Gratitude is a Superpower on Thanksgiving and Always!

2011- The first time we went to Fantasmic!

I have to admit that even thinking about Thanksgiving gives me anxiety. But here it is. Thanksgiving is a very difficult holiday for me because it reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. I have flashbacks of my last Thanksgiving with my dad, spent in the hospital, where I schlepped a full turkey dinner that he ate, mostly, to make me feel better because I’d been crying and pleading with him to eat and get stronger. My last Thanksgiving with Ben was melancholy because he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. And yet, although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, we did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to feel gratitude was indeed a super power, because it gave us perspective that allowed us to always see the love that was there. At these more challenging times, reminding myself of the many things for which I’m grateful continues to warm my heart, even if those memories come with tears.

Of course, I always take comfort in Disney, so try to heed the advice of Walt Disney who said, “The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for.” I have really tried to embrace that attitude and, for the most part, it helps me. I can’t shake the hovering sadness that I don’t have my family. Much of the family that I do have is religious and judgmental, and I don’t feel comfortable with them. Ben’s daughters are not in touch with me, so that is another lost connection.

However, I am grateful to have amazing friends, and I will celebrate with them today. I am so fortunate to be included in the families of my friends and my friends are my family. And, I am grateful to Walt Disney and all he created for providing me with entertainment, inspiration, motivation, joy and opportunities to reflect and sort through my feelings.

Every year, I talk to my students about the importance of gratitude, whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving. When things are not going well, it helps to think of even the tiniest thing for which to be grateful- be it a favorite song or snack. I do validate the need to have a pity party from time to time, but said that once you begin to think of those little things for which you’re thankful, you may very well find that there are many of them. I could see that what I was saying resonated with many of them, and I could see them perk up when I said that I have done that myself when Ben and my dad were ill. Some of them have sad lives, especially at such young ages, so I like to see them respond to the idea of feeling grateful to receive a text that makes them smile, or that someone in class made them laugh, intentionally or not! It was nice to watch their faces light up as they raised their hands to share things they are grateful for- in Spanish, too! (well, I am a Spanish teacher!) Family is a sore spot for some of them, so they are happy that our vocabulary list includes music, candy, videogames, cell phones and other assorted things that they love.

Indeed, feeling and expressing gratitude has been a super power that’s helped me throughout caregiving and grief and emotions that have turned me Inside Out. What more appropriate time to summon gratitude than Thanksgiving?!

  •  At the top of my list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving surely was not easy, but it was the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save them, but they knew that I was completely devoted to them, and that I would love them, care for them and provide a sense of security to them until they left this world. I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.
  • I am grateful for my cat, Disney. She has been there for me in good and bad times. When Ben was in the hospital, and I knew that he would never come home again, it was a priceless comfort to return home to her. Disney always loves to be hugged and I know that she was attuned to my sadness. I am now her caregiver, as she has many medical issues, but she has brought so much to my life and it is my privilege to take care of her. I’m grateful for my love of animals, as they are often more intuitive, honest and more humane than humans. And, they completely delight me!

Brave Disney during her hospital stay.

  • I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion and encouragement, while I was caregiving and then, in grief. Their spirit extended to Ben as well. When family didn’t step in or made empty promises to him-and there were indeed disappointments and dramas-Ben and I could always count on friends. I consider it a precious gift to have these wonderful people in my life and to know that I am loved and that Ben remains in their hearts.
  • I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors.  Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and I am grateful to know that readers find comfort in my words.
  • I’m grateful to have settled into my life, enjoying many of the things I always loved, like going to the theater and spending time with friends, particularly friends I have not been able to see in quite some time. Yes, there is still loneliness and aloneness, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by wonderful people, a lot of love, and to carry with me in my heart very beautiful memories.
  • I’m certainly not grateful to have had a romance cut short by ALS and to have to try to date and look for love again. The online experience is not really working for me, but I’m grateful to have met some nice people who give me hope that someone may very well be out there for me! And, it’s nice to feel the excitement of a little crush or at least the possibility of romance from time to time!
  • I am grateful to be teaching in a wonderful public high school. Not only is it a healthier environment than my prior school, but it allowed me to start fresh, away from my old school and the memories it held of the crises, illnesses and, ultimately, the losses of my dad and Ben. Those memories certainly follow me, but it’s good to see that I can move beyond being seen only as Abby, the person everyone marveled at and felt bad for because I spun in circles juggling caregiving and teaching; Abby the caregiver and the Daddy’s girl who lost her dad and then her husband, even though those experiences are an integral part of me. My school plays music instead of ringing bells to signal the beginning and end of a class period, and my kids always love when I smile at the playing of “Twist and Shout,” sharing that it is the first song that Ben and I danced to- well, they’re teenagers- they love romantic stories! My stories sometimes help them share their stories, and we build a strong sense of community and compassion.
  • As I’ve said, I lost myself in caregiving but I also found myself. I discovered that I am a caregiver to my core, and last summer I earned my certificate as a caregiving consultant. I am grateful to have met some terrific people who, tragically, are experiencing ALS as patients or caregivers. Sharing our experiences is emotional and powerful. I’m grateful to believe that wishes can come true and that there will one day be a cure for ALS and all devastating and terminal diseases.
  • I’m grateful for my sense of whimsy and belief that if you wish and dream enough, your wish will come true. It lets me know that I will have even more to be grateful for next year!

