On Mother’s Day: What Disney and I Know About A Mother’s Love

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

Today is Mother’s Day. My grandmother believed that every day should be Mother’s Day. And, the truth is that when my mom was alive, every day WAS Mother’s Day. We were so close that we did not need an actual holiday to celebrate that fact. After I lost them, I can’t say that this holiday was like other milestones in terms of evoking much sadness. There was a feeling of not belonging, and the sting of realizing that I didn’t have the close and unconditional love of family anymore. Yesterday, I saw a lot of people carrying flowers and celebrating the occasion, albeit a day early. It hurt more than it has because I realized that I have lost all of the people whom I had celebrated throughout my life. I never forget all of the love that I currently have in my life, but there are times that I don’t like to face that the people I loved the most only exist in my memories now.

I think about the importance of mothers in Disney films. Often, they are not present, having died at some point in the childhood of our favorite characters. Who can forget the pain of Bambi’s realization that he has lost his mother? The power of a mom’s life remains steadfast in the lives of our beloved characters. The films show us that people we love and lose stay close in our hearts. This is such an important message for children who are caregivers and are grieving.  I previously shared this clip from Disney’s live action Cinderella, where 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. I get my childlike enthusiasm from her and, I believe, my natural caregiving skills, which even extend to my students. Of course, I embody her love of Mickey Mouse and all things Disney, but I hope that in some small way I have followed her example as a person. I do know that she is always with me. But, as I have also said before, as fortunate as I am, sometimes memories aren’t enough. Today kind of feels like one of those days.

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 around the neighborhood. 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 loved each other unconditionally and had so much fun. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died.

Grandma and I were also very close. From the time I was a child, I was in awe of Grandma and her elegance. I loved her sense of fashion. She had a wonderful way of putting together colors and fabrics and styles. I still have some of her clothing and jewelry. The best shopping I ever did was in her closets and drawers. When I’m feeling lazy about dressing up or putting on make-up- it happens rarely, but it happens!- I hear her warning me that I never know who I am going to meet and I should always look my best. Clearly, she was hoping for a nice, Jewish Prince Charming. My fairytale was not quite exactly her idea of the “tale as old as time,” but Grandma always seemed to understand that I danced to my own beat. Sometimes we frustrated each other, particularly when I challenged her ideas of an ideal life. But, we had a special bond and an unconditional love for each other.

Grandma doing my hair. She crocheted my dress. She was very talented! I get my creative streak from her.

Grandma had four brothers and a sister, my great-aunts and great-uncles, and I loved them all dearly. I loved spending time with my great-aunts and great-uncles. Losing Grandma and my older relatives left a huge void in my life. However, through our loving relationships, I developed a tremendous appreciation of and compassion for elderly people that I have to this day.

Grandma was very artistic and I inherited her abilities and passion for crafts. She crocheted many aphgans and sweaters, skirts, dresses and ponchos. I remember choosing wool colors with her and how each item had to represent the gift recipient, yet had to be timeless and classic. I can see my own shifting tastes as I look at my childhood aphgan in its pastel colors and then the gray, maroon and cream colors in my college aphgan. I remember waking up in the morning covered with the squares she made while I was asleep.  My dollhouse and dolls even got aphgans! I still have many things that she made. They hold such beautiful memories of time spent watching her and learning how to crochet. Eventually, she helped me to make an aphgan of my own. Ben used it often. Grandma’s talents extended to the piano, and she inspired me to learn how to play. I never played as well as she did, but she helped and encouraged me to play, and I’ve kept some of the sheet music.

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 Grandma, 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 now that in many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after Grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with 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. 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. And, 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.

When Grandma was ill, I helped with her caregiving, and, although I was not her primary caregiver, I was the one she usually relied on for comfort. At the same time, although I was in my thirties, she wanted to protect me from the fact that she was dying.

As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and Grandma and our time together. So much who I am and what I do reminds me of them. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit and love of Disney from my mom. You won’t be surprised that one of my favorite memories is when my mom called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” Every time I bake I feel Grandma with me, and she is a part of all of my creative and artistic endeavors, as well as my fashion choices.

Making humentashen is a tradition that started a long time ago!

Ben and I had no children together, but he had three daughters, so I suppose I can say I was a stepmom, though I only had a brief relationship with one daughter that I believed was closer than it turned out to be. I would like them to have been there more for their dad, but I knew that interfering would have added more tension to Ben’s already stressful life. I made no demands and have never had any expectations of them.  It’s a shame, because I would have loved to be an active stepmom and would still like that.

Now, I am a devoted mom to my cat, Tinker Bell, as I was to Disney and Tiffany. My mom- well, my whole family- loved our pets, so their influence was present even as I cared for Disney and Tiffany as they coped with several illnesses. Tinker Bell has been with me for almost three months and she has realized that hers is a home full of love. Today, as on most days, she is curled up next to me, napping and then waking up to chat and, I imagine, say “Happy Mother’s Day!”

