Nelly Parrilla, 1938 – 2008

Mom – a great beauty

Mom, Uncle Tito, Mami Flor

That’s Mom on my right, me in the middle, my cousin Michael next to me

My Mother Nelly
My mother Nelly (whose full name might have been Nelida – I could never really be sure because I had never seen her birth certificate) was born in 1938 outside the tiny town of Coamo, located on the southern end of Puerto Rico, about 30 miles from Ponce.

She lived in a wooden house that sat on stilts (to guard against flooding? I was never sure about that, either), on a small farm. She was the third of six children, with Mami Flor and Uncle Mario coming first, then Uncle Pete, Titi Rosie, and Uncle Hector (aka Tito) following over the next decade.

Sometime around 1950 or ‘51, my grandparents pulled up stakes and became part of the mass migration of thousands Puerto Ricans to the mainland, primarily to New York City. Although there was already a population of Puerto Ricans in the city — Tito Puente was born here in 1920, in El Barrio — the vast majority of the migration occurred after World War II, and my mother’s family was part of that mass influx, settling in what had been predominantly Italian East Harlem, first on 104th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, later on 103rd between Lexington and Third Avenues.

The second eldest female, Mami dropped out of high school to take care of her younger siblings and never returned to school. Later on she began working in a factory in Canarsie along with Grandma to help the family make ends meet.

My mother, by all accounts, was the most beautiful of all her brothers and sisters.

She married Jose Isaac Parrilla in 1961. A year later, I was born. One year after that, she gave birth to my sister Joanne, who was born sick and lived only 42 days. Mami almost never spoke about Joanne to me, and it was not until 2005 that I discovered that my baby sister was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. Why she was buried there was a secret that was never shared with me.

Mom worked long hours throughout my childhood, with the result that I only got to be with her on weekends. (I was living with my Titi Flor, who told me to call her Mami Flor and who treated as if I were her own son). My mother would arrive on Friday nights, gifts in hand, and we stayed together all Saturday and Sunday, but inevitably Sunday night would loom over us, casting a pall on whatever we had been doing that weekend. We would lie in bed, where she would hold me until we slept, and every Sunday night I would beg her not to leave me, to be with me the next morning, to just stay. But every Monday morning I woke up in bed alone and heartbroken, and she would be gone for another week.

It had never occurred to me to wonder exactly why I was staying with my aunt and uncle and cousin, but I realized years later that this meant that my parents had separated, and that was why Mom needed to work. Once again I never learned why they separated. I also never saw my father again because he died, aged 32, during surgery. I was 7.

Mom finally took me to live with her and her second husband when I turned eight, but the extended separations had taken their toll and I was never to be as close to her as she would have liked, a fact which caused her great sadness. I was too used to my aunt, my second mom, and although Mami told me that she did not mind this, I knew that she did mind it, she minded it a lot, and she cried some over it. She loved me more than anything, a love that I believe grew stronger, possessively so, after my sister’s death.

In 1981, my uncle Mario developed Parkinson’s Disease. He was in his late 30s.

Time passed. I grew up, went into the Air Force, came back. My mother kept working until 1986, when a fire in our apartment almost claimed her life and my stepfather Nicholas’s. Her nerves were shot and she retired on a disability pension.

It was around this time that my uncle Tito first grew sick and died at the age of 40. My mother and grandmother had gone to see him every day he lay in the hospital. His death was the first of a wave of losses that was to decimate my family.

One by one, they fell. My uncles and aunts, all of them. My grandmother’s brother and sister and finally Grandma herself. Wave after wave of death. And through it all my mother began to develop a twitch in her hand.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the late 90s, as she neared her 60th birthday, just as her brother Mario had back in 1981. At first it manifested itself in an inability to keep still, then by a paralysis that kept her stuck for long periods at a time.

In 1998, she collapsed and could no longer walk unassisted. The doctors tried combinations of meds to keep the situation under control, with varying degrees of success. Finally she became bed-bound and could no longer support herself unaided. Too self-conscious to use wheelchairs, she became a shut-in. The meds made her paranoid, convinced that people were spying on her from outside, so she kept the shades drawn. She spent the majority of her time in the hospital bed that had been installed in her bedroom.

