When Maria Petrone remembers Gabriella Pellicani, one of her former students at St. Mark’s Cooperative Nursery School in Rockville Centre, she thinks of her dancing wildly through the classroom.
While Gabriella twirled with her friends, Petrone would often hear the 5-year-old say to no one in particular that today was the “greatest day, the best day.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a child just say that,” Petrone said. “She was so happy just to breathe the air.”
Gabriella held onto that enthusiasm even after she was diagnosed in December with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, said her father, Nick Pellicani. She held onto it while she underwent radiation for months and up until her death on Oct. 16 in her Rockville Centre home.
“I think she just kind of loved life,” said Pellicani, 37, an attorney. “Even in the hospital, she never stopped being herself.”
Last winter, Pellicani and his wife, Fabiana Pellicani, noticed that one of Gabriella’s eyes looked off-center. The parents took her to an ophthalmologist, who determined something was pushing on its back. An MRI revealed a large brain tumor, nestled behind her eye, that doctors said couldn’t be removed.
Over the next year, Gabriella received treatment at several hospitals. Her father said she hardly complained, only crying when she received her “pokies,” the term she used for all the shots she was given.
Doctors told the Pellicanis that they didn’t have to send Gabriella to her pre-K classes anymore, but the girl insisted on attending. Gabriella would get radiation treatment in the morning and then go straight to school, where she danced, sang nursery songs and colored with friends, said Petrone, Gabriella’s assistant teacher.
“She was a vibrant little girl,” Petrone said. “The school really was her happy place.”
She made friends effortlessly in her classes, in her old neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and in Rockville Centre, where the family moved in summer of last year.
Gabriella was also enamored of her only sibling, Antonio Pellicani, 2. She’d read to him, coddle him and soothe him as he cried.
“She had a way of connecting with people, in whatever social group she was in,” Nick Pellicani said. “She had a lot of friends she called her best friends.”
Gabriella began to wilt during the summer months, but she was determined to start kindergarten at Floyd B. Watson Elementary School in Rockville Centre, her father said. Though she was in a lot of pain, she comforted a boy sitting next to her, who was crying on the first day of school.
“It wasn’t until later, at her wake, that the boy’s mom told us that Gabi was the only one who talked to him and played with him,” Nick Pellicani said. “That was Gabi. She wasn’t feeling very good herself, but she wanted to take care of this boy.”
Gabriella only attended the first two days of school, but her father said it was the “most proud she had ever been.”
A memorial service for Gabriella was held Oct. 22 at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre. She was buried at Resurrection Cemetery in East Farmingdale. The family requested donations be made to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a cancer research center in Boston where Gabriella briefly underwent clinical trials.