Too Young to Die
Too Young To Die
By Carmela Schiano
From “Empowering Transformations for Women”
Thrown back against the driver’s seat, blinded by the reflection of the lights, my head reeled as the car rolled over and over and tumbled 25 feet down the ravine. Time seemed to stand still as I felt the cold December night air enter my car. Outside it was totally black. It was freezing; my wet silk blouse stuck to me, and the cold ran up my entire body. I clutched at myself just to see if I was still in one piece.
All of a sudden I felt water in my car. My seatbelt on, I was stuck. The belt pressed tighter and tighter on my body. I couldn’t move. Panic set in as I realized I couldn’t get out of my car. Tears rolled downed my cheeks as I thought back over the past 29 years of my life. How did I get here? Where am I? Will anyone find me? Am I going to die? Is this where my life ends?
Suddenly my obituary flashed before my eyes:
“Beloved daughter and not so beloved ex-wife, first generation 29 year-old Italian American educated for twelve years by the nuns, a sheltered, middle child with a brother a year and a day older, an “Ugly Betty” plain Jane with no self-esteem and no self-confidence, may she rest in peace.”
My life started in New York, a first generation Italian American born in South Brooklyn to two Italian immigrants from Naples Italy. This neighborhood by the waterfront, in sight of the two beautiful towers that once stood tall, now gone, used to be called Red Hook, but is now known as Carroll Gardens.
My father, handsome and dark haired, raised in Italy, traveled to the U.S, the land of opportunity, at the age of 18, following his Dad. My mom, slim and brunette, a natural beauty, was also 18 when she boarded a ship in Italy to the U.S. with her three younger siblings. What courage it took for them both, especially my mom, who took responsibility for her younger siblings at such an early age.
My parents met soon after arriving in the States. It seemed like love at first sight. Within six months, they were off to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.
Week after week on Tuesdays my uncles closed their pizzerias and took the day off to spend with their families. My parents, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins would drive to the Brooklyn ferry on 69th street and head to Staten Island.
For me it was a vacation, a picnic at the beach. Each uncle and aunt would make his or her favorite dish, and my mom would make her specialties, spaghetti pie and potato croquettes that were to die for. Surrounded by great Italian food, this was my vacation from Carroll Street in downtown Brooklyn. To me, the ferry was like a cruise ship and the destination was like a faraway land with sandy beaches, a playground, and a picnic area. Holidays were much the same.
The only difference is that they took place at the pizzerias after they closed to the public. Family life was great for eight years. Concrete playground, eerie gates, fist ball, running bases, hopscotch, Good Humor trucks, panelle sandwiches, and girls hanging out on the street corners, watching the boys go by.
The Old Country
Despite these wonderful memories, what stayed in my mind and haunted me for years was my father’s voice saying “children are to be seen and not heard.” Though a frequently used phrase by parents in the 1950s, to me it meant that children were nothing but a burden.
One night, the black and white TV off, finished with my homework, the phone rang. My mother answered, and after a few moments tears started rolling down her cheeks.
Shocking news from my father—he didn’t want to come home!
Terrified, I immediately felt abandoned. How would we survive without a dad? Who’ll pay the rent and buy the food? Who will care for us? As much as I was afraid of my controlling, domineering dad, or that voice, I was too young to survive alone.
Then the shame sank in, followed by a sense of hopelessness. What will the neighbors say? What will my friends think? My father stayed away and my mom cried constantly.
Despite the shame, I looked forward to school as a way to escape the pain I felt at home. There was no yelling, no cursing. I felt safe. I could still be a child in school.
When I came home from school, I remembered that dad was gone, that he no longer cared for us. We needed money for food and rent. We needed to find out where he was, and call him and get him back!
My dad came and went throughout my life. One day a week, on the weekend, we had to visit him at a place called The Burger Flame. I hated those visits. While my friends went to the movies or on outings with friends, I had to disappear and lie about where I was going. The guilt and shame festered inside me.
But I pretended everything was perfect. We lived behind closed doors, closed windows, but my father’s voice still haunted me. And I was never able to tell anyone the truth.
I made it through high school without any serious boyfriends. I didn’t want to get close to anyone; I always feared what they might find out, or what I might need to tell them.
At 16, as I planned to make my selections for college, my dad unexpectedly showed up at the apartment with two of his friends’ brothers in tow. He’d brought them to me so they could have a look at his daughter in order to marry her off! Like a dress hanging in the store window, he thought he’d parade them by me in order to see if one of them might “choose” me!
Instead of proudly sending his daughter off to college in this new land of opportunity, my father clearly fell back into his “old-country” attitude. We don’t send our women to college, we just marry them off—they should be seen and not heard, just like our children…I would have been shocked, but I’d already ‘been there’ the night the phone rang and he’d decided never to come home again.
Needless to say, I did not marry any of those men.
However, I did go to college and pay my own way, thanks to my mom and my aunt’s support. And I worked throughout both high school and college.
One night I went on a blind date with a young man in my neighborhood. We ended up dating for two years; things seemed fine until a few days before the wedding.
Scheduled for a dental cleaning, (I wanted a bright smile for my wedding pictures!), I arrived at the dentist’s office with no worries. When the dentist accidentally dropped the drill on me, red blood gushed from my lip. They tried to stop the bleeding, and when I heard them shouting that I might need stitches I started to faint.
I had the office call my boyfriend, but he didn’t come. He was too busy with the boys!
The real problems began within a month after the wedding. It was like living with a total stranger. He lost his job and became a different person–moody, domineering, and controlling. He ridiculed me by calling me names and humiliating me.
I cooked, cleaned and ironed his underwear, as he yelled and threw things at me. I was threatened, humiliated, and put down. Afraid for my life, I sought the help of counselors, and left. But the guilt and shame of divorce in a Catholic family came with me.
“In All Thy Ways Acknowledge Him and He Shall Direct Thy Paths”
“Hello! Is anyone down there?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me! I’m alive! Please help!”
Still stuck in the car at the bottom of the ravine, wet, cold and scared out of my mind, I never imagined that a car accident on my way home from Albany would change my life forever. Trapped there, I prayed and prayed and prayed, until I knew God visited me and made it clear that I was being given another chance to truly live my life.
Frank, a born again preacher, found me. He’d seen a light and passed it by, but twenty minutes down the road something compelled him to return. When he’d turned around and reached the spot, he got out of his car, stood by the ledge, and looked down 25 feet into the ravine. There were the wheels of my car spinning futilely in the water.
From that day forward, I accepted my mission to invite God back into my life. And I knew in my heart he would be with me forever. The rest, as they say, was a dream come true. I found a man I could trust and love, and I married him. That was 25 years ago…
I forgave those whom I allowed to control me. I regained my power, and I stay focused on today and live in the moment. I now live my life the way I know it is intended to be–without shame, free of guilt and worry–because I know it is possible to forgive others, to recover, and move forward to new beginnings…
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly!” Siddhartha Gautama
“Happiness is not something readymade; it comes from your own actions.” Dalia Lama XIV
I am a gift from God and blessed to be here living each day!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Certified as a Professional Life and Business Coach by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), Carmela helps empower her clients to achieve their personal and professional goals through proven inspirational and coaching techniques. Carmela draws on her experience as a New York City teacher and day care director, an educational consultant, and as the Northeast Regional Sales Manager of the Lyons Group, Inc., where she introduced and managed the sale of “Barney the Dinosaur” products in 19 northeastern states. Carmela lives in New York City with her husband and daughter, a professional ballerina.
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