With the dead in Pozzuoli

When we lived outside Naples, our local hospital was called La Schiana for the small mound on which it perched rather than its grand official designation: Ospedale Santa Maria delle Grazie di Pozzuoli. The city of Pozzuoli was old before the Romans, a major Alexandrian port. The first cement came from there, the apostle Paul tarried there a week (Acts 28:13). Somewhat later, Sofia Loren was born there.

La Schiana wasn’t over-obsessed with hygiene. Treatment could be rough and ready (see a coming blog). Layout was odd, with the orthopedic clinic down a steep, narrow stairway, but we never waited more than five minutes for attention, always got good care and paid nearly nothing. So why complain?

Signage was poor, though. One hot summer day I was wandering about un-air-conditioned La Schiana, following vague, contradictory directions to the office I needed. When I seemed to be on the right floor, I figured I’d just walk around and surely stumble on my office. Light flooded the end of a long hallway. Bleary with heat, I moved toward it and entered a large, brightly lit room.

And there I was in La Schiana’s unrefrigerated morgue. Four mostly sheeted bodies lay on aluminum tables. Large men, it seemed, very still. A crucifix tacked to the wall. Nobody living there but me. An empty table stood waiting. For me? I backed out with precipitous speed, somehow found the right office and quite shaken, hurried home to find my neighbor Rosa.

“The corpses were just there where anybody could take them,” I blabbered. “There in the heat.” Rosa wore her now-familiar, “Pamela, you’re being a simpleton/American,” expression. “These weren’t people like us, she explained patiently. “They were poor nobodies. A good family doesn’t let loved ones die in a hospital.” I pointed out several cases in which this blunder might happen. Heart attack, stroke, accident . . . . Rosa shook her head.

“People from good families die at home. If they’re about to die, they’re sent home that day. If they do happen to die in the hospital, the nurse puts in an IV.” But the person’s dead, I interrupted. Rosa went on calmly, “puts in an IV and the body goes home in an ambulance. The death notice reads ‘died at home’ so the family keeps its reputation.”

I hasten to add that death practices are different beyond the outskirts of Naples, but this experience put a little lightness in La Schiana. Whatever happened, nobody in my family would die there.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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Workshop on Point of View for the Knoxville Writers Guild, Sat. Feb. 18, 2017, 10am to noon

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“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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