The Night My Sister Saved Me

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OK, this is a hard one for me to write for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that I must hold myself accountable, as well as be held by all who will read this.

This is not something that I freely talked about with anyone, and in holding with tradition in mi familia, once the initial repercussions were dealt with, it was generally left alone for each party to “deal with as they chose.” I do not recommend this method of dealing with family ills.

My sister Barbara (Bobbi) is the oldest of five of us and I am the youngest, by 11 years to my next sibling and 26 years younger than my sis. And yes, technically they are all steps.

But hey, no one ever told me, and step or no, Bobbi and I have a connection that borders on mystical. She was also the only one who spoke up when my parents announced that they were going to have another child, saying “Great, and you two both think you’re not gonna make the same mistakes you made raising your first two kids?” And then to herself she vowed to be there when they weren’t, or couldn’t be, which turned out to be quite a bit.

Now, for my parents. Let’s just say that the only true function of my home was dysfunction. My father used to play a game, with permissions; I would ask him if I could do something and he would tell me to ask my mother. And if the answer was in the affirmative, he would instill his conditions. If the answer were in the negative, he would overrule the decision. Thus effectively cutting my mother off at the knees as a decision- making parent.

I was being shown daily where the roles and the rules lie; my father being the one with the power, my mother forced into the role of the nonentity. Make my dinners, clean my house and take care of the kids and make it work without complaint. You have everything you could ever want and it all comes from Me. I have everything under control. Yeah, everything except for me.

As I grew, I was fed information and beliefs that, while they may have worked for my father, they were no good for me.

My middle brother, who is 16 years older than me, fed me drugs from an insanely early age, which had me in the grips of a full-blown addiction and sent away to rehab at the age of 12.

I was an altar boy in a Catholic church, running the streets and using drugs, and trying to emulate an egomaniacal mob enforcer who I called Dad, never learning to defer to or respect the person who had carried me for nine months and brought me squalling into this world.

In the summer of ’95 I had recently been released from state prison and my father was due home from federal prison within a few weeks. My mother was taking care of the home and Francis, my closest sibling, who is afflicted with high functional Down syndrome. With my father out of the picture and unable to contradict her, she decided to finally stand her ground.

Unfortunately, at 23 years old, I was already at a level of self-hatred that no matter who was in front of me, I was not to be refused, especially by a woman who all of a sudden wanted to play the parent. I needed the car to go to a friend. Yeah, I’d been drinking and doing cocaine, so what? You telling me I can’t go where I want to go ’cause you all of a sudden want to play mom?

Are you kidding me? “Mom, do not do this. I am warning you.”

“Mark, you do what you gotta do, but you are not getting the keys.”

Now here I am, nearly 7 feet tall, 298 pounds and I never heard “no” and even if I did, it never stopped me, looking at a person who suddenly wants to make decisions concerning my life and is that a smirk on your face?

At this point I smiled, and this was probably where the situation began to sink in for her, for I rarely if ever smiled. It usually came as a precursor to my switch being thrown that allowed me to maneuver without remorse or feeling.

I’ve been told (unfortunately by two of my family members) that it is like watching a pricked balloon burst; one minute it’s there, and snap! Gone. Only instead of hot air, what leaves me is all traces of humanity.

And as I walked into the kitchen, my mom said later “she knew, she knew, she should have picked up the phone, dialed 911, something,” but she didn’t and when I returned from the kitchen with a butcher knife, in her mind it was already too late.

Due to some cruel trick of fate, I have perfect recall of the events as if they are reoccurring on my own personal Imax.

The look of resigned comprehension on my mother’s face as I walked up to the couch, flipping the blade around to a back-handed grip. The look as I straddled her, pinning one of her arms to her side and as I slid the blade under her chin, putting its edge against the skin of her throat, and at the time I remember feeling absolutely nothing; no anxiety or fear, no hurt nor pain, nothing.

There we were, locked in an unthinkable situation with naught but an unforgivable outcome as the only possibility, and the phone began to ring.

Now when I say what happened next was surreal to me, I understand that this situation in its entirely would seem surreal, even unbelievable to most. For me it was a reality that I was committed to. So everything that transpired next happened as though in a dream.

