Yesterday- Memories, Grief, And Looking Towards Tomorrow

On Friday, I saw the film Yesterday. It’s not a Disney film, but I see those, too! It’s a fun film about a glitch in time (the one everyone worried about, which never occurred, at the stroke of the year 2000) in which all memory disappeared of the existence of The Beatles. It’s hard to imagine. I saw the film largely because of Ben’s love of The Beatles. As I frequently do, I wanted to see it through his eyes. When I attend Disney films, I often sharply feel Ben’s absence, and sometimes I do feel his presence, but this time I wanted to be his eyes, enjoying it as he would. It had emotional moments for me, and, even without the obvious title, made me think about “yesterday,” and the concept of time as I’ve journeyed through caregiving, watching Ben battle ALS, coping with the depths of grief and the adjustment to co-existing with it.

If I travel back enough yesterdays, I remember that the first song I ever danced to with Ben was The Beatles’ Twist and Shout. We met at work and at a gala, before we were actually dating, when that song came on, he grabbed my hand and took me to the dance floor. I learned how much of a fan he was of The Beatles and developed more of an appreciation of them. Now, I listen to the albums more often and with more love. During the yesterdays of Ben’s ALS struggle, when we were fortunate to travel to Walt Disney World several times, at Epcot’s England pavilion, I loved watching Ben watch and play the air guitar along with the live bands as they performed music of The Beatles. During the yesterdays of Ben’s time in the hospital, and even on his very last day on this earth, musicians visited him to play Disney music and some of Ben’s favorite Beatles songs, including his favorite, In My Life. On his first day in the hospice unit, Ben had a visit from one of the very kind residents who treated him early on in the hospital, before his tracheostomy and feeding tube. They spoke for quite a while about music and which was their favorite Beatles album. It wasn’t easy for Ben to communicate, but the resident did a great job reading Ben’s lips and I was there to help translate. This resident did not have to visit, but he was a lovely, compassionate soul, and he had to deal with one of Ben’s crises on his very first day as a resident. I know that he will be a wonderful, caring doctor. A lot of yesterdays. A lot of memories. A lot of sadness. But, a lot of love and even laughter in the darker times.

Walt Disney World, 2011.
Ben’ in one of his many Beatles tshirts.

The lyrics of Yesterday start with

Yesterday
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

In the film Yesterday, some of the past is erased. It’s a flawed plot, but it did make me think. Imagine if The Beatles had not become The Beatles. Imagine if John Lennon had not been shot. And, more to the point, imagine if Ben had never been diagnosed with ALS. Imagine if there was no ALS? How would life play out? Thoughts like that do at times drift through my mind. It happens often when I see elderly couples walking hand-in-hand, because Ben used to always comment that we would be a couple like that.

2010- Shortly after Ben’s ALS diagnosis and still standing, albeit unsteadily. In his favorite Beatles shirt at a fair with my Pets en Voyage products.

The concept of time is fuzzy when I think back to my days taking care of my dad and Ben. I measure time by significant events in the progressions of their disease and then “firsts” without them and, of course, milestone dates like birthdays and anniversaries. February is a month I dread because it was my dad’s birthday, Ben’s birthday, the month when my dad died and, most recently, the month that my cat Disney died. Summer is the marker of when I lost Ben. The start of each school year reminds me of the insanity I felt when I returned to school a couple of weeks after Ben died, feeling the drastic change of not having the same caregiving responsibilities, which only magnified the feelings of loss and the accompanying grief. They say time heals all wounds. When it comes to grief, I think time helps you adjust to and learn to coexist with the grief. Sometimes my experiences feel like yesterday, sometimes they feel like further in the past.

Indeed, before Ben’s diagnosis, it’s not that life was perfect- it never is- for one thing- my dad had cancer, but an ALS diagnosis sent us into a tailspin. There was always the wish of going back to yesterday.

The narrator says this in reference to Cinderella’s grief over the loss of her mother.
Cinderella © Disney 2015

The narrator (Fairy Godmother) of Disney’s 2015, live action Cinderella said, “Time passed, and pain turned to memory.” This is one of the Disney film quotes that always gives me pause. I can look back at my yesterdays and say that after nearly four years, I still feel the pain of losing Ben. Pain has not turned to memory, but I can view that pain as part of sixteen years of so many memories with him, only the last six of which involve his life with ALS and mine as his caregiver. There has been a gradual shift from continuing to live within the pain of suffering and loss, to embracing the wide range of memories, and the feelings they bring, but also defining and diving into my new “present.” Pain, sadness, joy, anger- a bevy of feelings and emotions related to my yesterdays- are all part of cherished memories and I see that they continue to shape me and lead me towards a bright tomorrow. I even made sure that I visited Abbey Road when I returned to London in 2016- it was a way to honor Ben, have him present with me, and see London, one of my very favorite places but one I never saw with Ben, through his eyes. Yes, I wish I could erase ALS, but this was our unique story. It did not have a Disney happy ending, but it did have love and even some pixie dust. I will carry in my heart all of those yesterdays as I face today and tomorrow.

