Carl’s First Date- Adventures in Life Amidst Grief

This ornament has such meaning for me. It holds all the dreams we had for the future, that I now encapsulate in my heart

Fall was our favorite season. Not only did Ben and I love the colorful foliage, but we loved to go to Walt Disney World for Halloween, which was also around my birthday. This season remains my favorite- sweater weather, pumpkins, and beautiful colors- yet it is also bittersweet, and sometimes even melancholy. Eight years after losing Ben, I acknowledge the darkness, but I firmly put one foot in front of the other to live in the present, while carrying in my heart the love and memories of the past and envisioning and shaping my future.

It stands to reason that I was very moved by the recent Pixar episode of Dug’s Days, called Carl’s Date. Dug’s Days is a series (on Disney+) that follows the lovable dog from UP and his human, Carl, the widower who grieves his wife, Ellie. In this episode, a woman calls Carl and asks him out on a date. Carl accepts the invitation, but after he hangs up the phone, he is hit with the revelation that this is going to be a date. His reaction is, “This is very, very bad.”  He goes to Ellie’s photo and apologizes. I totally get that. I freely admit that I talk to Ben all the time. His photo is my laptop wallpaper, and I often speak to him there, and say goodnight each night.

Two years after Ben passed away, I tried my hand at online dating and had that same feeling that this was very bad. The first date I went on felt completely wrong. Truth be told, I never enjoyed or was  especially good at dating. Ben often teased me that I did not know how to flirt and did not seem to recognize when someone was flirting with me. I left online dating and have not pursued meeting anyone, despite saying that I would like to. So, here I am.

I am pleased with the interesting, loving, and exciting things I have done as I have reshaped my life. I have created many new memories. I have found a stronger voice, for myself and as an advocate for caregivers, even on behalf of my students. Lately, I am also giving a lot of thought about how and where to spend my life in retirement. I have been actively writing and studying writing, with manuscripts of a caregiving memoir and picture books that I plan to have published. I also like to envision my future being spent with someone special. However, I am reluctant to delve into that territory. I completely relate to Carl’s lack of comfort and feeling like I would have to apologize to, or reason it through, with Ben.

As Carl says, “I don’t know how to date. What do I do?” Dug, in his adorable and compassionate way, suggests things like, “Bring her a toy.” I had to laugh, because for me, this is perfect advice! To survey my home is to see a record of Ben’s and my relationship, which was punctuated with oh so many plush and other Disney toys. Bringing me a toy went very far for Ben in our courtship, as our first dates always included a visit to a Disney Store.

Along those lines, Carl tries to look younger, even dying his hair, and Dug does not recognize him. Dug asks, “Why are you not you?” It is daunting to put myself out there again, and to be judged for my age, my looks, my experiences. I suppose I must keep reminding myself that everyone has their assets, liabilities, and baggage.

When I think about bringing new romantic love into my life, I sometimes get caught up in the grief, remembering how Ben would often point out elderly couples holding hands and say that it would be us one day. We were cheated of that. Does it betray Ben to think that indeed, it would be lovely to age while holding hands with a new and lasting love? Most people would say it does not. Intellect tells me they are correct. Alas, the heart does not always agree with the mind.

Before Carl finally departs for his first date, he talks again to Ellie and says, “I guess this is a new kind of adventure for both of us. Just know you’ll always be my girl.” I think that I am ready to have that conversation with Ben. I am still unclear about how to propel that adventure. I loved that Dug joined Carl on his date. I imagine that Ben will be with me, too. He used to joke that he would haunt me if I ever met someone. In truth, I am hoping he’ll come along as a grim, grinning ghost.

We loved to stand here, on Main Street, and look at all the Halloween decorations.

Ten Things I Learned About Caregiving From Mary Poppins

Since today, October 1, marks the birthday of Julie Andrews, I will devote this post to Mary Poppins, the consummate nanny who taught me many things about caregiving. “Mary Poppins” was the first movie I saw in a theater and it remains a favorite, as does Julie Andrews.