Wishing well at Walt Disney World
July 2014

At this time of year in particular, I think about Pollyana, her wonderful world view and the “Glad Game” in the 1960 Walt Disney Productions film of the same name, and based on the novel by Eleanor Porter. (click to read my original post about that). This was a game that Pollyana’s father taught her to deal with disappointment, in which you turn every bad situation around and think about something you’re glad about regarding that situation. As time has passed, I’ve learned that being “in a state of gratitude” is not to naively play the Glad Game. It is not to ignore the bad experiences or diminish their impact, but, instead, to draw upon the very important power of perspective. I have a good cry when I need to, or when something triggers it, but I can also shift my focus to aspects of these experiences that compel gratitude. That said, I don’t like when people tell me that things happen for a reason with regard to my Dad and Ben and their experiences- there is no reason for those kinds of illnesses. The lessons could have been learned without that kind of suffering and loss.

Film clip: Pollyana, 1960, Copyright © Walt Disney Productions  For those of you who remember the TV series Bewitched, the woman in this clip, Agnes Moorehead, was Endora!

There are and there will be setbacks and I am consumed with feelings of wanting to be respectful to Ben’s memory and to make my dad proud. My memories will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. And, I keep reminding myself of what Christopher Robin said to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay because I have the super power of gratitude that gives me a positive perspective.

Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. Try the “Glad Game.” And watch Pollyana. Please get back to me and post your comments in the space below.

Happy Thanksgiving.

With all good wishes,

Abby

 

 

 

Happy 90th Birthday, Mickey Mouse!

Dear Mickey,

Happy 90th Birthday!

You may turn 90 today, but you are the eternal child who brings out the inner child in all of us. I know it’s Minnie’s birthday, too, and I also wish her a Happy Birthday! Walt Disney said to remember that it all started with a mouse, and what a special mouse you are!

In the pre-ALS days, 2006

I miss my mom and Ben today. They would surely have joined in the festivities. I must admit that I feel pretty lonely. But, I’m celebrating the long history that we have and remembering wonderful, whimsical times with and about you.

Though you’re a few years older than my mom would have been, she loved you from the time she was a child and she passed that love on to me. She was in her 50s when she and my dad went to Walt Disney World for the first and only time, and without me! I will never forget her phone call, giggling as she exclaimed, “Abby, I met Mickey!” This picture was taken on that day, and it is my favorite picture of my parents because, for me, it captures my mom at such a happy moment with her inner child aglow, and my dad was so amused. When I picked them up at the airport, my mom deplaned like the other children, unabashedly carrying a big Mickey Mouse and Epcot Figment in her arms. My mom was the consummate child at heart, and I get that from her!

Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, Disney

My parents with Mickey in 1987

When I first started dating Ben, he was not as obsessed with Disney as I was. That changed quickly, and our first dates often began with a stroll through the Disney Store that was near the office where we worked and met. We went to every new Disney film on opening day and we practically studied the Disney Catalogs, which, sadly, are no longer published. I found several copies that he kept because he loved the covers and I’ve kept those.

We always treasured our visits to Walt Disney World, but after Ben’s ALS diagnosis, we immediately booked a trip to Walt Disney World, and we were so fortunate to be able to go four more times. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, or how much time we had, and we wanted to go to the place that made all our worries disappear, at least temporarily.

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, ALS, Walt Disney World, Disney

Epcot, Walt Disney World, Halloween 2012

I admit that I was the one who had to greet all of my Disney friends. But, with you it was different. Ben always wanted to see you (and Minnie). And, after his ALS diagnosis, it was emotional and tear-filled. With an ALS diagnosis, we wanted and needed to feel the pixie dust, and more than once I asked you for some magic. I do remember that a sensitive cast member saw that Ben’s meeting with you was deeper than just seeing a favorite Disney friend. As we left, he quietly handed me a “ruby” that he told us was found by one of Snow White’s dwarfs in the mines, and he said he hoped it made our wishes come true. I still have it. It may not have fulfilled the wish that ALS would be cured, but I still believe that it helped us to create many wonderful memories. I thank you for that.

Mickey was always there to help Ben.

For as long as he could, Ben would insist on walking to stand in his pictures with you. It was truly touching when you spotted Ben in the electric wheelchair, helped him up and escorted him to the area where photos would be taken. He rode up to you when he lost the strength in his legs. It was then that I was hit with the reality of his situation. It might seem strange that this moment was a revelation, when I was living with his ALS. But, living with something didn’t mean I really reflected on the entire situation. We adapted to the issues as they arose without really looking at them as milestones in the progression of the disease. Deciding that he could no longer walk up to you was a sign that ALS was winning the battle. But, Ben also had an incredible attitude, never lost his smile and laughter, and he remained determined to engage in life, especially with you at Walt Disney World.

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, ALS, Walt Disney World, Disney

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party 2012

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2012- A subtle but significant change: Ben stayed in the scooter when he met Mickey Mouse.

