First, the Parillas moved to Southport, North Carolina from New York after Bill and his wife snagged a plot of land for ‘pennies’ on the water. Then, one-by-one, their three adult children and their families relocated to the Wilmington area. That was more than 20 years ago, and as much as they all love the beauty and serenity of the Intercoastal Waterway and Cape Fear River and her islands, Alyssa Kelly – one of Bill’s three daughters – is quick to clarify they’re still New Yorkers at heart, perhaps evident by lingering bits of that iconic accent.
Over the years, this large but tight knit family has weathered so much more than a move down the East Coast. They’ve endured great loss of extended family members – including Bill’s mother, father and brother who all had memory disorders at their time of passing. Then, Bill was diagnosed with dementia several years ago. The particular kind is unclear.
The subsequent progression of the disease has stunned Alyssa, who owns and operates in-home senior care company Comfort Keepers and has worked with seniors for her entire career. “When it hits your own house, it’s like a whole different ball game,” she said.
Thankfully, two things have greatly helped the family through this tough time. The first is Bill’s singing and tapping away at his keyboard. Music is a special pastime of his, and while the dementia has made itself evident in many ways, it seems it decided not to touch his wonderful gift so far. The 83-year-old doesn’t just have a knack for vocals and playing; he’s incredibly talented. He started a band called ‘The Nomads’ in New York decades ago, then after retiring and moving, played in a local Southport band for several years called ‘The Use-to-Be’s.’ “I would get him to play gigs for me as sponsored by Comfort Keepers,” Alyssa explained. “He did the huge Chocolate Festival for the New Hanover County Resource Center’s gala.” His band also performed for events at Wrightsville Beach Park, Holden Beach under the bridge, Silver Coast Winery and more. Especially heartwarming were the times he played for senior, assisted living, and skilled nursing communities because the residents would light up when they remembered their generation’s songs.
Alyssa said the height of his time in ‘The Use-to-Be’s’ was quite fun for the entire family. She recalls her mom always upfront by the stage, dancing to the music – which was typically from the 50’s and 60’s. Although Bill is no longer in the band, he’s still playing as vibrantly as ever and bringing smiles to all who hear – even if that’s a just family member in the living room. Or in this case, a curious Alzheimer’s Association blog writer.
While on the phone with Alyssa, she interrupted our conversation and said, “Listen to this!” A familiar tune came through. “A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while…” They couldn’t see it, but I was surely smiling as we continued the interview.
“He took us to Disney World every year, for like 20 years,” Alyssa said. This is the second thing that’s helped this family cope: a shared love of Disney.
In a perfect world, this Father’s Day would be spent in Orlando yet again. Unfortunately, though, that’s just not feasible. Bill has become homebound after a recent aggressive bladder cancer diagnosis on top of the dementia.
Knowing this Father’s Day will be an important one, the solution, Alyssa said, is to bring Disney to Bill.
“I have taken a picture of every photo that we have from Disney since were born,” Alyssa explained, walking through the plan. “My sisters and I are putting together a slide show. I have a friend who lives near Disney and she got me all these treats from Disney World, [a] Father’s Day Disney Dad shirt. We’re all putting on our hats from when we were little, the little monogram ones, and we have candles that smell like the Contemporary – because they actually make them – and we are going to bring Disney to him.” The special day will even include watching first-person videos of rides and a walk through the Contemporary Resort, all from the comfort of Southport and surrounded by family. And, of course, Bill will sing and play throughout the day. It will be a Father’s Day to remember for their family.
Alyssa reflected on the years that have led up to this moment. It hasn’t been an easy journey, navigating dementia and now cancer. She’s watched as her mom has grown understandably frustrated and weary over time, which is a difficult progression in its own right.
When asked what advice Alyssa has for others facing a similar battle, she said, “Whoever is the person living in the house with them, like the spouse, to get support and help, guidance, advice from the beginning because that person has the hardest job of all.”
They truly do.
Before saying goodbye, Alyssa put Bill on the phone one more time. She asked him why music makes him so happy. “It something I do all the time!” he exclaimed. Simply put! For a talented man who has catalogued and knows somewhere in the ballpark of 400 songs, there’s hardly a tune on the radio that Alyssa hears and doesn’t think of her dad. It’s one of the many ways she’ll remember him. “He’s the head of our family who all of his life just did everything to take care of his girls,” Alyssa tearfully said. “He just always took care of us and I want [others] to remember that he brought so much joy to people with his singing.”