Wisdom From Olaf About Caregiving and Love

Olaf had to come home with me!

I recently attended Frozen, the new Disney musical on Broadway. Frozen certainly became a phenomenon among Disney films. The Broadway version does not disappoint. It is magical, wonderful and beautiful to watch, with clever surprises along the way. I would love to have seen it with Ben. I have loved going to the theater since I was a child, but Ben had never been to a Broadway show until he met me. He came to love shows and when I went through his things after he left this world, I was truly touched to see that he kept all of the Playbills and ticket stubs from the many shows we saw together. It has taken me a while to truly love going to the theater again, because I went through feelings of guilt for claiming the freedom to participate in things like theater, which I could not enjoy when I was caregiving, and I simply missed going with Ben. But, now I again find great comfort, delight and inspiration from going to the theater. I do notice that I often look at productions through Ben’s eyes. I imagine what he would think, what I would say to him, what inside jokes would be triggered. It’s what I need to do, at least for now.

Frozen has romance, royalty, family strife, tested loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?!  Seeing the show triggered that when I saw the film, it struck several chords for me as a caregiver, and I am using images from the film in this post.

Of course, Let it Go has become an anthem for finding all kinds of strength. I know that it is healthier, and I feel better, when I can let go of anger, of bad memories, and of resentment. When I was caregiving and in grief there was a lot of that, for many reasons. I must admit that letting go, in general, is not always easy for me. I have found, however, that it is better to put my energy towards gaining perspective that allows me to let go of the things that are over and done, that I did not create and that I cannot change.

For me, it is Olaf, the sweet and goofy snowman who so beautifully summed up my caregiving experience at its core, when he pointed out to Anna that, “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

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

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

We all know that we have to take care of ourselves. We have also heard that if we don’t take care of ourselves we will not be able to take care of someone else.  After all, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we might become ill and will then be incapable of caring for someone else. I cannot tell you how many times I was told the airplane analogy of putting on your own mask first, so you could then help someone else. And yet, as caregivers, we do not always take care of ourselves. In fact, we rarely take care of ourselves.  Hearing that advice became irritating because I knew that I should take better care of myself, but I also knew that I couldn’t. Why? Crises occurred, I was exhausted, there was not enough time, and the list goes on. Ultimately, love meant putting the needs of my dad and Ben first.

When my dad and Ben were ill and needed help, their needs were immediate. They had terminal illnesses. If my dad needed to go to the Emergency Room or if Ben needed to shift his position in bed or needed to use the commode, it didn’t matter that I needed sleep to be able to function at work or if my back hurt. I would find a way to catch up on sleep. I would go to physical therapy or take a pain reliever. Their needs could not be postponed.

I’ve written about the stresses and emotions of caregiving. I’ve explained that my loved ones were very concerned about me because I was running in circles, particularly when I was simultaneously caring for my dad and for Ben. It was my routine, my normal, and I just went with it. I do remember that during the time I took family leave, I enjoyed my time on the train, on the way to and from the hospice, because for those 5 hours every day, I was by myself, even though it was with phone in hand to manage any issues that arose during my commute.  Enjoying my thermos of tea on the train while listening to music became my way of taking care of myself.

I don’t think that I realized at the time that I did not really have an opportunity to deeply feel the grief of losing my dad. I was taking care of Ben, who was also struggling with this loss because he loved my dad.  Also, the death of my dad was a scary and sobering reality check for Ben, who lived in denial of that eventuality. For me, it was one step in the sad forecast of my lonely future. I couldn’t grieve with Ben because I did not want to upset him, but I also could not grieve on my own, because there was too much to do and I was working full-time. At times, I did feel like I was melting down, but I did not see any options, and I was so immersed in handling my caregiving tasks and full-time teaching that I just kept plodding along, with a few pity parties and venting to friends and family in conversations or emails and texts. Sometimes that was a distraction from the grief, but it also meant that the grief simmered within me.

I have to explain that although there were times when putting my own needs aside was the obvious and the only solution, it also caused frustration, sadness and anger. I felt depressed and lonely and frightened, and Ben and I were not always patient with each other, which led to resentments on both of our sides. Unfortunately, although I recognized that I was near a breaking point, I could not convince myself to shift my priorities in a way that changed my routines and accommodated my needs.  I write this because saying that love is putting someone else’s needs first does not mean it is always done easily, graciously or without inner conflict. Everyone’s feelings matter, but they have to be prioritized.  Even in retrospect, despite what reason may have indicated, my heart knows that it was the right and only thing to do.

