The following piece first appeared on the ALS Worldwide web site. Please click here for more information about this wonderful organization. I believe that those of us who have experiences with ALS need to share our perspectives to broaden awareness and promote involvement in helping to cure and manage the disease.
Ben Carrasquillo was my husband, and since we shared a tremendous love of Disney, I think it’s fair to say that he was sometimes my prince charming and sometimes he was my monster. He will always beloved, as Buzz Lightyear says, “to infinity and beyond.” Ben died on August 26, 2015 after bravely fighting a six-year battle with ALS. Memories do give me great comfort, despite the tears they bring.
So many of my memories with Ben are from Walt Disney World (WDW). Our first visit there was Halloween 2001. It was our favorite holiday, celebrated the not-so-scary Mickey Mouse way, and we had so much fun, especially when trick-or-treating and trading candy like the little kids.
We went back many times and he even proposed to me on Halloween at WDW. Despite scooters, electric wheelchairs and assorted other challenges, Ben let his inner child shine and he indulged mine too. I loved that about him. The Disney magic gets you, and somehow we really did believe that Mickey could help. Maybe he did, because Ben did pretty well with the disease for more than four years. We were able to return four times after his diagnosis. Those visits really became about reliving and making memories that we could always hold in our hearts.
In July 2014, I took Ben to WDW for one last visit. I wanted to plan a trip that neither of us would ever forget. It had its challenges – we had to bring another caregiver with us – but Ben was determined to have an incredible time, and he did. We did some new things, like a nighttime cruise where we could watch fireworks and meet characters. I also worked with the fantastic WDW Floral and Gifts team to surprise him by having our hotel room decorated for Halloween. His face lit up when we arrived outside of our room and there was a big banner with a pumpkin and blinking lights. He was completely blown away when I opened the door – it was like entering the Haunted Mansion. We kept all of the toys and decorations, and I brought them to his room in the hospital to recall those good times.
Although I cannot deny that there are tears for the ALS struggles and for the times we won’t have anymore, I am so thankful to be able to remember him smiling and laughing. I love the simple memories: Ben playing air guitar while the band played in the England pavilion at EPCOT, his trying on character hats and choosing t-shirts in the souvenir shops, our holding hands as we watched the fireworks displays, and his enjoying the freedom of getting around with the electric wheelchair.
Though some people look at the pictures and see how he became very thin with very swollen feet, and that he was wheelchair-bound, I see and remember the joy on his face.
“Have courage and be kind” is one of those wonderfully memorable movie quotes to live by that is so simple yet so profound. In the 2015 action version of the Disney film, Cinderella receives this advice from her dying mother.
My husband, Ben, was truly courageous in how he handled his ALS throughout his six-year battle. He pushed himself to keep doing things like walking, using his computer and eating until he absolutely could not do them anymore. It helped him emotionally and, I believe, physically, too. I was his hands at times, and his mouth when his speech became impaired. He maintained a good sense of humor, especially when I got creative with the food processor to make meals for him when chewing and swallowing were difficult.
People also called me courageous and it never resonated with me. I didn’t have to deal with that disease and dying. But, I’m finally realizing that as caregivers, we are, indeed, courageous in dealing with the many changes in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, and in helping them deal with these changes. We compassionately provide care. We provide comfort and cheer when they seem out of reach and hard to feel. We have conversations that are so difficult about things we wished we would never have had to consider. In my case, I had to face a future that would not include Ben. But, so importantly, we need to be kind in the midst of these very stressful and emotional situations. It may seem obvious, but it isn’t always easy.
From our own perspectives, Ben and I were both overwhelmed by the amount of help he required, the way his world was shrinking and how our lives were changing forever. Our relationship was shifting from husband and wife to patient and caregiver, and that did not come easily. We didn’t always handle it graciously. Our feelings got hurt, our patience was tried, our moods sometimes were sad and depressed. There were times when I wondered what happened to my kind and loving Ben. To be fair, I’m sure he felt the same way about me. Sometimes we would try to talk it through, and sometimes it was just too difficult. Something would bring us to a loving center–and it was usually something simple, yet kind–a smile, a thank you, or when he couldn’t speak any longer, a long blink, which was our sign for a kiss.
