GonzoFest literary journalism winner: 'Baby Rescue'

Apr 11, 2018 at 11:13 am
Nick and Maureen Fruean with children Maleka, Nick Tautunu and Teresa in 1979, the year before Nick died, with tikis Nick had carved
Nick and Maureen Fruean with children Maleka, Nick Tautunu and Teresa in 1979, the year before Nick died, with tikis Nick had carved

Substitute the name Donald Trump for what Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Richard Nixon for a 1994 obituary that captured the Louisville native’s genre-bending, journalistic clarity.

“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

That is the type of prescient, X-ray writing GonzoFest organizers sought for the annual literary competition, and they were not disappointed. The winner did not have to be political, or about drugs or about motorcycles... or about anything in particular. As former LEO writer Michael Lindenberger, who now coordinates judging for the GonzoFest Literary Journalism Awards, said, “Each year, the GonzoFest seeks to encourage writers to submit entries that honor this genius, and this commitment to fact-driven journalism, for the literary nonfiction contest.”

He and the international panel of judges, including prominent writers and editors from Louisville, San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere, selected the essay “Baby Rescue” as this year’s winner. Author Maureen Riley of Vineland, New Jersey, receives a $1,000 prize, and her essay appears on this page.

The judges also selected as runner-up “Counting Bodies,” by Alexander Dziadosz, a freelance journalist based in Beruit who has written about the Middle East for the past decade. It can be found here.

Also, find in LEO’s GonzoFest Issue a poignant profile of Thompson’s son Juan Thompson, as told by LEO’s newest contributor Chris Kenning. Thompson has moved to Louisville and will be part of the GonzoFest, which is Saturday, April 14 from noon to 8 p.m. at the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St. A $10 donation is suggested.

See you on Saturday, and as HST said: “Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.”

'Baby Rescue'

By Maureen (Fruean) Riley

Nick Fruean and I were married in Hawaii and moved to (Western) Samoa in 1975. He was sent to prison when I was four months pregnant and was released the day before we left Samoa. Nick died in Hollywood, Florida, on Dec. 24, 1980.

Maleka Kay Fruean was born on Dec. 15, 1976 in Motootua Hospital, where she was later treated for meningitis.

Kathleen O’Callaghan and I met when we served with the Medical Mission Sisters in Philadelphia. She arrived for a visit to Samoa on December 15, 1976.


“Don’t piss off a Samoan woman. She’ll hurt you worse than any man.”

Not gonna argue that. The genders share a trucky body build, but life has shit on island women more than the boney mutts that dodge stones. Both are plenty angry. My kid was dying, though, so — game on.

The kid was trying to be born nine days early. I was new to this birthin’ business, but soon aware that belly pain caused by ripe mango is SO not the same as labor pain.

Time to pack a bag and climb the mountain road to Samoa’s only hospital.

This is such a pretty place. This walk is such a nice distraction from contractions. Look, up the road is where Robert Louis Stevenson, Tusitala, was buried. Should I be angry, now, that I had been hooked by the Samoans’ devotion to word, and to their anointed Teller of Tales? It had been a setup. Reeled in by an invitation to talk story, I’m ready to take my chances in the village and regurge this episode: This palagi is in labor, walking by herself to the island hospital to be delivered. Her Samoan-German, half-caste husband is in jail for growing a few pot plants. He would have grown even more and become rich and middle-fingered the country that had called him a child of the night (when he was still small enough to cry over it) -— but he was locked up before he had the chance.

Now, I have to remember not to piss off the Samoan nurses when they get me settled in, and they give me a hospital gown and they start laughing about me.

“This is your first baby?” (snort, giggle)

“And you’re 28 years old? How many babies died?”

They are years younger than me, and they have had four kids by now. “And where is your husband?” (Haha. We know where he is.)

Time for more hilarity as they watch me undress, noting any odd body-formations that they will talk story about later. And then they see it, my husband’s tighty whities, the underwear which had been so very comfortable in my ninth month, and which I had intended to switch before I left for the hospital. They outright point and laugh and take mental snapshots for further great retelling.

A roar, then, from down the hall: Cousin Henry is here! He’ll put these little snots in their places. Our beefy cousin accepts his mission to retrieve my American friend from the airport.

“No worries, Meaux. I’ll get Kay here before this baby is born!”

This was supposed to be my job. My friend, my responsibility, my bus ride to the airport; our bond as former nuns, our reunion, our welcome dance for a newborn.

How will Kay know that Henry replaced me? He bellows through the airport, “Kay, I am here to get you! Come with me, Cousin Henry! Meaux is having her baby!” What abductor would make up such an invite?

All the feels begin. Someone in white decides to move things along and break my water (the cut on my babe’s head with the imprint of hemostat will show just how vigorous was this jab). Offerings of drugs begin. Palagis can’t handle pain, right? I resist until the Candy Man makes it sound oh, so sweet. It’s just a Demerol.

“Here’s Kay. My friend. Look at Kay!” “What the hell did they give you, Meaux?” “Some little pill. Yay, Kay is here!”

“It’s a girl!”

Nick and Maleka Fruean in 1976.
Nick and Maleka Fruean in 1976.

I had forgotten that it would be one or the other! And now I panic, because I Am Not a Pretty Girl (thank you, Ani), and I wonder how I can properly raise a daughter. But I decide right then that her middle name will be Kay.