You and your friends brought us a lot of joy at very trying times. You welcomed us into your kingdom and gave us fantastic memories. Since he has been gone, you have continued to entertain, console and inspire me. I have to admit that this very auspicious occasion has made me a little sad because my mom and Ben aren’t here to help me celebrate, but my memories of our times with you keep me smiling, even though there are also tears.

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2011- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I held Ben on one arm and Minnie held him on the other!

Happy Birthday, Mickey. May you always continue to be the spark of hope, inspiration and happiness for children of all ages.

I will always love and thank you,

Abby

 

Veteran’s Day and What My Dad and Walt Disney Had In Common

Today is Veteran’s Day, and yesterday was the 243rd birthday of the United States Marine Corps. I’ve written about how the USMC was so important to my dad (click here for more). He was a patriot through and through. My dad was not a huge Disney fan, though he had a healthy respect for Mickey Mouse (he really had no choice in our house!) Truth be told, he and Walt Disney had something important in common: patriotism.

My dad was in the USMC during the Korean War but he had a tremendous fascination with World War II, during which he was a child. He and I were so close and spent a lot of time together, but when he was ill, I cooked and ran errands for him every weekend, and Ben and I found lots of documentaries about WWII for him to watch that Daddy liked to watch with me. I still miss the days of going to bookstores and finding the new World War II titles, calling him and reading the jacket descriptions to see if they piqued his interest and buying the ones that intrigued him, despite his protests of his (not really)  impending death and that he “won’t need them where I’m going.” Daddy and Ben actually enjoyed discussing the war when Ben was well and we visited him together. Sometimes, Ben would ask me a history question and we would call Daddy and get a very detailed history lesson by phone. My dad loved Ben knew all the important USMC and war event anniversary dates. Ben and Daddy bonded over their shared love of history, but they felt particularly close when they were both ill with terminal illnesses. The other thing they had in common was needing me as their caregiver.

Ben and I found this book at a used/rare bookstore in Nyack, NY. Without even knowing that, the rabbi at the VA hospice told me that my dad treasured and was so proud of it, which touched my heart.

In his last years, my dad was concerned about the young men serving in the military. He took such interest in the guys in our neighborhood who were returning after various deployments and were struggling to adjust to civilian life. I met some of these young men when I visited my dad and was amazed at how well my dad knew their stories. He genuinely cared about these “kids,” as he called them. He felt they were the disenfranchised, abandoned by the government and that the general public did not relate to them. Daddy found reasons to tip the kids, give them things he knew they needed, and probably most importantly, listen to them.

Ultimately, Daddy ended up at the VA hospital out in Northport, Long Island, in the palliative care/hospice unit. We were both grateful for the amazing care he received. It certainly is not the case at all VA Hospitals around the country. I was grateful to have had the experience of meeting many veterans in that palliative care unit, hearing their stories and feeling their dedication to this country. It fueled my own pride in this country and my devotion to the men and women who have fought and continue to fight to keep us safe. I proudly display his beloved model F7- the plane he flew and one of his USMC caps, and I keep his dress blues jacket safe and sound in my closet.

Not many F7 planes were made during the Korean War- he studied aviation and this was the plane he trained on- so it was hard for my dad to find a model of it and this was treasured.

My dad’s dress blues jacket. I loved to try it on when I was young. He didn’t keep his cap, but this was dear to him and it carries loving memories for me.

It pains me to think of how distraught my dad would be over what’s happening in the country now. Growing up, I dismissed his warnings that history was important because history repeats itself. I think about that so often now as I read the news. It scares me, and I fluctuate between wishing so much that I could talk to him about it and being relieved that he is not eating his heart out.

Regardless of our individual opinions on America, today is a day to honor the veterans who have served this country. Their patriotism runs deep beyond politics that often puts their lives on the line. Daddy always wore a USMC cap and he loved when people thanked him for his service. When he saw other veterans with caps, he thanked them for their service. They would sometimes chat and reminisce. I think they liked to revisit the times when they felt strong and active.

I once gave my dad a 2-disc DVD set called Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, which highlights Disney’s contribution to American military participation in World War II. My dad was amused by my ability to find this connection between my love for Disney and his love for WW2!  In 2014, shortly after my dad passed away, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War,  a fascinating coffee table book, was published. I bought the book because it reminded me of my dad and how much we embraced each other’s lives. John Baxter, the author, pointed out that during the war, Walt Disney’s studio primarily did military contract work- morale-boosting war dramas, troop entertainment and training films for the military and, unlike big companies like US Steel and the Ford Motor Company, Walt Disney insisted that the studio did not profit from this work. Walt Disney said, “Actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe.” I think my dad could relate to that comment.

I had to have Stitch as a Marine! The USMC would never be the same!

Today, and always, I honor my dad and all veterans on this day, with an extra special shout out to the USMC! Semper Fi! Thank you for your service! And, because he found his way to use his unique and brilliant talents to show his patriotism, thank you, Walt Disney!

Daddy at Mitchel Field and the Cradle of Aviation Museum out on Long Island. He loved to go there.