My mom and our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie. Miss them both!

On Disney’s “Gotcha Day,” February 18, 2019 at NYC’s Meow Parlour

There is not a day that I don’t think of my mom and Grandma. I am proud to honor them on Mother’s Day, though in truth, I celebrate, treasure and miss them always. I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all creatures, great and small, human and otherwise.

On ALS and What The Little Mermaid Learned About Losing Voice and Herself

“The Little Mermaid” © Walt Disney Pictures 1989

May is ALS Awareness month and despite the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge, it still is not a well-known or understood disease. It’s a melancholy month for me because I see so many posts about ALS that remind me of the tragedy and cruelty of this disease and how far we have to go to manage and ultimately, to cure and eliminate it. I am always happy to see the strides that have been made and proud to be part of a community of people with ALS and their caregivers, who offer boundless support, commiseration and encouragement. While I tend to reflect on how I felt as a caregiver and in grief, this month brings me back to the actual, day-to-day impact of ALS and how Ben expressed his experiences.

ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, is defined as a disease which causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. My friends and family became aware of the physical effects of the disease primarily through Ben’s experience. Ben’s first symptoms were a lack of balance and falling. His legs also became tired very quickly. As the disease progressed, he lost the ability to use his legs at all, and then his arms and hands, then chewing and swallowing became difficult, and his speech became increasingly impaired as he experienced those muscle losses. His cognitive skills were not affected, so he was completely aware of what was happening to his body.  The progression of ALS varies from person to person, so, for example, some people may never lose their ability to walk, others lose their ability to speak first, while Ben lost it last. Eventually, the ability to breathe is lost, and that is often the cause of death from the disease.

This scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid was poignant to me within the context of ALS. Ariel wanted so much to be a human and to be with Prince Eric that she was willing to relinquish her voice to the sea witch, Ursula. Ariel knew that her voice was integral to who she was, but she was in love, and you know how that goes, especially in a Disney film. Once she gives her voice to Ursula, she quickly realizes that she has lost the ability to express herself, and her ability to sing, which was so important to her. She also did not realize that without her voice, she was no longer recognizable to Prince Eric. Of course, she made a choice. Someone with ALS does not get a choice, and I would venture to guess that they would advise her to keep her precious voice.

ALS,Walt Disney World,Little Mermaid,Ariel

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World- 2001. Pre-ALS days

The loss of easy communication was very frustrating to Ben. First, phone use became difficult because handling the phone was hard and it was difficult to understand him. We then began frequent texting. Ben used a virtual/on-screen keyboard and an app that connected his phone to the computer screen. However, if his hand slid off the mouse, communication was cut off and that led to some very tense moments.

Living with Ben, I was more likely to understand what he said and I could facilitate conversations with others. There were times, however, that I could not understand him. He would shake his head and tell me to “forget it,” which upset both of us. When communication was an obstacle and he was homebound, Ben did notice and lament that he had less contact with people. Friends and relatives with whom he thought he was close stopped reaching out, or, they made promises to visit that they did not keep. At the same time, he did not really want people to see him as he looked. He did not want them to see him looking gaunt and struggling to talk, eat and move. It did leave him feeling isolated and hurt.

When strangers did not understand Ben, they sometimes assumed that he was mentally challenged and spoke to him like a child or addressed only me. Often, Ben laughed about it, but on some occasions he felt invisible and very misunderstood. So, I involved Ben in the discussions to show people that Ben was fully capable of understanding and had lots of opinions and many people did follow my lead. As caregivers and loved ones, I see it as our responsibility to educate people through example, because some people are willing but not quite sure how to engage with people with a variety of disabilities. Unfortunately, not being able to say what he wanted and be truly seen and heard sometimes caused Ben to withdraw. I cannot begin to imagine how Ben felt to be seen for the ALS symptoms rather than for himself.

I cannot begin to imagine how Ben felt to be seen for the ALS symptoms rather than for himself. Click To Tweet

After a respiratory crisis landed Ben in the hospital, he had a Bipap mask before he had the tracheostomy. This was the first time that Ben really had absolutely no voice. He could not call me, or call for help, or just have a conversation. On an emotional note, he could not kiss me or tell me he loved me. When I recently re-watched The Little Mermaid and I saw Ariel panic the first time she tried to speak and remembered that she could no longer do so, I remembered Ben’s panic at the thought that he could not easily get someone’s attention with is voice, but he also could not use a hospital call button. Ben was afraid to be alone in the hospital room and I was afraid when he was alone. The mask obscured his mouth, so reading his lips was also very difficult. We spelled out words by my reciting the alphabet and his nodding when I reached the correct letter. However, the length and tediousness of that process frustrated him, and he began to weigh what he really needed to say. There were many incidents when hospital staff ignored Ben and asked me questions that he could answer. I immediately addressed those questions to him so that he could participate in the discussion. Yes, it took longer, and it was not easy, but he mattered, and staff had to accept that. Most really were wonderful, and they got a glimpse of who Ben really was beneath the ALS. But, just as Ariel felt devastated that Prince Eric did not recognize her, Ben, too, felt that he was becoming unrecognizable, even to himself. It also made him look at how he saw himself moving forward, which was something he had tried to avoid since his diagnosis nearly six years earlier.

