Grandma

Grandma
So yeah. Was she cute or what?
Ana Luisa Ortiz Cordero, daughter of Jose and Delfina, was born in Los LLanos, Coamo, Puerto Rico, in August 1915, but because the record of her birth was not submitted until December of that year, she always celebrated her birthday in December. In 1934, at the age of 19, She married my grandfather, Pedro Rodriguez. In 1935 Flor de Maria, the first of their six children, was born, followed by my mother Nelly, uncle Mario, uncle Pedro (Pete), aunt (Titi) Rosie, and finally Hector (Tito), the baby, who was born in 1950, when Grandma was 35.
Driven by the same economic problems that motivated so many islanders at the time, my family joined the exodus of Puerto Ricans to the supposedly healthier economic climes of America, arriving in New York in 1950 or 1951, one of thousands of families that made the trip and which established P uerto Ricans as the city’s first dominant Latino ethnic group. For the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, if a New Yorker referred to a “Spanish” kid, they were likely referring to a Puerto Rican or a New Yorker of Puerto Rican roots. My family moved into a tenement apartment on 104th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenues, in El Barrio.
Grandma was faced with the daunting task of raising 6 kids (and occasionally grandkids) pretty much alone, while my Grandfather set about supporting the group by opening a bodega. The hours he kept at the store kept them separated, and my mother Nelly was obligated to drop out of high school to help Grandma raise the younger kids. Once everyone was old enough, both Grandma and Mami Nelly got jobs in factories to supplement the family income. Grandpa began a habit of being gone from home for longer and longer periods of time, dropping in occasionally to visit and to be treated like a lord whenever he did.
Grandma’s life was never easy; she never complained. She had to contend with such obstacles as a philandering husband, the necessity of learning English, the need to put food on the table, and the growing problems of managing 3 boys and 1 girl who were coming into adolescence during the 1960’s.
The 1960’s, especially, caused Grandma a lot of grief. My mother gave birth to me in 1962 and my sister Joanne in 1963, only to suffer through my little sister’s death after only one month of life. The growing drug culture swept over and overtook both Tito and Pete, both of whom had resulting problems for the rest of their lives. My aunt Rosie married and moved to Brooklyn. My Mom had married my late father Joe, but they had problems and broke up sometime after I was born. Only my aunt Flor and uncle Mario were able to sustain an overall normal home life, each marrying and settling into homes nearby. Things reached a low when Grandpa was ambushed on a Bronx street in April of 1970, apparently by someone with whom he was in conflict over a woman. He hit his head or was struck on the head; I am not sure which. He went into a coma and died a week later. Grandma was 55 and a widow. She never remarried.
After this, there was a brief period of stability during the early and middle 1970’s, interrupted by drug-related problems suffered by my 2 uncles Tito and Pete. Pete especially proved problematic, and spent the remainder of his short, tortured life in and out of rehab centers and mental hospitals. Grandma always gave him a room and a bed, and he would be quiet and docile and sweet for a period of time before the monster woke up and he would be gone again, but not before stealing a radio or a TV to sell for drug money. Tito, meanwhile, was trying to clean up his life and joined a GED program, where he met Gladys, his future wife. He kicked the drugs and had three daughters and had a happy life, for a time.
The 1980’s proved troublesome. Pete tried to kill himself by jumping off the building on 112th Street where we were living at the time, but succeeded only in knocking out all of his front teeth and spending months in the hospital. He came out of that and fell into the full grip of drugs once again; my grandmother suffered through this all through that decade. In the meantime, Mario developed Parkinson’s disease while still in his 40’s and needed to move to Puerto Rico to be cared for by his in-laws.
My aunt Rosie began drinking heavily and lapsed into alcoholism.
In the late 80’s, my uncle Tito, depressed over some problems, left his home one night and wandered over to 104th Street to see some friends. His friends, all addicts, invited him to shoot up to take his mind off his troubles. Tragically, he did so, and they shared the same needle. Shortly thereafter, he developed health problems and went to the hospital, where we found that he had contracted the HIV virus. Both my Mom and Grandma went to the hospital every day for years. In 1990, my uncle Tito, Hector, my grandmother’s favorite and her baby, died of complications from the HIV virus, although he never actually developed AIDS. He died on his wife’s birthday. He was 40.
His death opened the floodgates that consumed the family.
Two years later Petey, by now broken in spirit and completely docile and sweet, died, also of complications from HIV. He was 49.
My Mami Nelly contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1993-94.
Titi Rosie, overwhelmed by depression, drank herself to death that same year. She was 49.
In 1996, my aunt Flor de Maria, Mami Flor, who raised me for a time and whom I thought of as a second mother, died of breast cancer. She was 61.
In Puerto Rico, my uncle Mario was steadily deteriorating because of the Parkinson’s. By this point he had wasted away, could no longer speak, could only look out at the world with sad eyes.
My mother, too, was beginning to worsen. In 1998 she collapsed and could no longer fend for herself.
My grandmother moved into a smaller, more manageable apartment that was also free from the ghosts of the past.
By 2000, only 2 children were left, Mario and my mother, and they were both suffering from Parkinson’s disease. My Grandma was diagnosed with clinical depression. She was suffering from poor circulation and from nightmares.
My uncle Mario finally died in the summer of 2004, after more than 20 years of illness. Only my mother Nelly was left of the 6 siblings.
On April 1st of this year, Grandma developed breathing trouble and was rushed to North General Hospital, in Harlem, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. I did not find out about it until 4 days later, and I went to see her on Saturday, April 9th. Although she was uncomfortable, she seemed in good spirits; her room was bright and cheerful and she had the overhead TV set to Univision. She had no appetite, however, and complained of being hot. As I was about to leave, Gladys and Yarisa, Tito’s widow and one of his daughters, arrived, so we stayed until 7:45, kissed Grandma goodbye, and left together. She was scheduled to be discharged sometime the next week. That was the last time we were ever able to speak to her.
The next morning, about 5 AM, Grandma suffered a heart attack and was transferred to ICU. When we went to see her, she was sedated and unconscious, on a respirator, and hooked up to various plastic bags, Her lips were parched almost purple and dry; she was almost unrecognizable.
I came back to see her on Tuesday, April 12th, after work. She had deteriorated earlier that morning, and the floor doctor on duty did everything but actually come out and say that Grandma was dying. We knew that she was the most critical case on the floor, and judging by how she looked, she would not last the night.
She did not. At 4AM on Wednesday, April 13, at the age of 89, Grandma passed away.
I remembered how I once dreaded needing to write those words one day. But I also knew that truly, she was ready to go. So I grieve, but I am also content that I spent time with her for the last few years, and called her, and celebrated her birthday, and spent Thanksgivings with her. I will miss her, and I will never forget her.
I love you, Grandma. Beloved Grandma. Thank you for the lunches, the coffees. Rest easy and be happy. Amen.

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~ by Rob Parrilla on April 14, 2005.

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