Feeling like a Beatle, as Ben would have wanted to do.

For My Mom- A Birthday Tribute

Today, July 8, would be my mom’s birthday. Although, I have written quite a bit about my mom and how close we are, I like to write an annual birthday tribute to her.

When I think about the time, nearly four years ago, being in the hospital with Ben on her birthday, and wondering what was going to happen to him while missing her, I still feel overwhelmed by the fact that I have lost the people I loved the most in the world. I do feel so fortunate to have known and shown so much love in my life. And, I still feel much love. But, my life has changed dramatically in many ways, and sometimes it can feel terribly lonely.

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

My mom is the person who introduced me to Mickey Mouse and instilled in me an eternally child-like wonder. When we were in London together, I remembered how excited my mom was to go to Paddington Station and the Paddington store in Paddington. The woman in the shop was so taken by my mom’s exuberance over the little bear and being in the shop- it was hard not to get caught up in my mom’s child-like delight- that she excitedly handed my mom a Paddington Bear doll to hold while I took her picture. So, it wasn’t all Disney, but Mommy’s first true love was Mickey.

London 1987. My mom could not wait to visit the Paddington store!

I look at our old photographs and remember the laughter. I am proud to have inherited her ability to celebrate her inner child, her youthful demeanor and her joyful spirit. Sometimes people are surprised that she passed away more than 25 years ago, because I talk about her so frequently and vividly. She is always dear to my heart and so much a part of who I am, but also, of the person I aspire to be.

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

My mom was my example of the consummate caregiver, perhaps being too selfless. She was so generous and kind, always smiling as she balanced the needs of everyone around her. She tended to my grandmother, who lived with us, and also took care of my great-aunt in the nearby nursing home, and my great-uncle who insisted on living alone but needed much assistance.

I also inherited her klutziness, but, with that, I also have her ability to laugh at herself.

On her birthday, I will continue my tradition of watching The Little Mermaid, because it was one of the last films we watched together. I love to remember how much we laughed when we watched it together, particularly when we looked at my grandma, who just did not understand our amusement. I wish that I had gotten a chance to visit Walt Disney World with my mom, but she has always been present when I have been there. It always touched my heart that Ben was so aware and acknowledging of her when we were there.

I proudly say like mother, like daughter!

Happy Birthday, Mommy! I love and miss you every single day.

 

July 6- Not Your Typical International Kissing Day

ALS,Walt Disney World

A PhotoPass photographer caught this moment in front of the Castle at Walt Disney World. It was actually the first time we returned after Ben’s ALS diagnosis in 2010

Today, July 6, marks the fourth anniversary of the day that Ben had a respiratory crisis and we ended up in the Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Medical Center.  For me, this is simply the date when everything changed. I have learned not to have expectations about how I will feel on these milestone dates, but it has remained a particularly difficult day. I woke up this morning, as I have each year, thinking about how I woke up on this date four years ago and Ben said he could not breathe. I think of how we waited for the ambulance, not knowing what would happen. How ironic it is that today is International Kissing Day, because on that day he was connected to a ventilator and his mouth was covered with a  Bipap mask. For the next few weeks, before he agreed to a tracheostomy, our way of kissing was to blink our eyes tight and then I would throw him a kiss- he couldn’t use his arms or hands to throw one back.

I remember that in the midst of the frenzy of an Emergency Room, it did not occur to me that I could lose Ben at that time. I was kept very busy as the health care proxy and the only family member present. I emailed and texted his family and our friends and answered a lot of questions. I tried to stifle resentments towards his family, a few of whom had lots of questions, absurd suggestions and judgments but had never been there for him as his ALS was progressing. I was surrounded by people but felt very alone. I talked to Ben but had difficulty reading his lips through the mask. And, he slept a lot, leaving me to my own thoughts about what would happen next. I shared all of this in a previous year’s post.

I did not make any plans for today, not knowing how I would feel, but allowing myself to be okay with anything I chose to do. I have not shared anything with anyone today, keeping my feelings and memories to myself. I don’t want to hear that I should keep living, or I should make plans to distract myself, or that Ben would want me to be happy. Sure, it’s all true, but it doesn’t matter. Today, I just want to think about Ben, and that day.  It’s an odd feeling that nobody else would even remember this date, and I wouldn’t expect them to. That does, however, underscore that when this crisis hit, it was just Ben and me. And, as awful as it was, I was there for Ben, he knew he could rely on me, and there was a lot of love and trust. We may not have been a real Disney prince and princess, but the profound love and caring that we expressed throughout his experience with ALS gave special meaning to the song title So This is Love, from Disney’s original, animated Cinderella. I have been listening to a lot of our favorite Disney love song albums and remembering how he loved to listen to them. Music was so important to Ben, so it feels right to do this. One Dance remains a song that brings tears to my eyes, and yet, I still like to listen to it because it captures so perfectly how I was feeling during those days in the hospital. Click here to read about it.