Ursula tells Ariel that even without her voice, she has her looks, and to “never underestimate the importance of body language.” Unfortunately, with ALS, Ben could not rely on body language. He certainly did not underestimate its importance. ALS slowly strips away a person’s ability to move their limbs and even make facial expressions. Although Ben’s experience with ALS never progressed to the point where he was completely immobilized, some people are left only with the ability to blink, if that. Without a voice or facial and body expressions, a person would understandably feel isolated and even irrelevant. Although visits from loved ones are appreciated, they are not easy, so, unfortunately, as in Ben’s case, visits become less frequent.

Walt Disney World, 2001

Ben could certainly have related to Ariel’s wish to have legs like a human. As he lost his ability to walk, he often told me that in his dreams he always saw himself walking and running. As Ben lost his abilities to walk and move his arms and hands, he saw himself as weak and self-conscious. He missed going outside and playing handball. He did enjoy using his scooter, but daily life skills were becoming impossible and that carries an emotional toll. He walked until he accepted that his legs could not handle a single step without his sinking to the ground. That took away his freedom to move around the apartment. It chipped away at his dignity to have to be transferred to and from the bed, his chair and the commode, and to have to be fed his meals. He often denied that he needed as much assistance as he did, which was stressful for me as his caregiver, but that was what he needed to tell himself to deny that ALS was progressing.

Ben was also aggravated that he could no longer do things that he loved to do, like play music on his keyboard and fix computers. He could still talk me through what needed to be done with the computer hardware, but it was not the same. He also continued to research and discover adaptive electronic and computer devices, though they rarely worked for long, as new symptoms of ALS constantly appeared that rendered them ineffective. Music always remained an essential part of Ben’s life and our relationship, and although he couldn’t play his instruments, and we could no longer dance, he never stopped listening to music and making little videos with music clips for me to celebrate different occasions. I also brought his iPad to the hospital, so he could always listen to his favorite tunes.

Body language encompasses body image. ALS seriously impacted on Ben’s body image. He said that he did not like to look at himself in mirrors. As eating became more challenging, Ben lost a lot of weight. His feet got terribly swollen and even the widest shoes did not fit, so he wore adjustable slippers. He could no longer shave himself and although he said I did a pretty good job, I did not do as perfect a job as he did. We could make it fun and funny, but the underlying issue- the deterioration of his muscles- was frightening and tragic. At one point, his aide shaved his beard and left only his mustache. He was a bit insulted that it took me a while to notice exactly what was different.  I think that I somewhat tuned out the physical because there were simply so many changes, and they were too sad to dwell upon. Ben, on the other hand, regularly studied the photos from our visits to Walt Disney World and compared his physical changes from visit to visit. In fact, when I showed pictures of those visits to friends, they always commented on how thin Ben had become, shocked by his physical transformation. When I looked at the photos, I saw only the joy on his face. I guess that’s the Pollyanna in me.

Fortunately for Ariel, she was surrounded by people (well, mer-people and some very adorable sea friends) who loved and looked out for her. Sebastian was an astute and compassionate, if high-strung, caregiver. Nutty but devoted Scuttle revealed Ursula’s evil magical trick to get Eric and Ariel’s voice was restored, she was able to keep her legs and marry the Prince. There was the Disney happy ending.

ALS is not a fictional magical trick with a happy ending, rather, it is a cruel disease to which Ben ultimately succumbed. Still, despite the obvious devastation of his struggle and of losing him, I have to look at the end of Ben’s ALS story with some positive thoughts. Ben’s personality shone as he left this world, according to the very wishes that he expressed, even without his voice, embraced by people he loved and requested to be present, and with music that filled his heart. He was heard and he knew that he mattered and was loved, as his hero Buzz Lightyear said, “to infinity and beyond.”

Now, I use my voice to spread awareness and support caregivers and people with ALS. And, in my Disney way, I will keep wishing on stars for a cure that will ensure a genuinely happy ending for those with ALS.

In my Disney way, I will keep wishing on stars for a cure that will ensure a genuinely happy ending for those with ALS. Click To Tweet

Walt Disney World
July 2014