Lisa Tuozzolo's children saved her.
She was devastated when her husband, NYPD Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo, was fatally shot in the line of duty. The pain was so intense she talked about wanting to shut herself up in a closet. She always left the house with tissues as the tears could come at any moment.
More than two years have passed since her husband was killed by a suspect in a domestic dispute on Nov. 4, 2016. This will be her third Mother's Day without the love of her life and father of their two boys, Austin, 7, and Joey, 6.
"The boys are my reason to keep going," said Tuozzolo, 43, of Huntington. "They are the ones who give me strength and hope and comfort. They are the ones who wake me in the morning, make me get out of bed, and drive me during the day."
Lisa Tuozzolo wants nothing less than to be an inspiration to her sons, the way, she said, her husband was for her. But being an inspiration — as all mothers know — is hard work. Making breakfast, helping with homework, going to their games, reading to them at night — all fall to her.
For all that Austin and Joey have lost, their mother is determined that they will not lose the opportunities to enjoy their childhood. So hardly a day goes by without her having to juggle a bevy of sports games, school events and other activities.
Take this past Monday. She began the day as a parent chaperon for Joey's kindergarten class trip to Northport Village. That night, she coordinated Joey's wrestling practice with Austin's baseball game, shuttling each to their event, staying awhile, and rounding them both up to go home.
"For the mental health and well-being of my boys, I need to keep moving forward in life — and so do they," said Tuozzolo, sitting in her backyard, wearing a small gold charm of her husband's badge around her neck. "We were dealt a terrible hand of cards, and the lesson that I want to teach the boys is that you don't fold in this game. You keep playing."
Consequently, she is a hockey mom, baseball mom, lacrosse mom and wrestling mom.
T.J. Brocking, who coaches the boys' local pee-wee wrestling team, said he's seen Tuozzolo become both mother and father to her sons.
Brocking, 38, of East Northport, marvels at "the way she's able to keep the boys so active."
Brocking, who is also the boys' gym teacher at school, lends a hand when he can, helping the boys get home after practice.
Assists from helping hands
Tuozzolo has help from family, friends, school workers, sports coaches and what she calls her "blue family" of the NYPD. When Joey and Austin had an ice-skating birthday party at the Dix Hills rink, the NYPD hockey team showed up and skated with the kids. And when each boy set off for his first day of kindergarten, a year apart, some 30 officers were on hand to walk them to the bus stop.
Martine Materasso had served as a sergeant with Paul Tuozzolo at the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx. She responded to the hospital the day he was killed, and later met Lisa. She and Lisa Tuozzolo, both mothers who live on Long Island, hit it off.
"After that we built our own friendship based on who we are," said Materasso, who now is a deputy chief who commands the Manhattan north detective borough.
The two mothers have taken vacations together to Myrtle Beach and brought their kids to see Broadway shows. Lisa Tuozzolo has also become friends with a close group of female police officers who take day trips together with their children. The women have made surprise appearances at the Tuozzolo home on holidays such as Christmas.
"She's hurting every single day," said Materasso, 41, of Smithtown. "If one day she needs to stay in bed, she can stay in bed. If she needs a push, we'll give her a push."
Tuozzolo feels the need to give back to the police department, to thank them for their help and to provide an important lesson for her sons.
As the NYPD has embraced her, she has embraced the NYPD.
When NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen was killed in the line of duty in a friendly fire incident three months ago, Lisa Tuozzolo put her two boys to work, putting shipping labels on T-shirts to honor him.
“Today is about the loss of Detective Simonsen and the education for my boys,” she said at the time to SILive.com. It's about "showing and teaching them that so many people gave to us in our time of need, and now it’s our turn to give back and give to others who need our help.”
In the past week, she played in an NYPD softball game to honor officers who died of 9/11-related illnesses; spoke before a group of newly promoted new police sergeants; and attended an event where a student was awarded a scholarship in her husband's name. She also spoke at the send-off of law enforcement officers cycling to Washington as part of National Police Week.
“Lisa is an absolute inspiration — not just to Austin and Joseph, but to everyone in our police family with whom she comes into contact,” said NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill. “Her words carry weight — they have meaning. And they deeply affect her audiences.”
O’Neill added, “In many ways, Lisa’s thoughts and deeds embody what it means to be a mother.”
On Friday night, Tuozzolo was awarded The Patrolman Philip W. Cardillo Humanitarian Award from the NYPD's Columbia Association, named in honor of the officer killed in the line of duty in 1972.
"What she does for the police department, and the widows and families [coping with] line of duty deaths, is just amazing,” said Columbia president Christopher Pizzo.
An educator by trade, Tuozzolo is a powerful speaker, Materasso said. She speaks about the sacrifice of her husband, the need for people to cherish time with loved ones, and the struggle of moving forward through tough times.
"It makes the people she speaks to better people," Materasso said.
Since 2008, Tuozzolo served as an assistant principal in a middle school and then high school in West Islip. But she recently resigned that post to raise her kids full time.
Anne-Marie Dunn, a special-education teacher at the high school, worked with Tuozzolo for years. The two women became pregnant about the same time in 2011, and they and their husbands attended birthing classes and hospital tours together. They gave birth eight hours apart at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.
Since Paul's death, their friendship has deepened, said Dunn, 37, of West Babylon.
"It made us even closer," Dunn said. "Our friendship grew significantly because of the tragedy."
Last November, Dunn dedicated her run in the New York City Marathon to Paul Tuozzolo.
Mother's Day plans
Mother's Day is bittersweet for Tuozzolo. She hasn't made any big plans, save for spending the day with Joey and Austin.
"We're just going to spend it together here at the house," she said. "We will go to the cemetery to go visit Daddy. … I take the boys there. It's a nice, quiet place for them to be."
It's important the boys know about their father, she said. The family talks a lot about his love of classic cars and how he loved to work with his hands, rebuilding their basement and adding a home-theater system. He had started building a tree house, which friends finished as a kid-size structure in the backyard. On the front wall, painted to look like red bricks, it says 43rd Precinct.
Sgt. Tuozzolo, a 19-year veteran of the force, had responded along with other officers to a 911 call that Manuel Rosales, 35, had been holding his estranged wife and their 3-year-old son at gunpoint in their Bronx home.
Rosales, a career criminal from Brentwood, fled and, when found by police, opened fire. Tuozzolo was shot in the head and torso, and was pronounced dead at the hospital. Rosales was shot and killed in the exchange.
"They need to know how special their Daddy was," Tuozzolo said.
Mother's Day will not, she stressed, be about gifts for her.
"The greatest gift for me is just being able to spend time with my boys," she said. "The greatest lesson to teach them is that it's not about materialistic things. It's about the memories you make with each other. I try to remind the kids to make those memories, and to use the memories we have of Paul each and every day. To never forget their father."