Pooh and Piglet, Ben and Abby, Best Friends, Best Memories

Walt Disney World, 2012

Yesterday, I received an email from a friend who was doing a crossword puzzle. He wanted to know who was Pooh’s 6-letter friend. I wrote back that it could be Piglet, Tigger or Eeyore, but Piglet was Pooh’s best friend.  Sure enough, the correct response was Piglet. I didn’t expect the day to be filled with memories that were conjured by that simple email.

When Ben and I first started dating, we often walked to the flagship Disney Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It is no longer at that location. We wandered the 3 floors and I often left with little gifts- the courting phase of a relationship is fun, indeed!

Having spent increasing amounts of time with me, Ben was becoming fully immersed in the Disney mindset, and loving it, sometimes to his own amazement.  One day, as we strolled through the store, Ben called me to look at a figurine, exclaiming, “Abby, look! It’s Piglet and his best friend, Pooh!” I stared at him, speechless, and then started to laugh. He shook his head, laughed, and said, “I was macho before I met you!” Truth be told, he was not so macho. He was a big teddy bear, and he could calm me down with his great hugs. He was also a big kid at heart, and he indulged my inner child, and that was us.  He bought me that figurine as a surprise, and it will always be so special to me.

Disney Store,Winnie the Pooh,Piglet

Piglet and his Best Friend Pooh!
A very special figurine with very sweet memories.

Because of that incident, Pooh and his friends had a particularly special place in our hearts. At Walt Disney World, we always ate at the Crystal Palace buffet, so we could see them. After Ben’s ALS had progressed a bit, I got him settled at our table and then got a plate of food for him. There was one time that Pooh came by our table when I was at the buffet. When I returned, Ben told me that I’d missed Pooh but that he told him that I was going to be disappointed that I missed him. Ben was concerned that Pooh might not have understood him, since his speech was impaired and the costume would make it even harder to hear him (Yes, we did know it was really an actor in a costume, but when we were at Walt Disney World, we completely dove into the fantasy)  A few moments later, I looked up and Pooh was literally running towards our table. He pointed to Ben and then tapped his own forehead, letting me know that he remembered to come back (I speak fluent Disney). Pooh gave me a big hug and we posed for photos. Ben was absolutely thrilled. In fact, making that happen for me was monumental for Ben because, at this point, Ben needed a lot of assistance, and that was difficult for him on a lot of levels: It was not easy for him to be so vulnerable, he was self-conscious, he liked to take care of me and he felt like he could not do that anymore, and there was always a looming worry of what was going to happen next. In this moment, Ben was the hero- he brought Pooh to me! This remains a most treasured memory.

Walt Disney World, 2012

The memories are important. They are everywhere. People might find it odd that so much that I have and do is tied to Ben, and that I continue to regularly share these memories and talk about him. Am I dwelling in the past? Am I keeping myself in a relationship that is no longer here?

There are times when I find that I do want to retreat into the comfort of my memories with Ben. There is also a feeling that I want and need to keep Ben in people’s hearts. I still have a relationship with Ben, though, of course, it is changed. He now resides in my heart and guides me. The fact that we had a perfectly imperfect relationship makes me want to find love again and to create new special memories, though it is also hard to imagine.

Walt Disney World, 2002
The pre-ALS days.

Grief is predictably unpredictable, and I do measure my reactions to these kinds of occurrences.  Am I doing better? Am I handling the grief differently? Better? It’s a day by day co-existence. Yesterday, I found that although the email from my friend made me stumble at first because I immediately thought about how much I miss Ben, I found myself smiling throughout the day as our sweet Pooh memories popped into my head. That was a good feeling. I know and am comforted that Ben is still with me, and that our time together- the good times and the ALS times- has helped to shape me. I struggle with the reminders that our time was cut short and there will be no new memories with Ben. I do feel like I am becoming more accepting of and comforted by knowing that he is with me in my heart, so he will be present in my future.

Walt Disney World, 2011

 

For my Mom

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

Today, January 13, 2018, marks 26 years since my mom, Sandra, or Sandy, left this earth. There is not a day that I don’t think of her. I talk about her often, and so much so that some people do not realize she’s gone, or for how long she’s been gone. I don’t know if that is good, or “healthy,” but she is so much a part of me.