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

“Some people are worth melting for.”- Olaf

Olaf was so right when he said that, “Some people are worth melting for.” While putting my dad’s and Ben’s needs first sometimes caused some melting, it was in the literal letting go of them that I truly melted. But, love meant supporting their wishes.

I did not like to see my dad in a hospice, although he got such wonderful, compassionate care. I melted as I saw him slipping away, but letting him go as he wanted, and very peacefully, was more important than my desire to keep him with me on this earth.

Love meant dealing with the fact that Ben would have gone to a facility if he had chosen to stay on life support. With a tracheostomy and feeding tube, Ben would have needed 24/7 nursing care that could not be accomplished at home. It was a bleak option, but his needs were the priority and as much as it devastated me to think of him in a facility, and it devastated him to accept that he would not be able to be at home with me, we both had to come to terms with that reality. I worried about his being alone while I was at work. I worried that the staff would not be as attentive as I had been. I did not share those worries with him, but I melted when I thought about it.

When Ben decided to go off life support, I melted because I did not want to lose him. I stood by his decision to go off life support because only he could decide how to live and die with ALS. It was a conflict for me because although I was not prepared to lose him, I was relieved that he would no longer suffer with the disease. I was at his side the day he left, we said our vows, and he was surrounded by loved ones and music. It was worth my melting for him to feel loved and comforted as he left this world on his own terms.

I loved my dad and Ben with all my heart. Losing them, particularly so close in time (a year and a half), was very difficult. But, it was worth melting to have shared the love that we did and to let them go and find peace on their terms.

I would like to state the obvious and suggest to caregivers who are reading this that you take care of yourselves and put yourselves first. But, we all know that won’t always happen. Maybe sometimes. Try. Plan. Fantasize! Taking care of yourself does not have to be big events. Take moments for yourself, even if it is a mental escape, or a nap, or a quiet cup of coffee or tea on your way to an appointment!  The thing is that, as caregivers, just like Olaf, you know and are experiencing and demonstrating the true meaning of love.

Walt Disney World,Frozen,ALS,Caregiving

Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios (July 2014)

Our Anniversary and Finding the Pixie Dust

Thursday was Ben’s and my anniversary. The third anniversary without Ben. I missed him, as I do every single day, but probably more on these milestone days of our relationship. It’s taken me a couple of days to write this because I’ve felt so many emotions and thoughts about my feelings that I could not quite put on paper.

This year, our anniversary fell during spring break from school. It would have been a great excuse for us to go away. After Ben left, it became a good excuse to stay home with my emotions and reflect, looking at our zillions of photos and videos and listening to music that made me feel like he was here. Well, he is, just in a different way.

For many years, I have wanted to see the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC. I grew up with, and was very attached to, a beautiful cherry blossom tree outside of my bedroom window and I have always loved those trees. I wanted Ben to see Washington, DC, too. He would have loved the Smithsonian and all the monuments. We never made it there. This year, peak cherry blossom bloom was expected to fall during this week and I wanted to see it. I struggled with whether I should go to DC if it was a place Ben would have liked and yet we never went there together, particularly during the time of our anniversary. Should I allow myself to enjoy it without him?

I find that making plans is harder without Ben, but this dilemma made it even harder. Since I’m planning just for myself, I have a hard time committing to arrangements. I had the same problem when I took my trip to London. I looked and looked at hotels, I checked and rechecked the Amtrak schedules. I could not make and stick with a decision. It bothers me because before I met Ben, I was a very independent and frequent, albeit nervous, traveler. Even when Ben and I were together, I occasionally traveled by myself or with a friend. Now, I find that my enthusiasm about traveling and visiting friends is tinged with a feeling of loneliness. But, I push myself and I think that Ben would be proud of me because he wanted me to be more confident. And, since he is in my every thought, he is with me.

As it turned out, the best day to travel down to DC was on Wednesday, which meant returning on Thursday, our anniversary. I was nervous about that because I didn’t know how I would feel on that day. I knew that it would be strange and sad to go without him, as it always is, but I was also unnerved by the timing. I stuck with the plan, thinking that being on a train would be a good thing because it was something that made Ben very happy and something that always took us to a place we enjoyed. My Amtrak memories are mostly of Ben and how he loved the train. He knew the ins and outs of Penn Station and how to get to the right track the fastest way. I got a little tense in the crowds and he always kept me calm.

I kept frequent tabs on the cherry blossom watch web site, which predicted peak bloom for the weekend after I was going to visit. The reports also predicted some nasty weather during my visit which could have damaged the fragile cherry blossoms. I endlessly debated with myself whether I should cancel my trip. I had lunch plans with a good friend, Ellen, for Wednesday, and I was looking forward to that. It also gave me a sense of commitment to making the journey. I stuck with my plan and headed to Washington, DC, wishing that the weather would cooperate.