Nutrition after delivery excites me and promotes milk: Henry brings “Fale Burger” and nurses provide marrow broth soup. I want Kay to taste it, but she has taken an interest in an American who also had her baby today. I’m nervous when I see that the woman is attended by a group with guitars and religious pamphlets, because my friend has a disquiet about her and continues to be in search of... something. Time to pay my three tala ($4.75 USD) hospital bill and get my team out of here.

This time my walk is down the mountain. Let’s hope that my island ride will all be downhill from here.

Kay unpacks. Books and new underwear tumble out over woven floor mats.

“Very funny,” I observe. “You’ve already mailed me lots of new cotton panties, and that’s why nobody at this post office will serve me.”

Months ago, she’d written to ask what I needed and I requested underwear — anything but sticky, hot nylon. “But be careful how you label the package, because the clerks steal anything that might be useful.” The label on the box that the mail guy slid across the counter, with disgust, read “Used Underwear.” No chance of theft.

Late the next night, we take turns snuggling with Babe. When I kiss her all over, I’m careful to avoid the little nick on her scalp. It’s the only thing about her that’s not perfect — well, that and her weird pinky toe that looks like my dad’s. She is so nice and warm.

“Isn’t she so nice and warm and doesn’t she smell like cookies, Kay?”

“Meaux, we need to go back to the hospital. She has a fever.”

Sure, Kay is a nurse and all, but what the hell? My baby is just so nice and warm!

I am dry sobbing on our way back up the mountain and during the intake interview and when I look at her chart and demand to know why they wrote FUO all over it. Like, I get that I’ve been viewed as something like a Fucked Up Outsider since I’ve been here, but why label this innocent?

“She has a Fever of Unknown Origin.”

She is brand new. How can she be messed up already?

They start an IV, Kay goes to look for her religious, new-friend, and I try to breastfeed with no success. It shouldn’t matter that the nurses and the Samoan many-time moms are laughing at my attempts, or that I must maneuver around plastic tubes, or that I’ve never fucking done this before, but it all matters. I fill a bottle with formula to the background sounds of “Tsk tsk!” and “Ha — palagi!” Not the time to piss off the women, though.

The native doctor examines Babe on morning rounds. “Any more seizures?”

“She’s never had a seizure.”

“Very good. No more seizures.”

The nurse fiddles with the IV until it looks like a opened faucet. I’m not alarmed until my little one’s tiny arm squishes with a gentle touch. “Nice, fat baby. Very good,” says the nurse.

No. Just no. I look for a doctor, who adjusts the IV, admonishes the nurse and gives me a sympathetic look. He knows what the pissed-off Samoan nurses might have in store for me. Bring it on.

We fight every day now. They kick me from my sleeping mat to let me know that the baby is hungry; they toss me out of the back room when I try to sterilize nipples, but I’ve seen their dip-and-done technique, and I’ve seen the babies all around us get sicker.

Finally, a diagnosis: bacterial meningitis. I’m guessing that the cut on Babe’s scalp has something to do with it. There are so many possible side effects. My daughter could be deaf, or paralyzed, or retarded (in which case, Kay consoles that she could become a nurse on the island).

“That is not funny.”

“Give it time.”

The officials decide to allow my husband to visit the hospital just as the baby’s IV is being moved from her head to her ankle. We peek through the curtain, because she is absolutely howling, and it takes three of us to keep her dad from rushing the doctors.

There is blood pouring from three insertion attempts. They decide to use a vein in the scalp once more and they suture the very deep incision in her ankle. Broken vials and bent needles get crushed under retreating footsteps as my husband moves in to cradle and calm our daughter. The guards decide that his visit is over. I hate this island right now.

“Kay, please buy me a cigarette.”

She goes to the nearby market and watches as two Benson and Hedges get wrapped in a ribbon of old newspaper. Very few islanders can afford an entire pack of cigarettes.

While she is gone, my child’s bed has been surrounded by babies from the village who all have diarrhea, infectious diarrhea.

We unwrap our cigarettes and make a plan as we take long drags.

“Meaux, if we don’t get her out of here, she will get diarrhea, and she’s not strong enough to handle that.”

“But what about the IV antibiotics. Has she had enough to fight the meningitis?”

“Let’s chance it.”

Maureen and Maleka Kay Fruean in 1976.
Maureen and Maleka Kay Fruean in 1976.

[My baby girl has just turned 40. She recently got her MFA and she will become our family’s Tusitala. The tattoo on the back of her neck means “Protected,” to remind her of a dad who died from cancer when she was a young child. The thick scar on her ankle is her only reminder of infant meningitis.

Kay joined the cult that she encountered in Samoa’s hospital. The Children of God sent her to proselytize among the Chinese fisherman in American Samoa, where she met the man who would become the father of her twin sons. He was the crew’s captain. He never saw his sons, because his ship returned to China, and Kay was never able to find him again.

And I am dry sobbing once more, remembering the story of a child whom I came close to losing, a husband that I lost and an island that returned a scar for every bit of beauty, in equal measure.] •

Maureen (Blasko Fruean) Riley is a former school librarian from southern New Jersey who has always preferred the company of children. She has also been a nun and the winner of a Jackie O’ look-alike contest. She dedicates this story to Children of the Night, “derided children of unmarried mothers.”