Summer has never been my favorite season because I dislike warm weather, and now summer is filled with the memories of Ben’s last summer. It’s an odd contrast to my being a teacher and eagerly awaiting summer break. I have, however, come to cherish my frequent summer walks in Central Park. I do look for signs that Ben is with me, and finding turtles there is an important sign that he is present and watching over me. I always bring some coins to toss into the fountain and make wishes (see my post on wishes), often shedding a few tears. I try my Disney best to be optimistic even when I’m sad.

This date may always be a difficult day. In my mind, it will always be thought of as the beginning of the end. I see all kinds of social media posts about International Kissing Day and I think that it was the first day when I couldn’t kiss Ben.

I find myself wondering if I will always struggle on this day, though I do notice that the intense and debilitating grief has shifted. I have learned that today’s fog will lift, and that I will also have many days where I remember days in the hospital that, despite the devastation and horrible decisions, were filled with kisses and with love, music and even laughter. Today is just not one of those days.

Walt Disney World, 2002
The pre-ALS days.

On July 4- Thoughts of Independence, ALS and Aging

Today, here in America, we celebrate Independence Day. In our challenging political climate, I cannot help but reflect on how our independence seems so fragile. I think about my dad on holidays such as these, and how he, the proud Marine, lamented that less and less families displayed a flag. As much as I miss him, I am relieved that he is not living through these times because I firmly believe that it would make him physically ill. He would be worried about my future, but at least now he is watching over me.

I also can’t help but think of independence as it relates to ALS and to aging.

My dad was used to being the tough guy- after all, he was a Marine. As he got older, it was hard for him not to be able to manage the tasks that required physical strength. It was a hard thing to admit that aging has taken some of his independence. Even things that he could do independently, he wanted me to take care of. He wanted his independence but he wanted to depend on me. He wanted to know that I was there for him. I navigated his pride as I, the consummate klutz, and a pretty weak one at that- lifted and schlepped for him. He worried about my back but he did not want to have groceries delivered. I shopped in the city, cooked for him and brought everything to him by train. I know that he was comforted in the knowledge that I was going to take care of him. He was coping with fear of being alone, fear of his cancer progressing, fear of dying, and even fear of leaving me. Whatever it was, my dad had cancer, he was more than eighty years old, and I loved him. I was his caregiver and I was his daughter. Actually, anyone I met during his doctor appointments or visits to the neighborhood told me that I was his life. I knew that and he wanted me to know that.

Daddy loved to visit the Cradle of Aviation museum and relive his USMC days.

Ben dealt with a loss of independence as ALS stripped more and more of his abilities. ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that ultimately results in the loss of voluntary muscle action. Patients are affected differently in terms of progression, but people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe in any order of events. Ben’s initial symptoms were weakness in his legs and lack of balance. Next, he struggled with the use of his arms and hands, then his ability to chew and swallow. His speech was impaired though he did not lose it until he had a tracheostomy, and he got a feeding tube at the same time.

Imagine the loss of all of those abilities that we take for granted. People with ALS cannot independently take care of daily life activities. That is a physical and emotional struggle. I was always struck by Ben’s sense of humor and determination to devise strategies for managing on his own. He was quick to purchase things like adaptive zipper pulls and computer accessories that allowed him to function at least somewhat independently. He loved his scooter and electric wheelchair because they gave him the freedom to get around and be outside. As he lost dexterity in his hands, it became more difficult for him to steer, but he could be out and about.  He tried hard to avoid, for as long as possible, his loss of independence.

As Ben’s caregiver, as he became increasingly dependent on me, I, too, lost independence. This was an emotional battle for both of us. Even within couples and families, each person maintains a certain level of independence. Ben and I lost that independence, albeit in different ways. I could no longer take time for myself. And, I witnessed Ben’s struggle and was consumed with trying to accommodate his efforts to maintain some level of independence. Ben and I were dependent on each other in this world in which our relationship was shifting beyond our control and we desperately wanted to maintain some semblance of who we were at our core, before ALS. After I lost Ben, I was frequently told that it was good that I could now reclaim my freedom. Only now, nearly four years later, am I becoming more comfortable with my independence. Still, I blog and maintain my deep connection to people who are experiencing ALS, as patients or caregivers. My experience left me with some battle scars, but it also left me with a tremendous appreciation of and perspective on independence.

Walt Disney, Walt Disney World

Walt Disney said that “Mickey Mouse is, to me, a symbol of independence.” This was said in the context of the success that it brought him and his company, and the freedom to pursue his dreams. “Independence” is vital to our existence in many literal and figurative ways. On Independence Day, we honor this country and its founding principles. Let’s be grateful for independence. Let’s fight to preserve those values that are currently under attack and being chipped away and could potentially impact on the medical care and research that strives to help make ALS more manageable and, ultimately, to eradicate this cruel disease. In my practical way, I contribute, through donations, volunteering and the raising of awareness about ALS. In my Disney way, I continue to wish for and dream about a cure for ALS and all other diseases.

Happy and Hopeful Independence Day.