On the train, I repeatedly checked the weather reports and the cherry blossom watch. The reports of terrible storms and wind seemed to diminish, and the cherry blossom watch forecasters actually shifted their predicted date of peak bloom to Thursday! At times like that, I truly believe that Ben, along with my dad, mom, and grandma, are watching over me and sprinkling some pixie dust. With the exception of a brief shower just after I arrived, Wednesday turned out to be a sunny but windy day, and I hoped not too windy for the fragile cherry blossoms. I thought it was so sweet that any time I mentioned the cherry blossoms, people smiled at how beautiful they are. I had a lovely lunch and caught up with Ellen. I talked about Ben, too, which keeps him close. Though it’s been many years, I’ve been to DC many times, but this time I walked the streets and saw the sights through Ben’s eyes, making mental notes of how he would react to different scenes and places. It’s a combination of lonely yet comforting.

After lunch, I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Obama portraits, which was a very emotional experience. Suffice it to say that it was beautiful to see people of all ages and ethnic groups feeling such pride and excitement to have their photographs taken with those portraits, myself included. In the evening I went to the Kennedy Center to see a dance performance. Ben would have been pleased to miss that. I had to chuckle to myself as I thought that even I might have been happy to have missed it! Although keenly aware of being by myself, I had little conversations in my head with Ben and I was elated to be at the Kennedy Center. It was not until I arrived at my hotel room that the alone-ness set in.

          

When Ben proposed he asked me to be his Minnie, and he would be my Mickey, so on Thursday, I woke up and said, “Happy anniversary, my Mickey!” I plotted my route on the Tidal Basin, as if I was sharing it with Ben, which quelled the loneliness and let me feel that we were going there together. I don’t live in denial of my loss, but I feel his presence, if not literally, deeply in my heart.

The weather was cooperating, and it was expected to be the peak bloom day for the cherry blossoms. That was more than I could have asked for, and I cannot help but believe that Ben somehow made it happen. I headed towards the Tidal Basin, intent on paying my respects at the various monuments, which is something my dad would have appreciated, and Ben would have loved to do. I started at the World War II memorial. It was very impressive and peaceful, and it brought back loving memories of how much my dad loved to read about World War II and how he loved films like Mrs. Miniver. Also, how Ben looked for any documentaries about World War II that my dad might like and how they talked about the war and history.

   

My dad was in the USMC during the Korean War, so that memorial was especially important to me and it brought tears to my eyes to think of how my dad would have reacted to it. My dad was such a proud Marine and thinking about how I would have been calling him from DC to talk to him about the monuments made me cry. Sometimes, keeping people in my heart just is not enough.

   

    

When I got to the very impressive Martin Luther King, Jr. monument and read his powerful messages which are carved into stone, I also got the first glimpse of the Tidal Basin and all the cherry blossom trees. It was overwhelming to me.

There really were magnificent cherry blossoms everywhere! I was mesmerized. It was more beautiful than I had imagined. From the initial shaky weather reports came a day that turned out to be THE peak day! I had little conversations with Ben as I walked around the Basin. I know that some people don’t believe in these things, but I simply know in my heart that Ben and my dad were together and smiling as I reveled in the beauty of the cherry blossoms and felt tremendous patriotic pride, which, frankly, has been hard for me to feel with our current political climate. I took many photographs to capture all the different shades of cherry blossoms, from white to vibrant pink. I had moments of tears when I wished that I could have called my dad. I had moments of tears when I wished that I could actually talk to Ben and hold his hand as I walked around the beautiful cherry blossom trees.

This was my first glimpse at the path along the Tidal Basin. I had to capture it on film. For me, it was like stepping into a fantasy.

I originally thought that I would also visit some part of the Smithsonian during my visit. However, I found myself completely entranced by the cherry blossoms. I spent four hours walking and thinking and reflecting. There were tears and smiles. I offered to take photos of people and they reciprocated, as we shared our delight in the beauty of the scenery.  I thought about Ben and how it would have been so romantic to be together in this setting for our anniversary. I reflected on our relationship, pre- and post-ALS. I thought about my dad, too, and how he instilled in me a strong sense of patriotism. I remembered how Ben and I called him when we had history questions or current events concerns, knowing that we were going to be on the phone for at least an hour-long history lesson. Daddy knew so much about history but also about the military, and he had a great understanding of politics within historic and military contexts. I recognized that the strong pains of loss and grief are reflections of the tremendous love and joy I feel for Ben and my dad. Although the waves of grief hurt, I am so grateful for those relationships. I thanked them for this dream come true of a day surrounded by the most magnificent and delightful cherry blossoms.

