Difficult Days of Fall and Helpful Grim, Grinning Ghosts
My Dear Ben,
I’m writing you this letter because Fall is a time when I especially wish I could talk to you, walk with you, cuddle up in the eagerly anticipated cooler weather and just enjoy this favorite season as we always did. Now, another birthday has passed for me and yesterday was Halloween. These remain hard days without you. I’ve never been someone who likes to celebrate myself, but it always touched my heart that you celebrated me on my birthday (and other times, of course), often surprising me with romantic gestures. You always laughed at my proudly wearing my birthday badge at Walt Disney World, but everything is whimsical and magical at Walt Disney World. Halloween is a different story because although I loved it since childhood, it really became our holiday. It’s that simple. It’s even the day we got engaged. Yes, these remain a rollercoaster of a few days, magnified by this rollercoaster of a 2020 and the upcoming election for what I truly believe is the soul of our country.
This was the birthday I’ve dreaded- 59- the year my mom died suddenly and the year she also seemed to dread, though now it seems it was almost her cosmic understanding of what was to happen. I can’t help but be affected by it. I’m already older than you were when you left this earth. It’s hard to reconcile. Part of me is scared, and part of me wonders if it would really matter if I wasn’t here, except to Tinker Bell. Maybe being alone so much during the quarantining has added to those feelings of isolation and irrelevance. On the other hand, if I wasn’t here, would I be with you, my parents, my grandma and everyone I’ve loved and lost, including my beloved pets? No one knows, but it’s nice and comforting to believe.
In Ratatouille Gusteau tells Remy, “If you focus on what you left behind you will never see what lies ahead!” It’s a tricky balancing act to hold dear so many wonderful memories that are my comfort zone and security, but also remind myself that I am still here. I find myself confused. I drift between past and present and I don’t know where I fit. I embrace the present and weave in the past, while I tentatively try to shape, or look to, a future. When I think about my mom at age 59, I don’t know what to think about a future. I take more delight in life, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can be more festive again on Halloween but the pandemic has led to a quieter and less colorful holiday. I decorated the apartment with some of our things and some new things. I still can’t enjoy some of our decorations from Walt Disney World. It always surprises me that some things are a comfort while other things unnerve and sadden me. I don’t dwell on it or fight the emotions. My favorite tradition now is to change the number on the Mickey Mouse Halloween countdown figurine every day, smiling at the memory of how happy it made you and how you texted me at work to jokingly reprimand me if I had forgotten to change the number before I left home. This week, I entertained my students with your Haunted Mansion playlist and my many Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party t-shirts that we waited and waited for at the shops in the moments before the parade- what craziness ensued as the cast members revealed the shirts and we all grabbed at them! I love that many of the t-shirts are now a part of the t-shirt quilt that surrounds me with memories every night. I’ve looked at our pictures, vividly remembering the details. I keep the funny light up “engagement ring” that you gave me one Halloween at Walt Disney World next to my bed. It almost seems surreal now.
I’ve come to accept that Halloween is something that I now have to experience for myself, though I do feel like I experience it through your eyes and with you in every step I take, smiling as I think about how you would react to the decorations and costumes. I am so grateful that last year I got to see Walt Disney World in its Halloween splendor. It was something I was not sure I could or would ever do without you, and I was nervous about it, but it was a new and different experience because it was with Monica, Abby and Andi. I was relieved and grateful to discover that it was a way to look back but also be present. It even gave me a glimpse at how I looked towards and positioned myself in the future. That’s not always easy for me, but now I know that I can do it and that good things lie ahead.
Yesterday, for the first time since you left, I decided to walk on our favorite block. Because of the pandemic, there was no block party. Some of the buildings did a bit of decorating but there was a banner saying that they will be back next year. I hope so. In a way, I was grateful that it was very different. I didn’t have to feel the pain of missing you while seeing all of the adorable costumed kids and fabulous decorations. They weren’t there, just like you. Still, I ventured forth and despite the trepidation, I am learning that I can take those steps- literally.
In Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gargoyle, Laverne, told Quasimodo: “Life is not a spectator sport. If watching is all you’re gonna do, you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya’.” Until the pandemic and quarantines began, for the past couple of years I did take the leap from relying on memories and being a spectator of life to traveling, enjoying theater, exploring new parts of the city, making new friends, and even investigating online dating- you did always say you’d haunt me if I met someone new, so maybe you’re responsible for my lack of success in that venture! Still, the joy is sometimes undercut by sadness, guilt or even the dread of unexpected triggers of grief and tears. I saw friends yesterday and I do get together with people whenever social distancing protocols allow, so I’m trying my best to live my life with zest. However, I can’t deny that I ended up once again alone on my sofa reminded that Halloween will never really be the same. At least on Halloween, even though we are apart, I smile as I think of you as a grim grinning ghost and know that you are residing at the Haunted Mansion. And, in my effort to honor you and continue to find delight and whimsy, this year I made new grim grinning ghost cookies!
Maybe the truth is to be found in wisdom from Mary Poppins, who in Mary Poppins Returns said, “When you change the view from where you stood the things you view will change for good.” I have been able to look back on my memories, shifting from the challenging times of caregiving and the depths of grief to see that I learned so much and had a unique and treasured opportunity to give and receive love. I was not being naïve or denying the physical and emotional challenges and scars, but broadening my way of looking at them. I think about how Ellie left the final message for Carl that said, “Thanks for the adventure. Now go and have a new one.” I can’t flip a switch and change my frame of mind, I think that I can begin to shift my view. Instead of focusing on how events like Halloween will never be the same and that your absence is my strongest feeling, I want to work on shifting to the view that our life together and the beautiful – and even not so beautiful- times we shared have paved the way for me to know that life is filled with adventures and that I can seek and find a comfort zone with new people and experiences and maybe, if I’m really lucky again, romance and love. Thank YOU for the adventure. Please stay the grim grinning ghost who forever watches over me!
Happy, Not-So-Scary Halloween, my Ben! Boo To You!