In Disney’s live action Cinderella (2015), Cinderella mother advised her to “have courage and be kind.” That phrase became the centerpiece for a lot of merchandise and marketing efforts. I believe it was so well embraced and successful because it was so true, so succinct and yet so wise. Examples of courage abound in their battles with cancer and ALS, and even, I’ve come to realize, in my work as their caregiver. The Mighty, a portal with information about a number of illnesses and personal experiences with these conditions, and for which I am a contributor, created a #KindnessChallenge this month, and it got me to thinking about how fortunate Ben, my dad and I were to have experienced much kindness.
After my dad went to the wonderful VA hospice, the simple acts of decorating his room with his favorite books and his favorite model of the fighter plane he flew when in the Marine Corps, and making a calendar of his favorite pictures, meant the world to him. Bringing a book or article and reading it aloud to him, and even sitting and holding his hand while we watched television were little, and yet big, acts of kindness. At this time, Ben’s ALS was progressing, and as the disease took away his abilities, he sometimes felt that he had little to give. However, he found movies and documentaries that he knew my dad would enjoy and he burned them onto DVDs for my dad to watch. These acts of kindness moved me as much as they did my dad, because we knew that nothing was easy for Ben, and because although Ben could not physically be there for my dad, or even communicate by phone with him, with this kindness Ben let my dad know that he was in his heart.
A most gracious act of kindness towards Ben came from the palliative care team at Mount Sinai Medical Center. When Ben was in the hospital after a respiratory crisis, it took him a few weeks to decide to get a feeding tube and tracheostomy. During this time, we had visits from the palliative care team. I was happy to talk to anyone about anything they could possibly do to help Ben. The team asked about his interests and I shared that he loved music and anything to do with computers. Shortly after their visit, Ben had a complication that required that he be intubated, which landed him in the ICU. The ICU staff was wonderful, but there is understandably a lot of anxiety in that unit. Late one afternoon, a man named Todd showed up at Ben’s bedside with a guitar to play for Ben. Although musicians are not generally sent to the ICU, and teams are usually organized by floor within the hospital so Ben could have been discharged from the team on his original floor, the palliative care unit members knew that Ben loved music and they thought he would enjoy it and that it would be good for him. Ben expressed to Todd that he loved everything by the Beatles and any Disney songs and also relaxation music and Todd played several songs as Ben watched so intently- Ben loved to watch musicians. Ben was thrilled and moved to tears. I was, too. On the day that Ben separated from the vent, the team arranged for Todd to once again return and play the guitar, which was an overwhelmingly beautiful and peaceful way for Ben to leave this world. In a busy and huge hospital, people took the time to think of Ben as a person more than as a patient, and they extended a treasured act of kindness. I tried to repay that kindness by donating to the hospital the keyboard that I had given to Ben so that others who enjoy music can embrace it during difficult times.
I, too, received many acts of kindness through the years of caring for my dad and Ben, and after those days had ended. I think about how difficult it was to juggle full-time teaching with full-time caregiving. There were many instances of crisis when I had to rush either to the ER to meet my dad or home to help Ben. In one instance, Ben texted me that he had fallen (he wore his phone around his neck in case of such issues). I ran to my principal that I had to go home but that I would be back after I got Ben settled. When I got home and tried to lift Ben off the ground, I realized that Ben had lost so much strength in his legs that he could not help me in any way. At that time, he probably weighed about 190 pounds. More than two hours later, Ben was still on the floor and I was exhausted and in pain. This was the first such incident, and I did not even think about calling 911. I sent a text to my principal that Ben was still on the floor and it didn’t look like I would make it back to school. Even though it still would not have gotten me back to school in time, my principal offered to travel across the city to come to my apartment with our Assistant Principal to help me to lift Ben. I did not take him up on the offer- but I have never forgotten that kindness extended to Ben and me. In a school system that is increasingly anything but kind to teachers, I remain grateful that my principal was always understanding of my situation, despite many emergencies that required that I leave school early, arrive late, or be absent.
Ben showed me much kindness and love over the years. Yes, he gave me lovely gifts, but it was his gestures that truly touched my heart. I’ve written about one of my very favorite memories of kindness was something that Ben did for me during one of our visits to Walt Disney World after his ALS had progressed a bit. Click here for that post. But, he showed me kindness by his sense of humor as I experimented with different foods in the Vitamix, always encouraging and appreciating my efforts. He showed me kindness whenever he texted me that he had asked his private aide to stay an extra hour so that I could stay out- either by myself or with a friend- a little bit longer. He showed me kindness by asking his daughter to stay with him so that I could attend an event and by being happy for me that I enjoyed myself. And, mostly, he showed me kindness with his love and appreciation of me.
Here’s a conversation between Piglet and Pooh from Disney’s Christopher Robin that I believe sums up the role of kindness at its most simple and most complicated.
“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.
“There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
Kindness can be a matter of being present, sometimes it’s being a good listener, sometimes it’s ensuring that routines- including medications- are followed. Mostly, it’s about caring to figure out exactly what will soothe someone in the moment. For Pooh, honey was always a good solution. It’s not always that easy. But communicating the desire to be there, to help and support, can only strengthen a bond. Although we could lose patience with each other, and sometimes we needed our moments to feel down, Ben knew that I would always at least try to find the thing that would be his tea and honey. Often, things like a smile, a thank you, a kiss, holding hands, remembering something special or an inside joke were the small yet huge gestures that lessened the tensions and brought us back to love. Those small kindnesses were priceless. The memories of those kindnesses and that love far outlast the disappointments, frustrations and devastations.
What are acts of kindness you showed or that were shown to you that were especially memorable? Please share them here as part of the #KindnessChallenge.