This is a time of year that I simultaneously eagerly anticipate and dread, and I find that am more reflective about my past, my present and my future. As a teacher, who doesn’t love time off from work!? However, this is also the time of year filled with memories of time spent in the hospital with Ben as he succumbed to ALS. Mary Poppins and Bert said, “Open different doors. You may find a you there that you never knew before. Anything can happen.” I see that I am the ever-evolving product of all the good and bad experiences, and although it took me a few years to get to this point, I have been following their advice, opening new doors, doing new things, rediscovering myself and considering new paths.
Last weekend, I visited my good friend, Dorie, whom I have known since high school. We had lost touch for a while, but the magic of Facebook brought us back together. For the past few summers, I have gone to visit her upstate and she and her husband have come to NYC to visit me and enjoy some theater. Last weekend, we went to a place called Animal Adventure Park. I love animals, and here you can pet and feed most of them, which is great fun for me.
I have always loved animals. Ben became enamored with them after enough time with me. We shared a love of penguins, and he became very attached to my cat Tiffany (she was not so attached to him!) and to our cat, Disney. It was on a whim last summer that I followed a dream to visit the Georgia Aquarium and participate in special encounter programs with sea otters, penguins and dolphins. During those sessions, I realized how much I truly love being around animals and I feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment when I interact with them. I admit that it broke my heart that Ben could not be at the Aquarium and meet the penguins with me. Still, the animals were a huge source of comfort, joy and inspiration to me.
When I researched the Animal Adventure Park after Dorie mentioned it, I discovered that they have a sloth encounter, in which you learn about, feed and pet them. Sloths are among the animals I have been so eager to meet, and fortunately, Dorie and her husband were also enthusiastic about it. I then discovered that they have a river otter encounter. I am kind of obsessed with otters- river and sea otters. I could not resist the opportunity to shake paws with an otter and thankfully, Dorie was willing to accompany me!
The encounters did not disappoint! They were both wonderful. The animals each have their own personalities and preferences, which is fascinating and delightful. I was in heaven. I knew that Ben would have enjoyed it and I felt good about acknowledging him. This time, I didn’t feel angry or guilty about enjoying it without him, I was proud and happy to keep him with me in my heart and thoughts. I felt the closest to myself that I have felt in such a long time. I was with people I care about doing things that I absolutely love.
Afterwards, I posted photos on Facebook- after all, a large portion of my news feed is dedicated to otters and sloths, and now I’ve actually met them! Several friends commented that I looked so happy and that my smile was huge. I feel grateful to have friends who are always cheering me on and who want to see me thrive. I had to smile and laugh just seeing how positively gleeful I was. Looking at myself in those pictures, I saw that I have once again truly found my smile. I even fantasized about possibilities of working with animals in the future.
Walt Disney said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” As usual, Walt was right. I am a shy person by nature, yet I am also friendly, reflective and interested in so many things. After I lost Ben, I had to reinvent and reshape a social life. Of course, as I have always said, I am so grateful to have incredible friends and to have friends that go back to my childhood. Still, I had to take a more active role in socializing. When Ben was ill, I got very used to doing things on my own. I am comfortable on my own, which is a good thing in many ways, though it can be lonely and isolating. I have opened doors and done things like taking the opportunity to reconnect with friends like Dorie. Next week, I will head to Chicago to see my college friend Monica and her family, which has become a favorite annual tradition. Although I am a huge klutz and do not generally follow sports, I have become a devoted Cubs fan and love going with Monica to Wrigley Field- another new side of myself! I am also heading back to the Georgia Aquarium. It simply gives me so much joy to be with the animals in that absolutely spectacular place. This time, in addition to the sea otters, I will meet sea lions and even get into the water with beluga whales! Donning a wet suit is something I wouldn’t have imagined doing, but curiosity has taken me there! I have also opened new doors to build new friendships. It hasn’t been easy, but I have indeed met many lovely people and learned new things about myself in the process.
In Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Merlin explains to young Arthur that, For every to, there is a fro. For every stop there is a go, and that’s what makes the world go round. In life, there are ups and downs. In grief, there has been progress but there have also been setbacks. I have discovered that I am a person who wants and needs to open doors, but I have to do it in my own time. I feel like I have established a more consistent balance of keeping Ben in my heart while delving back into my life. I still do things that I know he would like in order to experience them through his eyes, and for him, but I also allow myself to venture forth on my own terms, being less of an observer and more of an active participant in my life. I know there will be tos and fros and stops and gos, and I am getting better at letting myself feel them all without getting angry at myself or judging myself harshly. I would not have expected that summer would be a time that I would find my smile, but I do believe in pixie dust, so maybe it’s Disney magic that’s clearing my path.