I have to share the following three photos of a lovely magnolia tree.I always love to see them, remembering the beautiful magnolia tree that stood in the front of my childhood home. The colors were magnificent.

 

On the train back to New York, I thought about how nice it would have been to be taking the ride with Ben. I wondered if it was selfish to see the cherry blossoms on our anniversary. Should I have more intentionally grieved by not doing anything? Will I always have these conflicts? I don’t have the answers. People tell me that Ben would want me to be happy. I like to think so and I believe that I know so. But, I don’t ever want to take that for granted or to take advantage of that. I want to know in my heart that I consider Ben in my choices and decisions. Thursday was my anniversary and I never lost sight of that. It’s not a comfortable feeling yet, and I am still adjusting to being on my own, but I feel like my trip to DC allowed me to live in the present but incorporate and honor my loving memories. The pixie dust is knowing that, as the song from Bambi says, Love is a Song That Never Ends.

Celebrating Thumper- Bambi’s Good and Caring Friend

Bambi
© Walt Disney Productions 1942

Last week, in the spirit of the Easter season, I honored Winnie The Pooh’s buddy, Rabbit. Today is Easter, and it seems a perfect time to honor dear Thumper, from Walt Disney Pictures Bambi.  I’ve always loved Bambi, and when I first started this blog, I wrote about the song Love is a Song that Never Ends and how it resonated with me in caregiving and in grief. I recently watched Bambi again and was touched by Thumper’s relationship with Bambi in a whole new way.

Thumper was the very adorable and lovable young forest gossip, and he certainly didn’t always say the right thing. He was the one to point out that Bambi was “kinda wobbly, isn’t he?” and “he doesn’t walk very good, does he?” This is not exactly the positive reinforcement someone wants when struggling and self-conscious! And while his mother had to remind him that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all,” Thumper was just a child making an observation, albeit tactlessly, but his heart was in the right place. Actually, he was quite devoted to his new friend, the young prince Bambi.

Thumper and his siblings (also incredibly adorable little bunnies) play with Bambi but also watch out for him. They anticipate where he is going to struggle and they gather around to help him so they can play together. Thumper was Bambi’s motivation. I especially love this clip, in which Thumper assesses the situation on the ice and tries to position Bambi’s legs, advising Bambi to “walk both ends at the same time.” It doesn’t go so well and they both end up skidding and falling. It reminded me of the way I had to work with Ben to help him up and figure out the best way to get around. We each had to trust each other and there were times we were nervous and other times it was fun. There were times that I managed to keep him from falling and got him safely onto the bed or a chair. There were also the times that we both ended up on the ground, fortunately unharmed. And, like Thumper, we often found ourselves saying, “Gee whiz, what happened that time?” I always loved this scene in the film, but now I see it in a new light.

Thumper never gave up on Bambi or their friendship in the same way that as caregivers, we never give up on our loved ones. And, Thumper was so happy when Bambi did have an accomplishment like walking steadily. Though Bambi is first learning to navigate the world and Ben was adapting to new ways to do some tasks and dealing with losing the ability to do others, I could relate to Thumper’s positive attitude of problem solving and encouragement.

Also touching was that he never left Bambi behind in pursuit of his own fun. ALS is known to be an isolating disease, particularly because you lose the ability to communicate. Thumper was determined to have Bambi join him with their other forest friends. It is an important lesson for all caregivers, friends, relatives and others to find some way to remain engaged with our loved ones. Visits, cards, texts, emails, photos, videos and a simple presence can all help a person feel remembered and included in life. Ben and my dad always enjoyed hearing that people thought of them. As their caregiver, it lifted own spirits when my friends reached out to them, too.

The film also deals with Bambi fear, confusion and sadness when he loses his mom. He did not know what the future and the world held in store. But, time went on and winter turned to spring, and Bambi grew up. He reunited with Thumper and Flower and the rest of his friends and all their families, and none of them ever forgot the friendship they shared. Thumper and Bambi- and a dose of Disney- remind us that love never dies and beautiful memories stay strong and sustain us as we move through life’s good and bad times.

If you haven’t seen the film, or haven’t watched it in a while, treat yourself. It is a beautiful story.

To everyone who celebrates it, Disney and I wish you a Happy, Peaceful and Healthy Easter!
And, since the holidays coincide, a Happy Passover as well!