- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

NEWARK, Del. (AP) - “Safety first” was Carmen DiLuzio’s mantra.

Raised in South Philly mob territory before moving to the Bellefonte area, Carmen couldn’t go to a party without scanning the room for exits.

When his eldest daughter was old enough for a swingset, dad made an extra-tight strap out of bungee cord. Eventually, he pilfered a seat belt from a grocery cart.

He was in charge of positioning and lighting the birthday candles, warning his wife, Crystal, not to lean in too close.

A highway warrior for more than two decades, Carmen knew the dangers of driving a big rig. He started out delivering mushrooms and shingles, before pulling hulking concrete barriers, each weighing more than a ton.

On July 11, 2011, one of those traffic safety barriers tipped over, crushing Carmen to death on the New Jersey Turnpike in Bordentown. He was 51, a father of two, a “son-in-love” to two, a brother to four, an uncle (or great-uncle) to 23.

That first Christmas without him was unbearable. Crystal refused to set foot in the kitchen; her husband was the one who raved about her meatballs and macaroni, eggs and bacon. An evergreen was out of the question. Decorating was a family affair, with Carmen slapping on the ornaments and Crystal revising by color and theme.

Taking a therapist’s advice, Crystal told her daughters, Gianna and Toni, that they could buy presents for dad and pile them on top of his urn on the mantle.

But the girls had a better idea. They wanted to buy gifts for all the truckers - the taken-for-granted backbone of American commerce - who, like cops, firefighters and soldiers, had to spend the holidays away from their families.

So, the DiLuzios assembled five gift bags of travel-size toiletries, homemade cookies and $5 wads of holiday cheer and distributed them at a rest stop on Christmas Eve. Some people mistook the gang for prostitutes or Bible-thumpers, but Carmen’s Crew had arrived.

Five years later, the crew is a registered nonprofit in Delaware with plans to expand nationwide, offering their brown paper bags loaded with essentials like toothpaste, deodorant, batteries, crackers and breakfast bars.

It’s the same nonperishable assortment that Carmen’s family packed for him during his weeks-long hauls, and stuffed in his Christmas stocking year after year.

It can get lonely out there, after all.

“Everything in your possession that was brought to you at some time was brought by a trucker,” says Crystal, 49, a part-time secretary for the Brandywine School District. “The everyday person who serves you needs to know that they’re not invisible.”

On the morning of Dec. 17, the family and a group of devoted friends braved slick roads to set up operations next to the Cinnabon at the Delaware Welcome Center in Newark. They brought 100 bags labeled, “Dear Truck Driver.” Crystal’s uncle, a professional Santa, was at home with the sniffles, but the group still caroled before perplexed motorists.

It wasn’t a somber occasion; Carmen would’ve wanted the truckers to get some recognition. He talked about retiring one day to build a trucker’s haven, complete with man cave and clean showers, where the milk was ice cold and the stew piping hot.

Sadly, the truckers were scarce on this gray squally morning. Crystal guessed that they were hibernating in their vehicles. Yet, she was in her comfort zone, surrounded by her parents, her daughters, her daughters’ friends, and her two best friends or “sister wives.” The trio is closer than blood, stepping in to co-parent, carpool and commiserate.

A bearded man wearing a gray fleece, his eyes puffy, approached the table. He explained that he had abandoned his truck in New Jersey and was taking a Greyhound bus to Florida to join his family. His 7-year-old son had died the day before after undergoing surgery, he said.

He showed Crystal pictures of his three sets of twins on his phone, pausing at an image of a blond-haired boy. The man kissed his fingertip and touched the screen again.

Crystal hugged him. She and her mother prayed with him and gave him extra crackers.

“I want to say thank you and Merry Christmas,” the man with the Russian accent said, eyes welling up. Then he was back on the highway.

The week before, Crystal was on the highway, too, traveling to New York with family and friends. As she passed mile marker 52.9, near exit 7 of the New Jersey Turnpike, her face turned scarlet and she clenched the steering wheel, her friend, Tara LeGates remembers.

Crystal’s daughters were oblivious. One was asleep, the other listening to headphones. Mom held it together, but Tara saw grief spread out like a settling fog.

Five years later, they still talk about Carmen as if he’s “out for the day,” Tara says. “He is the love of her life.”

“People talk about soulmates,” she continues. “With them, it really was. They’re intertwined.”

‘I might let youse date when you’re 30’

Crystal met Carmen when she was 10. He was 17 and dating a woman his own age.