This is never a great day. To the people who say that I should not be so affected after 26 years, I say that we all handle things differently. Dates are important to me. I choose to take these anniversary dates to remember my loved ones. I don’t anticipate how I will feel, I don’t punish myself, I don’t feel obligated to act any particular way. But, every year on this day, I do tend to wake up with the vivid memory of how my dad called me and said he thought my mom had died and the ambulance was on the way. His follow-up call confirmed it.

This year, again, I did wake up to those memories of the phone calls from my dad telling me that my mom died. There were tears. However, today I chose to celebrate a special memory. My mom met me in London during a summer that I spent studying there. We went to the theater every night. One of the shows we saw was Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” We loved it. I saw that there was a screening today of National Theater Live’s performance of this show. It seemed like a perfect way to remember my mom.

The thoughts of losing and missing my mom did hover over the day. It didn’t help that I found this production particularly dark and depressing, even for Sondheim. But, I also thought of fun memories of our times together, in London and in general.  Part of me can’t help but lament the time that we lost and that my mom never met Ben. But, I never lose sight of how lucky I was to have my mom. She was a truly selfless, beautiful and very adorable person and mom. In this clip, Cinderella’s father advises her that they must always cherish their home because her mom was the heart of it and they must honor her. This scene touched my heart. I cherish my memories to keep my mom’s spirit alive and honor her.  Of course, my love of Mickey Mouse and all things Disney always make me think of her, but I hope that in some small way I have followed her example. I do know that she is always with me.

Copyright © Disney’s Cinderella, 2015

In my mom’s memory, I’d like to share some details about my mom and some of the important ways in which she influenced me, even in my caregiving days. This is a reprint of the post I published last year on this day:

My mom died of a sudden, massive heart attack at the age of 59. She was way too young. The day before she died we were playing outside with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie.  There are no hospital memories, or memories of seeing her ill. I’m grateful that my last memories of her are of her laughing. However, there was no opportunity to say goodbye. She was just gone.

My mom and I were very close, or, as everyone said, attached at the hip. My dad always said that he loved to listen to us giggle. She was a child at heart and I get that spirit from her. She loved Mickey Mouse and Paddington Bear and she loved children. Children loved her, too. She was a teacher at our local early childhood school and she loved when kids would greet her when we were out shopping. People laughed that we spoke on the phone many times every single day. We went to the theater and ballet together. Our excursions to NYC from Long Island for the holiday windows and the after-Christmas sales were epic, strategically choreographed events. We had so much fun. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died. I loved her and she loved me, unconditionally.

When I was a caregiver, juggling responsibilities for Ben and my dad, I realized how hard my mom worked, at a time when there was no real acknowledgment of the role of caregivers. My mom was at her core a natural, nurturing caregiver. She took care of my dad, brother, our dogs and me, as well as my grandma, who lived with us, but was also responsible for looking after my great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, and even my cousins. She even knew the treats that my friends liked and made sure to have them on hand at all times.  She took care of everyone in myriad ways. My mom was the most selfless person I have ever known.

My mom visited my great-aunt, Tanta Rosie, with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie, almost every day.

I realize that in many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after my grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with my grandma and my dad and helping them tend to various chores. I also loved and kept in close touch with my great-aunts and great-uncles.  I went home every weekend to help in any way I could, and sometimes that was simply keeping everyone company and making them laugh. For a change of pace, I often brought home treats from Zabars or other NYC places. My grandma did not want to be cheered, and I understood that. I don’t think that anyone fully comprehends the loss of a child unless they experience it. My aunt, my mom’s older sister, also visited every weekend. But, after a sudden death, everyone floundered and tried to pick up pieces while still in shock and feeling profound sadness at the loss of the key person in our family. As in any family, the dynamics led to tensions that were, at times, explosive. I found that, just like I believe my mom would have done, I spent my time with them being a cheerleader and my private time at home collapsing in grief. Sometimes I came home, sat on the sofa and cried, and at other times I dropped my bags and took myself to a movie just to escape.