My mother took her one free arm, and very slowly without breaking eye contact in the slightest, reached over her head and removed the phone from the cradle, put it to her ear and said, “Hello, yeah … yeah he’s right here,” and handed me the phone. I took it and without moving the blade so much as an inch said, “Yeah?”

Out comes my sister’s voice saying, “Mark, what are you doing?” I’m like, what do you mean what am I doing, what the hell are you doing, you know what time it is? She said “Mark, what the hell are you doing? I’m sitting here trying to relax and watch TV and something keeps telling me to call my brother, call my brother, and it will not let me rest, so again, what are you doing?”

“I’m arguing with my mom,”

Then she said, “Look, Mark, whatever you have in your hand, put it down, put it down and walk to the front door, when you get to the door put down the phone and leave the house, walk to the corner and I will be there in five minutes.”

And as I began to tell her how that wasn’t possible, for she lived at least 25 minutes away, she snapped, “Mark, just do it and I’ll be there!”

I remember removing the knife from my mother’s throat and passing it within inches of her face and placing it on the table above her head, getting up and walking away without a backward glance and doing exactly as she said and wouldn’t you know it, she made it, against all logic, she was there.

The whole way to her house (which by the way took 23 minutes) neither one of us said a word, not until we were in her house sitting on her couch.

“How did you know?”

“Mark, I was sitting right where I am sitting now and something kept telling me to call my brother, and it was being real persistent, so I did and I’m glad I did. Are you gonna be OK?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll see?”

I wound up staying at my sister’s until my dad came home and though I never asked, I knew my sister talked to my mom and that they had come to an agreement on that, and believe me, they didn’t agree on much.

A few days after my returning home, I had a parole appointment and I knew, just like my sister knew, that something wasn’t right. My dad tried to tell me everything was OK, but when I looked at my mom, I knew. I told my dad when we were walking out the door, because I paused and looked back at the house and said, “This is the last time I’m gonna see this for a long time.”

I remember when my PO [probation officer] was walking behind me to her office I heard her playing with her handcuffs, and when I walked into her office, there were two police officers there to take me into custody. I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ faces when they saw me roll past them in a back of an unmarked police car. There was the look of genuine surprise on my father’s, on my mother’s, of genuine relief.

See, Dad didn’t know it but Mom called my PO and told her what had happened. I guess I can’t blame her, ya know, all things being considered. Of course, my dad wasn’t happy; rule no. 1: Family deals with family. No one else needs to be in our business.

It was no surprise to me when they booked me in and I asked what I was being charged with. They started with attempted murder of one Virginia D’Ascenzo. From there on out it was a blur until I finally got to court and the real surprise came. The charge was dropped. I still had enough offenses behind that to put me back in prison where I stayed for the next three years.

Things were never again the same with my family at home, and my parents wound up splitting up quite noisily, ending with my mother disappearing with my brother.

It’s now nearly two decades later and I have yet to break the cycle of incarceration or abuse. My father passed while I was in jail and I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly eight years.

She is still deathly afraid for me to know where she lives. She even went as far as remaining distant from my daughter, her granddaughter, for fear of her telling me where she is.

I always say that if you have to say I’m sorry, it’s already too late. The damage is done, and it is, and I am.

My sister Bobbi continues to be an anchor in the ocean of possibilities that is me. Though things in our family fell apart, she will always be my sister. That night, she was truly a savior.

Mark D’Ascenzo, 44, is in the San Francisco County Jail for burglary.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

2 thoughts on “The Night My Sister Saved Me

  1. Mark something told me to look you up. Long time since 11th ave- We had similar back grounds and didn’t even know it at the time. My dad was organized crime before during and after the music.
    You can see the world, from a wider range of perspectives. And they all hold truth and lies and pain.
    It scars you- you survived it. You have obviously grown from it. Remember that is what differentiates
    you from the ones, who badges supposedly protect society from.
    You grew- they don’t. And the ones who provide you “services” don’t care, can’t discern and couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Hold your head up brother.