Carmen’s mom lived on Crystal’s block in Darby, Pennsylvania. For a time, Crystal played tag along with Carmen and his girlfriend, declaring “he’s my husband.”

“He was drop-dead gorgeous,” Crystal remembers. With a neatly trimmed mustache and a deep, velvety voice, Carmen could fill out a suit jacket. She was half-Italian. He was full-blooded.

Resigned to third-wheel status, Crystal waited patiently for six years. One day, Carmen returned to visit his mother and Crystal was out walking the dog.

“Is that little Crystal?” he called.

The two became an item and Crystal’s Baptist parents threw a fit. “You’ll never see your grandchildren,” she howled.

Judy and Al Edinger eventually relented, limiting the pair’s dating radius to the front steps. It took a year before the lovebirds could leave the block, and only then with chaperones. Crystal’s uncle, a local cop, arranged for the couple to be followed by a wailing squad car.

Crystal and Carmen escaped for day trips to Philly, munching on inside-out pizzas and Texas Tommy hot dogs. Carmen knew a guy who made two flavors of water ice out of barrels in his garage. He also knew how to sing doo-wop with his friends on the corner, as Crystal beamed.

Carmen bought Crystal her first car, a 1968 fully-loaded Chrysler New Yorker that belonged to a Philadelphia judge and resembled a boat. She learned to drive it one day when Carmen stopped abruptly in the middle of a South Philly side street. Back it out, he told her.

When they got married, Crystal technically wasn’t old enough to drink at her reception. But at age 20, she was mature enough to complete Carmen’s sentences and decode his facial expressions.

They chose Delaware, what Carmen called “the sticks,” to settle down before their second daughter, Toni, was born. The 1930s bungalow on Lighthouse Road had a white porch perfect for a morning coffee and a generous backyard meant for horsing around.

Carmen, who used to repossess cars for a living, got a job delivering custom Mercedes to VIP clients across the country. After he got laid off, the family racked up debt treating Toni’s immune deficiency. Desperate, Carmen enrolled in trucking school, even though it meant cramming his family into 48-hour breaks between three-week jobs.

Before he left, Crystal made sure to pack him a stack of lunch meat, bread and a travel-size mayonnaise jar. His daughters gave him books to read to them on the road. Once they were old enough, they read to their father over hundreds of miles of copper wire. He would find a tiny handwritten note tucked into his belongings: “I’m so glad you changed your socks.”

Both girls say they never felt deprived. Carmen always managed to slip in during swim meets, theater performances, and third-grade graduations.

When he was gone, Gianna and Toni would sit in front of a fold-out map, holding a compass, while dad’s voice gave clues.

“Mommy and I liked those plants with arms,” Carmen said one day from Arizona. “One of my favorite places to go,” he said another day to his daughters’ delight. (They knew he was close by at his favorite steak shop).

On the off chance that Carmen could schedule a break at a rest stop nearby, Crystal would take the girls out of school so they could play board games in the truck and squeeze in dinner at a diner.

When it came time to say goodbye, Crystal steeled herself for the crying jags on the car ride home, and Carmen’s tone changed.

“You could just hear it in his voice,” Crystal remembers, as if he was saying, “I’m sorry it’s all on you.”

About eight years ago, Carmen was promoted to short hauls, which meant he came home for dinner every night at 5 p.m. His daughters were ecstatic. Toni followed her dad like a shadow, hovering by the bathroom door until he was finished. She helped him tinker with cars out back, wearing her mini work gloves and hiding the lug nuts.

“There were very few things he said no to,” 21-year-old Gianna remembers.

Boys were the exception. “I might let youse date when you’re 30,” Carmen pronounced with Philly flourish.

When Gianna’s first boyfriend, a former Eagle scout, came over for dinner, a glaring Carmen told the boy to keep his hands off the chocolate chip cookies.

“That thing in your pants you piss with. It better stay there,” he growled.

Carmen could size up people instantly, remembers Crystal. To those who didn’t know him well, he appeared gruff and ornery. He was a survivalist who stockpiled MREs in the basement. He bickered vociferously among family but was reserved among strangers. He rode motorcycles, savored Slim Jims and fished because it relaxed him and filled the freezer.

His ringtone was “Bad to the Bone.”

No matter what Crystal was doing, she always picked up Carmen’s calls. And he did the same.

One ordinary Monday morning in July, Carmen rose at 5 a.m. and kissed his wife goodbye before heading out to his job at Tipton Trucking. Crystal had wanted to discuss a few issues about the girls, but Carmen told her to go back to sleep and they’d connect later in the day.

