One of My Life's Defining Moments
Crashing Back Down by Author Kristen Hope Mazzola, her debut novel, is now LIVE!! Don't miss out on this awesome read! Also, with every purchase of Crashing Back Down, a donation is made to the Marcie Mazzola Foundation from Kristen's royalties!
A defining moment is described as: a point at which the essential nature or character of a person, group, etc., is revealed or identified. As we all stumble along through life, from time to time we come across a situation that changes us for good or bad. Thinking back there are a horde of defining moments that come to mind: my adoption, my first kiss, learning to drive, moving into my first college dorm. They all resonate in me and have helped mold me into who I am. There are a few moments that have become beautiful memories bread from sadness and heartbreak. I am thankful for the lessons and humility they have given me and I thank the ones that were a part of them with all of my heart.
July 6, 2002 was a day that was not only a defining moment for me, but for my entire family. My cousin Marcie Mazzola was in a car accident and passed away early that morning. She was a beautiful person inside and out and her loss has transformed the core of all that she touched forever. Marcie was only twenty-one when she turned into an angel, but she still touches the lives of so many every day. With her passing, I learned so much about life and my family. Marcie, I wish every day that you were still here to share in all of the amazing things that our family has accomplished and I thank you for being the guardian angel through all of them, knowing that you are looking down on us, helping us along our individual paths.
It was the summer before I was going to be a freshman in high school. For some reason that no one remembers, my Mema and Grandpa Bill (my father’s mother and stepfather) were spending the weekend at my home. As I sleepily walked down the stairs that morning, I could feel how thick the air was as every one’s eyes locked on me descending into the dining room. My father was standing in between my mother and grandmother with a strong look of sadness. With a calm, level voice he asked me to sit with the rest of my family. I knew something was wrong, first of all my family was not one to be sitting quickly around a table in the morning and my mother certainly looked too awake for nine o’clock (she does not do mornings).
Taking my seat, as requested, I looked right into my dad’s light blue eyes, a pain slid across my chest when I noticed the tears he was fighting back. My eyes did not leave his, knowing that if he was about to cry, everyone else already was, “What’s going on? What happened?” My voice broke, it was shaky with discomfort, being the last to know something important is very unsettling for me, even at thirteen years old, I felt like I could handle anything the world threw at me.
Without hesitation my mom answered and my eyes darted to her broken face, “Marcie passed away this morning. We’re going to New York.” Instantly my eyes filled with tears and my Mema started to wale with her pain, she couldn’t stop or compose herself as she retreated into my father’s broad chest. Even though I did not know Marcie well (she lived in New York and was much older than me) the news burned my ears and eyes and I froze in disbelief. I don’t remember much about packing or getting to the airport, I just know it was within hours that we were landing in the Islip Airport on Long Island and renting a car. I remember how strong my father and mother were as we went through the motions of getting my grandmother to the rest of her children and grandchildren. This was a living nightmare that I had just walked into barely old enough to completely understand the gravity that was about the weigh my heart down.
The only vehicle we could rent on such short notice was a big white Dodge pickup. Isn’t strange the details you remember? It had bench seats and I felt comfort in riding in the middle seat, sandwiched in between my parents. We drove straight to my Uncle Paulie's house where we would be meeting up with the rest of the Mazzolas. My father was the second oldest out of five children, my Aunt Stacy being the youngest and only girl. Paul Jr. was the oldest and my father’s best friend. They were only eighteen months apart and grew up doing everything together. I think that is the only part of living down in Florida that my dad does not like, being away from his family.
Right when we walked into my uncle’s house, my Aunt Nancy (Paulie’s wife) greeted us with tear-filled hugs. She said how nice it was to see us and I remember how weird that sounded to me. I knew it was good to be with the family right now, but under the circumstances, I could not understand how she could say those types of words, how her throat could allow them to come out. I made my way through the living room and into the little hallway that led to the kitchen and right into my Uncle Paulie. I was startled by how pale he was and how wet his face seemed. Without hesitation I grabbed him, nuzzling my face deep into his chest, we stood there in silence for what felt like years, holding on as tightly as we could. I felt my uncle pull away at the sound of my father’s comforting words, “Paulie, I love you, I am so sorry.” That is when I saw one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen, my father took Paulie into a huge hug and my Popi came from the kitchen. Without a word, my grandfather joined into their embrace. Mazzola men are strong Italian men, but when it is needed they show their emotions; love, hurt, sadness, joy, anything. Seeing my father, uncle, and grandfather silently start to grieve together is something that will never leave my heart. That is the first of bitter-sweet moments Marcie gave to my life.
The next thing that I remember is all of the food. In my family, as I am sure it is with most Italian Catholic families, there is a wake for six days where the family goes every day to the funeral home, twice a day, and whoever wants to come and join in saying their goodbyes to the departed is welcomed with open arms. After the wake, on the seventh day, is the funeral. Since there is not a lot of time or mental capacity during this grieving process to think about sustenance, visitors always came with some type of food for the family. My Aunt’s kitchen was already filled by the time we arrived. There were two huge Hero’s, three lasagnas, a few different types of casseroles, bagels, fruit and cheese platters, a pizza, and an assortment of desserts.
It was already late in the afternoon and I made my way out to the patio holding my dad’s hand to find an older guy sitting in a chair puffing away on a cigar. I had never seen this man before, but when his eyes met my father’s I could tell they knew each other well. My father introduced him as Bobby Berbanick, my Uncle Paulie’s best friend from growing up. Bobby, like most of my family, had never left the Island and still lived close, keeping in close contact with my uncles over the years. We sat down as the rest of the men joined us. They all lit cigars and started to talk about “back in the day, do you remember?” I loved hearing them laugh, joke, and reminisce about happy times.