As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and our time together. So much who I am and what I do reminds me of her. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit from her. You won’t be surprised that Disney played an important part in our relationship, too. One of my favorite memories is when she called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” Another is watching and giggling through “The Little Mermaid,” especially because my grandma was straight-faced and completely baffled by our amusement.

I proudly say like mother, like daughter!

I am not ashamed to say that I still miss my mom terribly. It remains a wound that is easy to open. When watching movies, I often cry at the mere mention of mother daughter love or the passing of a mother, and Ben intuitively handed me tissues in these instances before he even saw tears. Of course, that made me laugh through my tears, and that was a good thing. Ben never knew my mom, but he knew how important she was to me and it touched my heart that he always marked in his calendar her birthday and this anniversary and he would plan something Disney-related, like our date to “Beauty and the Beast” (click here for that post).

I enjoyed the movie “Brave” and feistiness of Merida as she searched to find herself. Fortunately, I never had big issues with my mom. But the scene in this excerpt made me cry because it says it all. Even after 26 years, I just want her back. I have struggled, I have adjusted, and I have had to accept her death. Now, I take comfort in knowing that she’s always been with me and always will live in my heart. On this day and always, I love you, Mommy.

Heartwarming Thoughts When I’m Feeling “Frozen”

"Love is putting someone else's needs before yours," Olaf,Frozen,ALS

“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”- Olaf, Frozen

 

How could I not think about Frozen on a day like today? It’s a wonderful film with romance, royalty, family strife, tested  loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?! I’ve written before about what Olaf knew about love and melting (click here to read that post), but a day like today once again brings Olaf’s lessons to mind. The sweet and goofy snowman continues to sum up my caregiving experience at its core.

On this freezing cold day in New York City, amidst several freezing cold days here, I could not help but reflect on days spent trying to help Ben to keep warm.  As I am writing this, I am sitting in Ben’s huge old sweat pants from Walt Disney World, along with his Mickey Mouse thermal shirt and Walt Disney World Christmas sweater. My apartment is unusually chilly- normally it feels like a sauna, so I’m happier like this. And,I like to wear Ben’s clothes. They feel cozy and like he is wrapping himself around me, and that warms my heart. Unfortunately, it was not easy to keep Ben warm.

Before ALS, Ben and I both liked the cold. Other than Walt Disney World, Vermont was our favorite getaway, especially in winter. Once ALS progressed, the cold posed challenges and problems for Ben. It was harder for him to move when he was cold. I think it may also have affected his respiratory comfort, though his significant decline in that area began in the warmer weather.

Our apartment is very drafty and Ben could not tolerate the cold. I bought big plastic insulation tarps and put them over our windows. They did help but it looked terrible and they came loose frequently, sometimes requiring middle of the night fixes.  We did what we had to do. We became accustomed to living crisis to crisis in an apartment that was a disaster.

"Some people are worth melting for," Olaf, Frozen,ALS

“Some people are worth melting for.”- Olaf

Most blankets felt heavy on Ben as his strength diminished, and piling on sweaters made movement even more difficult than it had already become due to the ALS. We found a couple of quilts that were the size of a throw, which made it easier for him to manage. We could not sleep under the same blanket because any tugging or shifting made him uncomfortable. A blanket may seem like a very minor accommodation, but it symbolized relationship changes that took an emotional toll. Suddenly, the life we enjoyed began to  change and foretell a sad future, and the way we related to each other changed in very profound ways as we shifted from being husband and wife to patient and caregiver.

I am resourceful and a born shopper, so I was always delighted to find solutions, even if they were temporary. Ben was very skeptical of the little space heater that I brought home one day. I plugged it in as he said it wouldn’t help. It did! He loved that space heater!

I made a blanket of some of our favorite photos from Walt Disney World, and a microfiber towel as well. For the days that Ben did not get to his computer, or felt chilly, he was always surrounded by the photos that he loved so much.

Photo collage blanket.

Photo collage towel.