A kind yet stern and always magical nanny, Mary Poppins added whimsy to life while addressing all of its practicalities and mishaps. She got Jane and Michael Banks to use their imaginations and see beyond the confines of their nursery.  They were safe in her care, learned the importance of rules but also how to challenge them, and, because she knew just how to step in, they built and strengthened relationship with their father. She knew how to meet the needs of the Banks family better than they did. Now that’s what I call a great caregiver!

Here are ten lessons about caregiving that I learned from Mary Poppins:

  1. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.”
Mary Poppins 3

There were days where there was nothing fun in the actual tasks required in Ben’s care due to ALS. But, those silly moments that made us laugh amidst the sadness are the ones that still stand out.

  1. “Worrying won’t help anyone.”
Mary Poppins 4

Even as a worrier, I know it’s true. It doesn’t help. But, if it helps you to picture worse case scenarios and create plans if necessary, go for it. Just don’t dwell! Trust Mary Poppins. It doesn’t help.

  1. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way!” 

Lyrics to live by! I was there for a reason, and that reason was love and compassion. There’s the sugar. It made the awful, embarrassing tasks “swallowable.”

Click to play:

  1. “Never judge things by their appearance…even carpetbags. I’m sure I never do.”
Mary Poppins 7

Because a person needs a caregiver does not mean they become irrelevant. When people would come to see Ben and talk to me as if he wasn’t there, I would redirect them to include him in the conversation, even if I had to explain what he was saying as his speech became more impaired. His brain was still very active. He mattered. I did not let anyone make assumptions about his capabilities or ideas. Always let the person know they matter. Because they do.

The same goes for people who judged our relationship. Whatever people thought of me, or of Ben, and our caregiving situation, we were the only two who were actually in our relationship for sixteen years. In any caregiving situation, particularly within a family, there are dynamics that only those involved can really understand. You can have opinions, but tread gingerly when it comes to offering advice, even if it is requested.

  1. Sometimes a little thing can be quite important.
Mary Poppins 1

A smile, a thank you, a kiss, remembering something special. I’ve written about how Ben and my relationship felt like it shifted from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. It was in little things like holding hands, sharing memories, or “inside jokes” that we were brought back to who we really were as a couple before ALS.

  1. Best foot forward. Spit spot.
Mary Poppins 6

It’s all you can do. And, when you’re dealing with a lot of crises, you can’t take a lot of time to ponder. As I’ve said in prior posts, I often had to “just keep swimming,” even though I belly-flopped, but I always put my best foot (or fin?) forward!

  1. Let’s go fly a kite

All at once you’re lighter than air
You can dance on the breeze
Over houses and trees
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite

Mary Poppins 5

OK, we couldn’t really do that. But, we had to maintain a sense of fantasy and whimsy that could take us outside of our reality, at least for a few moments. The trips we took to Walt Disney World were always magical, and they took on a special meaning after his diagnosis. Those trips were the kite that took us briefly away from reality. Now, I can look back on those memories with gratitude and a bittersweet delight.

  1. It’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary

Oh, it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary
Mary makes your ‘eart so light!
When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!
Mary Poppins 2

Ben teased me that I loved to use the word “whimsical.” But, I enjoyed bringing whimsy into his homebound life. I often arrived home with shopping bags of “treats”- new tshirts for his collection, a gadget that I thought might help him, a new ingredient for our culinary adventures into pureed concoctions. It always made him smile and laugh. That made the “sun shine bright” for both of us!

  1. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius

It’s a great word. Covers a lot of territory. It especially made me chuckle to myself when a bevy of not such nice words were going through my head!  Try it.

Click to play:

  1. “Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.”
Mary Poppins 8

I tried, and often beat myself up too much for feeling that I was not a good enough caregiver. It’s a great goal, and always important to remember that we all define “perfect” differently, and that the definition may vary by circumstance. I hope that, at least at times, I was Ben’s Mary Poppins.

Happy Birthday, Julie Andrews! Thank you for all of the joy you’re brought!

All photos: Mary Poppins (1964), Walt Disney Production

#Caregivers #Caregiving #ALS #MaryPoppins #Disney