over to your flat and see if Toni needs a bit of supper. I'm afraid we don't have much of a Christmas dinner this year, what with all the excitement. I do have the pud, thank goodness; I'll make some custard and bring that to him. I'll be back later with some for you, too, Duckie. Now get some rest."
I felt the air in my mother's lungs whoosh out again the minute the last clicking of my grandmother's heels were heard down the hallway. Feeling her steady breathing, I fell fast asleep on her chest.