Dressing for cold weather, even within our apartment, also required creativity. Ben loved insulated puffer vests because they kept him warm without bulk and heaviness, and also  gave him some freedom of motion in his arms. He liked sweatshirts that were zippered hoodies because they were easier to put on and to remove, even though he needed assistance to do so. He did find adaptive zipper pulls that he liked. These gave him some independence and that was important for his frame of mind.

Fleece sweaters were often a great option because they were lightweight. Waffle/thermal shirts were cozy for him and allowed for easy layering. He was amused by the camouflage shirts I found for him because they reminded us of how much my dad, the Marine, loved his camouflage! Even as the temperatures dropped, Ben still wore his favorite regular tshirts underneath his warmer clothes. He loved his tshirts. They keep me warm now in the tshirt quilt that I made from them.

Caregiving,Grief,ALS,Memories

A segment of the t-shirt quilt. So much nicer to wrap up in memories rather than leave t-shirts in a drawer.

It was definitely a challenge for both of us to be comfortable in the same space. I was warm or Ben was cold, but Ben needed to be warm. Physically, the apartment was a mess, with supplies accumulating, space shrinking, and furniture moving according to his needs. At one point, my dresser had to be moved to accommodate his chair, and it blocked the closet. For several months, I either wore what was in the drawers or whatever my hand could reach in the closet. Now, I look back and laugh at the chaos that was our life. Then, we lived crisis to crisis, and despite our frequent ability to see the hilarity in the situations, it sometimes left us feeling helpless and hopeless.

Today, wearing Ben’s clothes and knowing how miserable he would be in the chill, I am feeling a little melancholy. It feels like a long time ago that these were my caregiving responsibilities, and it also feels like just yesterday. I miss him. I cannot deny the inconveniences and the emotional pain we both experienced. Ultimately, Ben’s needs unquestionably came first, and a little melting was a small price to pay. It’s taken me all this time to rebuild the snowlady that I am. I realize that I did find great satisfaction in being able to help Ben and I take pride in the love we shared and the trust he had in me. My heart is warmed to know that now he is free of the constraints of ALS.

Walt Disney World,Frozen,ALS,Caregiving

Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios (July 2014)

New Year, New Directions?

ALS, Disney,Grief

Holiday Card 2015
A Loving Tribute to Ben

Aside from having a bad cold and cough during the holiday week, I found myself feeling glum. Ordinarily, I busy myself with taking a photo of Disney that I make into a holiday card and mail to friends and family. This year, I just couldn’t get into the spirit. I always loved making the holiday cards, but since Ben has been gone, making a holiday card has become an emotional and somewhat overwhelming endeavor. The first holidays came just a few months after Ben left, and, after much thought, I created a card that was a tribute to him, accompanied by the words to Auld Lang Syne, which is meaningful to me because it talks of remembering those we’ve loved and lost. Last year, I was torn about making a card, because I did not feel festive but felt that I should honor the tradition, and even send a message to others (and to myself) that I was starting to at least try to embrace life. In my mind, Ben had to be present in that card, so I chose the Disney song, “It’s a Small World,” which is my favorite song and a song and attraction at World Disney World that always made us happy. I included some of our favorite pictures from the attraction, all of which Ben took when he was well. It felt like he was helping to make the card. (click here to read last year’s New Year’s day post)

This year, I am still not sure if I felt like I should or if I genuinely wanted to keep the tradition of making the card, but I kept procrastinating. It’s the third holiday season without Ben and I didn’t feel like the card should specifically be a tribute to him. I suppose that a part of me thought that people would also find it strange, and maybe depressing, that I would continue to visibly include him in the card. On the other hand, I was heartsick at his not having a presence in the card.

Does grief keep finding new ways to shake up my efforts to forge ahead in life?

What I’ve realized is that grief gave me a sort of purpose- it was to share memories of Ben and keep him in everyone’s hearts, which I did when I made the other cards. I wholeheartedly believe that he is watching over me and I want him to know that I honor him in every step that I take. Making my first holiday card that was not a blatant, well thought out tribute to Ben and to us, from only Disney and me, made me feel alone and without purpose.  Of course, the memories are always there, and, as I put Disney’s pajamas on her for the picture, I remembered how Ben laughed and commiserated with Disney as the three of us posed for a photo in our matching pajamas.  I finally got a picture I liked and wrote a caption. But, this card came with confusion and conflicting emotions because it was not a card about Ben or us. It did not feel right, and yet it also felt appropriate.