Later that morning, Crystal tried her husband so their daughters could talk to him before swim practice. No answer.

She attempted to contact him several more times over the next few hours. “Dude, what are you doing?” she barked on his voicemail. “Your phone ain’t dead.”

Around noon, two New Castle County policemen knocked on the door. “Are you Mrs. Camen DiLuzio?” one said. Crystal ordered her daughters downstairs.

Shortly before 8 a.m. that day, Crystal was told, Carmen had parked his truck and was loosening the restraints on a load of concrete barriers that he had delivered for a widening project on the New Jersey Turnpike. One of the barriers fell off the trailer and crushed him. He was declared dead at the scene.

After hearing the news, Crystal went into problem-solving mom mode. She called another school parent. “I’m not going to be able to do the spirit lunch,” she said. “Carmen’s dead.”

A wrongful death lawsuit, filed by the DiLuzio family in 2013 in Camden County Superior Court, accuses at least four companies and their subsidiaries involved in the turnpike project of negligence and providing unsafe equipment. The civil case is ongoing.

At least two companies, Kinedyne Corp. and M&M; Precast Inc., have denied that their products failed or were improperly designed or manufactured, according to court records. None of the defendants’ attorneys could be reached for comment.

Crystal said she filed the suit to help clear her husband’s name. He wasn’t a careless trucker, she said.

Shortly after Carmen’s death, Crystal returned to the site of his last breath. Crouching to broken asphalt, she buried a Ziploc bag containing family photos, flowers from his funeral and a note, “We love you always.”

The next year was one of distractions. Crystal celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary with an off-the-hook party at a fire hall that the couple had planned before Carmen’s death. She took the kids to Disney World around Thanksgiving. On the first anniversary of their father’s death, the girls got free slurpees at 7-Eleven.

“Her heart breaks for her girls more than for herself,” Crystal’s friend, Tara, said recently.

“You can’t cry all the time,” explains Crystal, adding that her family is “fluent in sarcasm.”

For the first couple years, when people came to the house looking for Carmen, she would point to his wooden urn. “Here he is,” she said flatly, before leaving the room. When telemarketers called for Mr. DiLuzio, she told them to dial 1-800-Heaven.

Fly like an eagle

Initially, Gianna and Toni had difficulty processing their father’s death, but for different reasons.

Gianna, who is on the autism spectrum, felt numb, unable to connect her heart with her mind.

Toni tried to convince herself it was one of her father’s pranks - up until the funeral.

Whenever the clock chimed 5 o’clock, both girls would look up expectantly. More than once, Crystal found one reclining on the couch backward, legs climbing up the wood paneling like vines, talking to Carmen’s portrait.

Crystal, who is the kind of mom you always wanted to hang with in high school because she was much cooler and had better snacks than your mom, confesses that she has “no heart” in Christmas this year.

It’s not that one time of year is any harder than the next, she explains. It’s more about Carmen missing small milestones in his daughter’s lives, like the homecoming dance or an A on an exam.

Carmen would love that,” she thinks.

The family is looking for a bigger place now, so Crystal’s parents, who are getting up in years, can move in.

Carmen’s dijon-mustard-colored recliner - the one he bought for $5 at a yard sale - still sits in the living room facing his urn the size of a bread box. On top are his brown work gloves, still caked in grime.

Next to the urn is a bright memorial vase that Crystal’s friend made. It features an eagle, one of Carmen’s favorite creatures, with outstretched wings and sharp talons, hovering over a momma wolf and her two pups. The eagle and the wolf don’t break eye contact.

Pretty soon, the recliner has to go, Crystal concludes. It’s losing its stuffing. The girls have softer reminders of daddy, such as his hoodies and flannels.

Crystal still wears her husband’s gold wedding band. She uses her band, a gift from Carmen for their three-year anniversary, to keep his secure on her finger.

“It’s got seven diamonds. I’m good for four more years,” Carmen joked at the time.

Crystal remembers seeing her husband right after the accident. The funeral home had cleaned up the blood, but she requested that they not put on any makeup or shave his stubble. His daughters liked to rub their faces on it.

Looking down at the man she had fallen in love with when she was 10 years old, Crystal was amazed to see a pristine face. The rest of his crumpled body had been covered, but Carmen’s face looked exactly as it always had, a faint smirk crossing his lips. She swore he was just sleeping.

“He died quickly,” the funeral director surmised. “His last thoughts must have been pleasant.”

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com


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