The only saving grace through all this was her home health aides, who made her life bearable, even sometimes pleasant. Martha Vega and Hilda Montalvo stayed with her for 8 years, until the end. Martha, in particular, adored Mom and stayed with her until her untimely death last year. Because of them, because of their daily care, Mom’s skin remained as luminous and clear as a young woman’s. People visiting her were often surprised by how young she looked, even in her deblitated condition. They pampered her, babied her, rubbed lotion on her, fed and bathed her, attended to her through all the long years.

I had a Power of Attorney to handle her monetary affairs and became her Medical Proxy to address the physical ones. My uncle Mario finally succumbed to his Parkinson’s in 2004, after 23 years battling the disease. Grandma left us a year later. All Mami had left now was me, my wife and son, and her home health aides, who became a second family to her.

On Sunday, April 6th, I got a phone call from one of Mami’s attendants that she was behaving strangely, thrashing her limbs about as if in great agitation. She went to Mt Sinai Hospital, where she got a CAT scan and an EEG, neither of which revealed a neurological cause for the activity.A week later, on April 12th, she went in again, and this time she was admitted to the hospital. This was a cause of concern – Mom almost always left a hospital stay in worse shape than when she went in – and this time was no different. She developed both a low-level fever and aspiration pneumonia. After a meeting with her doctors, we made the unhappy decision to transfer her home care from VNS Choice to VNS Hospice, with all that the word hospice implied.

She was discharged on Tuesday, April 15th, and entered the Hospice program the same day. They delivered medication to the apartment, had a nurse available at any time if necessary, and sent over an oxygen tank should it become necessary. I filled out another DNR order for her, which felt like signing a death warrant. The implication was everywhere. I girded myself for the inevitable.

By this point, Mami had developed a problem with swallowing, which drastically affected her ability to take in any nutrition or medication. This would accelerate her decline, I was told.

Monday, April 21. The first weekday of Spring Break. I am in the 42nd Street Research Library working on my damned thesis when my phone begins the first of many interruptions throughout the day. My mom is not looking well, the nurse says. The doctor has prescribed morphine for her to take going forward. (The key idea in hospice care is comfort, not treatment.) A nurse is being sent over to spend the night there. I call in the evening, speak to Hilda, the home health aide, and the nurse.

Mom spends a fitful night, with a fever that won’t go away and an episode of unspecified discomfort somewhere around 3 am. She receives a dosage of morphine. I call again at 7 am and get an update from the night nurse.  The regular nurse goes in and checks up on Mami, who seems little better, but comfortable. She decides that a nurse won’t be necessary for a second night.

Providence steps in then, and I decide to ask Ting to come with me to visit Mom. It is Tuesday, April 22, 2008. The temperature is in the 70s. It is a perfect Spring day.

We go. Mom looks markedly worse than she did only one week before, and I know the end is near. I have to leave her room twice for fear I will break up in front of her. She no longer speaks or opens her eyes, although she is awake and conscious. She responds to our presence, especially Michael’s. He touches her nose with his small hand. Fearless.

When I am alone in the room with her, I kiss her face, her eyes, her nose and cheeks. Tell her that I will continue to take care of her. I thank her for being my mother, for giving me life, for loving me as much as she did. Tell her that I will love her forever. Unable to receive blessing from her, I instead give it to her for the first – and last – time. I ask her if she can hear me. In response, a small sound emanates from her – faint, so faint. But a response. She is still there, at the end of things. I memorize the feel of her hand in mine, the touch of my lips against her forehead.

Memorize against the self-doubts I know I will have in the future.

Denying to myself that she is almost gone, I tell her that I will be by again later in the week, and again on Sunday with Ralph, who has finally asked to see her. We leave, me, Ting, and Michael.

Nelly Parrilla, my mother, passed away around 7:15 PM that evening. She was 2 weeks shy of her 70th birthday. She was the last of 6 brothers and sisters born to Pedro and Ana Luisa Rodriguez, and now they are all gone.

Any my heart is broken. So broken. Just like that little boy of long ago, who would wake up to find his mother had left. Again. Except that this time it would be for always.

I need to stop now. More later, maybe.

Good night, Mami. I love you. Love, your son, Bobby.


~ by Rob Parrilla on April 23, 2008.

One Response to “Nelly Parrilla, 1938 – 2008”

  1. Cousin, Once again I’m here to tell you your in my thoughts. I have just seen the pictures and read about the life of my aunt Nelly. A truly sweet person. God bless you Ting and Michael. Love you,

    Your Cousin Mike

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