Welcoming 2018

This experience brought to mind the lyrics from a beautiful song from Pocahontas II, called Where Do I Go From Here? (Written by Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman) 

But where do I go from here?
So many voices ringing in my ear
Which is the voice that I was meant to hear?
How will I know?
Where do I go from here?

My world has changed and so have I
I’ve learned to choose
And even learned to say goodbye

The path ahead’s so hard to see
It winds and bends but where it ends 
Depends on only me

In my heart I don’t feel part of so much I’ve known
Now it seems it’s time to start, 
A new life on my own

For so long, my purpose was taking care of Ben. It’s gone on to be sharing memories of him and of caregiving and grief, and that helps me sort through feelings and emotions while it offers insights and maybe, hopefully, comfort to other current and former caregivers. So, who am I without Ben and these experiences?

I have gotten back to life. I enjoy my time alone and with friends. I do surround myself with good memories, but I look forward, too. I even started online dating and, difficult as that is, I am trying to be optimistic that I will find love again. New Year’s Eve was never a big deal for Ben and me. We generally stayed in and I cooked a special meal, until he could not eat much anymore. Last year, I went to the movies and an early dinner with a friend, which was not joyous but also not sad. So why has this year gotten me down even more than the prior two years? I guess that trying to make a card with a simple festive greeting and without a message about Ben showed me that I have not yet come into my own.

Although I have taken steps towards a new life, it’s hard to face head on that although Ben is always in my heart, I am on my own with an identity independent of him, caregiving and grief. I have established routines and have become more accustomed to life without Ben, but I constantly think about and even talk to him. I’m doing things that I always loved to do, often seeing things through his eyes. I would never have thought that making a card would be such a glaring reminder that I am now doing things just as myself and not as part of the couple that was Ben and Abby. It’s not yet comfortable. I cannot anticipate waves of profound sadness and loneliness, so when they hit me they hit me hard. I have to let the tears fall as they will and I know that I will push through it.

I’m not sure where I go from here in life and love, though, in my Disney way, I am hopeful and optimistic. I hope that in this new year I continue to establish a balance between past, present and future. I read many things from those in grief who wonder where they should be in the grief process and if they are okay. I hope this helps those in grief see that grief is its own journey, experienced at our own paces, filled with memories, insights, reflections and learning that will ultimately propel us forward if and when we let them, when we are ready. It’s not easy, but I find comfort in knowing that Ben and the other loved ones I have lost are somehow guiding me.

I wish everyone a new year of love, laughter, peace, good memories and the creation of new ones, and, of course, good health.

 

Christmas Memories

I don’t actually know where this quote is found- if tv, film or books- but in typical Winnie the Pooh fashion, it is sweet and simple, yet profound, in sentiment. I never forget how lucky I am to have beautiful memories, but I do miss the togethery part.

Growing up Jewish, although I dreamed of white Christmases, aside from lovely visits to friends’ homes during the holidays, I did not have my own Christmas until I met Ben. He helped me choose my first real Christmas tree . We chose our ornaments together. He let me decorate the tree by myself because he said he’d never seen anyone get so excited about having and decorating a tree! When Ben was homebound, I had to pick our tree by myself. I admit that despite being very creative, I am not the most visual person. I thought it was a reasonable size. When the man delivered it and put it in the stand, Ben couldn’t stop laughing and just asked, “what did you do?” It was enormous! I called it the tree that almost ate our apartment. That said, it was gorgeous and it lasted very well. We just worked around it! After that, having a real tree became too difficult with all of Ben’s needs and medical supplies. He got me a sparkly pink and silver tree. Of course, I do have all of my Chanukah decorations, too. In my world, they go together beautifully. The lights on the tree are not faring well this year, which makes me sad, because I hate to let go of things that Ben gave me.