That’s when my mom brought out a lemon cake for all of us to nosh on. Bobby and I sat and ate that entire cake as he told me story after story to keep my spirits up. I really don’t know why he and I gravitated towards each other, it might have just been how fantastic that cake was, but I really do appreciate how distracting he was to me and how much time he spent entertaining me. (Recently I found out that Bobby had passed away, if his daughter ever reads this, please know that your father was instrumental in helping my family through this tough time and I wish I had gotten the chance to thank him for everything he did for me and all of us during our grieving. Bobby Berbanick will always be in my heart for his kindness and love for my family. Your father was an amazing man from what I saw during my short time with him and my father speaks very highly of him. I am truly sorry for your loss and am blessed to have known him.)
My memory fast-forwards to the next day going to the wake for the first time. This was the most difficult part of the entire week for probably everyone. My Uncle Paulie and his ex-wife, Kathy went in together alone to see their daughter for the first time in her casket. I was standing in the hallway right outside the wooden double doors with the rest of my family when we heard Marcie’s mother shriek, the scream boiled my blood and made all of us go white, she was repeating, “That’s not my baby!” Everyone that was standing within ear shot of her painful shrills will never be able to forget it.
My grandfather latched onto me as my knees started to tremble with one arm and with his free hand grabbed my Uncle Greg’s shoulder. Looking passed my Uncle Greg, my father and mother were holding hands with my Uncle Jeff (the youngest of my dad’s brothers) who was wrapping one arm around my Aunt Stacy as she left her head fall to his shoulder. Right then I realized that this is what defines a family; we were all there supporting each other to the best of our abilities, weak as individuals, but strong and unwavering as a unit. Chiseling through the grief, a twinge of pride became present in me. This is the second moment from Marcie and that pride still beats through me every day.
Sobbing and holding onto one another, all of the Mazzolas filed into the room in the funeral home that held her open casket. This was my first open casket funeral and I was not sure how I felt about it. I knew that the body lying there motionless did not even look like my gorgeous cousin and I was very thankful that I could remember a time when I saw her smile in spite of my surroundings. It was while our whole family was camping in Montauk and she was eating ice cream in the general store while my cousin Gregory and I were buying ice and milk. I have no idea how old either of us were, I just remembered how much I looked up to her and hoped I could be as beautiful as she was when I grew up. Marcie smiled at me over her ice cream and passed her sister Michelle, complimenting me on my pink bathing suit I had on, telling me she had one that matched and would wear it later that day. It is a simple memory but it was very comforting to me.
The room seemed huge to me and was filled with the smell of every type of flower imaginable. There were so many different beautiful arrangements filling the open spaces alongside gorgeous pictures of Marcie. The sight was truly striking. Every piece was brought in by someone showing their love in one final gesture. The flowers were not the only gifts, surrounding her body were favors brought to lay with her for eternity, little tokens of remembrance from her friends and loved ones. It is hard for me to remember specific items, but I remember finding it touching.
The first day of the wake is the only one that burns bright to me still, all these years later for two reasons. The first was seeing Marcie’s boyfriend break down right in front of me. I remember how his mother had to hold him as he almost collapsed walking to her side. Seeing him kneel in to kiss her forehead and tell her he loved her will be something that I will never forget. His was a type of loss that I did not understand because I had never been in love before. My heart ached for him, completely confused and shocked at how touching it was to me. Seeing that made me completely shook me to my core and let all of my emotions flood for the first time since our arrival. I collapsed into a folding chair next to my Mema and cried with her for at least an hour. We sat, fingers intertwined, silent.
The second was how many people actually came to pay their respects. It was pouring that day and hundreds of people showed up, numbering well over the capacity of the funeral home. People lined up around the block in the rain to wait their turn. I did not witness it, but I was told that people were standing together, strangers sharing umbrellas and holding each other in the terrible weather. That has forever touched my heart. Between those two scenarios I learned what true love and kindness were and looked like. It braves the elements and stands true in the face of any obstacle; it breaks you down and builds you up all at once, carrying us through every hard time. Those people standing in the rain did not know each other, but they were filled with the common love and respect for one woman and for that moment all differences were shoved aside and love shined through.
As the week went by I learned so much about my family that I was never aware of. How close my father and his siblings really were. How little physical distance matters when it comes to a family’s bond. That my cousin’s favorite actress was Drew Barrymore, because of her free spirit, and how much the free spirit was alive in Marcie. How butterflies flutter into the most intimate moments of our lives and remind us of Marcie’s ever-present light. But above all that I saw and learned, there is something that is warm and comforting when I think back on the week that I spent grieving with my family. It was under the worst of circumstances that I came to the conclusion that my family truly shares unconditional love and support for every member. And I am thankful to carry it with me always. I am proud to call myself a Mazzola and say that I have been blessed with a truly beautiful family.
The Marcie Mazzola Foundation was created in my cousin’s beautiful memory to carry on her amazing light and compassion. The mission of the foundation is to "help better the lives of abused and at-risk children; and to build community awareness regarding the needs of children". To read more about Marcie’s beautiful story or receive more information about the Marcie Mazzola Foundation please visit The Marcie Mazzola Foundation’s website.
This article was written out of love and respect for every member of my family with a special consideration for my Uncle Paulie, Aunt Nancy and Cousin Michelle. Even though I do not get to see you or say ‘I love you’ nearly enough, I hope that you all know how closely I hold you to my heart every day.
With all the love that I possess, Kristen Hope Mazzola