Sometimes, the hardest times are the ones when I remember the joy at the same time that I feel the sharp devastation and anger about loss. These are the times that turn me Inside Out. That’s what I have been experiencing this weekend. It’s exhausting.
Tomorrow will mark four years since Ben left this world. It’s almost as if I gear up all summer for this day. For the most part, I am proud, relieved and joyful that this has been a very good summer. In fact, it’s been the best I have had since he left. I was better able to balance being myself- my new self- with keeping Ben in my heart wherever I went. I know and accept that I can’t keep sadness in a corner, as Joy tried to do. The sadness and the joy were all part of our relationship, so they have to remain in my memory to keep them real.
I’ve noted it before, but there are triggers of setbacks. I don’t usually get angry at myself for crying. Anyone who knows me knows that I often default to crying. In Inside Out, Sadness says “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”
This has been a weekend of tears and of letting myself feel the weight of grief, loneliness, alone-ness, anger, frustration, compassion and empathy. I spend a lot of time assessing myself and how well I am navigating my life. Maybe I need this time to slow down and let myself miss Ben and lament what our life could have been and what ALS took from us and is continuing to take from so many other individuals and families.
On Friday, I traveled up to the Berkshires to spend the day wandering around the town of Stockbridge prior to volunteer work on Saturday. I arranged to stay at the luxurious Red Lion Inn. It had been many years since I sat on the famous porch enjoying a glass of wine and I looked forward to being there. I entered my room and immediately thought of how Ben would have loved it. We loved to go to the quaint towns of Vermont, and the Inn and this room were reminiscent of our visits there. As I walked through the little library that led to the elevator, I thought of how Ben would have looked at the wall of books and commented that I would love a room like that, and I would have to agree. I took pictures as I know he would have done. In my room and throughout the building there are many beautiful antique desks. My aunt Ellie loved those desks, and she was the first person to take me to the Berkshires, so thoughts of her were also in my mind. She is the remaining relative to whom I was the closest, but with her Alzheimers disease, although I believe that I remain somewhere in her mind, in most ways, the aunt I knew and loved is gone.
The first shop I visited was Williams & Sons Country Store. Ben and I loved to go to country stores. I love the look and feel of them. We always found fun things at the Vermont Country Store, where we spent hours! It didn’t feel the same being without Ben. Nothing does, of course, but traveling to a place so much like places we would travel to felt so very sad. I wanted him to see the retro Cracker Jacks boxes, wanted to buy them just because he would have loved them. I did buy a little tiny turtle with a bobbing head. It reminded me of him and I knew he would have loved it, too.
I continued my stroll and spoke to lovely shopkeepers. I treated myself to some new clothing and fun jewelry. Retail therapy is always helpful to me, but I could not really shake that feeling of not belonging. I did have a glass of wine on the porch, but I felt like the only person by myself. I don’t always feel that way. Throughout my life I have traveled by myself, so I am often comfortable on my own. I think it was especially hard because Ben would have enjoyed it so much and it would have been a perfect getaway for us.
I was happy to meet Norman, the feline ambassador of the Red Lion Inn. He was very tolerant of my need to follow and pet him. I could hear Ben reminding me that I was like Boo in Monsters, Inc., who was always following Sully calling, “Kitty, kitty!” There was not a thing I did that didn’t make me think of and miss Ben. I think my last straw with myself was going to the pub where there was live music. I thought I would enjoy it, but it was something I really couldn’t do without Ben, so I left quickly. I found Norman, said goodnight, and went to my room to prepare for my volunteer work. This was filled with more reminders of Ben, since I was working with Hope Loves Company, a wonderful organization that serves children who have a family member with ALS.
Hope Loves Company runs 3-day camps in various locations across the country for families whose lives are affected by ALS. It’s a special opportunity for the whole family to get away and participate in an array of fun activities including boating, swimming, sports and crafts. Since all of the campers have ALS in common, they share an understanding of the experience that need not even be spoken. It’s a beautiful thing. During the spring, I had volunteered to do a scrapbooking workshop in New Jersey, and found it so rewarding that I asked to repeat the workshops at the camp in Camp Emerson in Hinsdale, MA. I am grateful that Hope Loves Company embraces my desire to volunteer and welcomed the idea of a scrapbooking project. Scrapbooking is a valuable tool for the children. Some bring photos from home and we also print out photos taken during camp. It is a way to capture and share memories. Older children can write more of a narrative if they wish. I went a little crazy shopping for all kinds of stickers, and it’s fun to see the kids select their favorites. It’s great to watch them interact with their parents as they look at photos together. I brought supplies for embossing, which lured even the coolest older kids. They had fun, were intrigued, and continued to bond with each other, which is such an important aspect of the camp. Maybe scrapbooking will be something that they will pursue. Maybe they will think about the activity as they look for another outlet for their self-expression.
I enjoy meeting the families at the camp. For some, I suppose I am the sad reminder that, at least for now, ALS always wins the battle. But, I hope that they also see that I am here, I reshaped my life and I want to be supportive and do something positive to help in the battle against this disease.
The bus ride back to New York gave me five long hours to think about how much my life changed as a result of ALS. It certainly altered the course of my relationship with Ben. Although I had already been my dad’s caregiver, being Ben’s caregiver was a different experience. I don’t want to wash my hands of ALS. I want to support people who are impacted by the disease. It gave me joy to know that people in the Berkshires who recognized me from the NJ camp valued that I traveled to be with them and do a project with the children. Caregivers need to feel that kind of love and caring. For me, volunteering is a way to channel the negative experience into positive, into a way to help others. It’s something that I want to do with my life. I am thrilled that my blog helps others, but I want to expand that to more hands-on experiences, and the workshops allow me to do that. I guess that although the timing was difficult, and it turned me Inside Out, the volunteer work being on this particular weekend is a perfect tribute to tomorrow’s anniversary of Ben’s departure. I find comfort in knowing and affirming that our life, our relationship and our experience with ALS will be a part of my life and goals as I move forward.
These are excerpts from my own scrapbook, which I show to the kids so they can see my own experience with ALS and some ideas for scrapbooking.