As Ben’s ALS progressed, I had to be more creative with his gifts. I loved seeing gifts under the tree, but I hated waiting for him to open them. He preferred opening his gifts on Christmas morning, but relented and let me give him a gift on Christmas Eve. Usually, what was supposed to be an exchange of one gift became an exchange of all gifts, with him reminding me that we would have nothing to open in the morning. The child in me didn’t care…until the morning!

I tried to find practical gifts with some humor, like a Batman apron so he didn’t have to be covered in napkins when he ate, or a baseball cap with an LED light on the brim to aid us on evening excursions with his scooter. There was one year that he was having many problems with his fingers involuntarily curling. I went to the Gap in search of fingerless gloves and ended up buying three different styles. They were hidden in the closet waiting to be wrapped. One evening, Ben was lamenting his cold hands and describing what he thought he needed. I finally got up, went and got one pair, and gave them to him, confessing that they were one of his gifts. He laughed and tried them on. That prompted another description. I sighed, went back to the closet and came out with a second pair. This made him laugh harder. After that trial and more discussion, I threw up my hands and got the final pair. None of them were completely perfect, but he did not like mittens, which would have been the easiest solution for fit but not for navigation of the scooter. That event became one of our jokes, and on my birthday that year he gave me a charm of mittens from Tiffany & Co. It never fails to make me smile.

Yes, Christmas is a remembery sort of holiday.

There was the year that Ben broke his foot right before Christmas. Because his mobility was already impaired, he was completely bedbound for recovery and he was devastated. It was understandable- this was a glimpse of what his life was going to be. That night, to cheer him up, instead of waiting for Christmas, I gave him the DVD set of “The Universe” that he wanted so badly. I thought he would like to watch them while he was in bed. Then, to further console him, I pulled out a Monsters, Inc. projectable (sort of a nightlight that projects onto the ceiling) so that he just had to look up and see Sully and Mike. There was a projectable of a haunted mansion in our room at Walt Disney World that Ben loved, so this was my way of recreating that. Finally, I pulled out the photo collage blanket, so he could cover himself in favorite pictures while he could not get to his computer to look at all of his pictures. Of course, by the time Christmas came, there were not as many gifts!

Togethery and remembery, indeed.

Before ALS, Ben and I were fortunate to spend a Christmas at Walt Disney World. It was my dream and Ben was always happy to go there. It was crazy but it was magnificent, colorful, festive to the hilt and simply magical.

Now, with the togethery gone and just the remembery, I do feel lonely.  It’s been three years and I never know if those pangs of profound sadness and aloneness should have subsided, but I don’t fight them. I let them run their course and just try to focus more on the good parts, like those I shared here. Of course, I am so grateful for the wonderful, whimsical memories. But, the remembery makes me miss the togethery even more, particularly because Christmas was only really Christmas when my family was Ben.

As I was writing this, I realized that Ben gave me a dream come true when he gave me Christmas and that is a forever gift between only us that, in his honor, even if it’s with tears, I must continue to celebrate. Further, being Ben’s caregiver was, in an almost inexplicable way, a gift because it allowed us to share a unique and deeply loving bond that, honestly, was not always easy to see at the time. With that thought, I made this video of special memories, mostly from our visit to Walt Disney World in the Christmas of 2007, before ALS came into our lives, and then some photos of Disney and our holiday decorations at home. The photo of us with Disney, all in our matching Mickey Mouse pajamas, was our last Christmas and I am thankful that it was a beautiful Christmas. The video is set to a lovely song, My Gift is You, which is a lesser known original Disney holiday song but is not found in a film. It is on one of my favorite compilation albums, Essential Disney Love Songs as well as on Disney’s Merry Little Christmas. Words and Music by Gary Powell. Performed by Craig Hella Johnson and Leslie Whiteley.
 

I found great truth in these lyrics:
I love a gift wrapped in red
A gift under the tree
When the snow falls lightly for you and for me
But what I like most and what most rings true
Is the way I feel knowing
That my gift is you

I wish everyone a happy and healthy Christmas.

Walt Disney World, ALS

Ben and I with Santa (We know him!) in 2007, pre-ALS