I still have to remind myself that ALS affected Ben in so many ways and that underneath the difficult behavior was my real Ben and his real Abby. The rough times often made me question whether I was a good enough caregiver, and that has stayed with me. I got angry that he did not express appreciation for and was very critical of my caregiving at times, but then got angry at myself for thinking that my feelings were important relative to his needs. Then, I questioned if I deserved any appreciation because maybe I was not doing a great job. I have been reminded frequently to be kinder to myself. Maybe my courage is now found in facing the memories with love but also with honesty.
In addition to the dynamics of our relationship, there were the times we had to deal with various professionals regarding his care. These were not necessarily medical professionals. They were often administrators who advised on health insurance and financial paperwork, or a variety of social and other services. There were so many questions, such confusion, and overriding fear about his future. We both had to courageously persist to ensure good care and financially sound advice. Some people were kind and helpful, and others were not. My dad taught me long ago that you get more with honey than with vinegar, and kindness did come in handy, even in keeping me calmer, though it did not necessarily lead to better information. That was a constant struggle. But, when things are not going very well, and you are tired and scared, and you feel like you repeated yourself too many times and are not getting any useful help, being kind does take a lot of effort!
Maybe it seems odd to say that at times I had to remind myself to be kind. After all, I like to think of myself, as I think many people do, as a kind woman. But, when you’re not at your best, physically and/or emotionally, kindness is not always the first quality that comes to the surface. I do know that with Ben and me, when we stopped to remember the love, especially when we were frustrated to tears, the kindness did invariably come through in the caring. And, it made things better.
Cinderella’s mom gave her very good advice! I call that kind of inspiration pixie dust for caregivers (and for everyone else, too). Ben and I loved all things Disney, and as a caregiver and in grief, I found much comfort in quotes like this one. And, by the way, I thought this was a beautiful remake of the animated version.
On this day, November 4, in 2005, Walt Disney Pictures released “Chicken Little.” I think it’s a cute movie that also has good messages about acceptance, believing in yourself and never giving up in fighting for what you believe in.
This quote felt like a caregiver’s cheer. As a caregiver, there were so many times that I felt that the sky was falling around me. There was, of course, Ben’s actual physical deterioration as his ALS progressed. My increasing caregiving responsibilities were stressful, as was watching Ben struggle, knowing that it wasn’t going to get better but trying to deny it. The emotional toll that took on him was devastating to witness. My giving up was not an option, because Ben needed my help! And, if he wasn’t giving up, even as ALS took away his ability to walk, use his hands, swallow and ultimately, talk, then neither was I!
To be honest, the idea that “every day is a new day” could often be scary. Every day posed the possibility of a new problem. At the same time, every day did present an opportunity for things to be okay, or stable. We hoped for that and there were many good days. Good days could be times when we had a lot of laughs, or Ben was comfortable, or I was able to transfer him easily and without pain (to either of us), or I made a tasty pureed meal in the food processor. Good days were days without frustration, resentment and sadness. Good days were days that we both felt that I was in control of all that needed to be done.
What did I do when I felt like the sky was falling? Sometimes I gave in to the emotions and cried and that did somehow leave me feeling better and calmer. At other times, I needed to take little “mind breaks.” Computer games and surfing the web often proved to be a good distraction. Watching movies, especially Disney ones, also allowed me to escape while still being present. Writing, whether in my journal, or in my book of Disney inspirations, also helped me to focus and sometimes to work out my feelings. I do find that a nice cup of tea also helps me to slow down and regroup.Emails and texts to my friends helped ease loneliness and reassured me that I had a network of support. I couldn’t go out very often, so keeping up with friends in this way allowed me to feel connected to the world. Sometimes I just sat on the sofa with Disney, my cat, while Ben watched TV in the other room. I needed space and there isn’t much in our tiny NYC apartment. And, if Ben was comfortably settled, a bubble bath was a really great retreat.
In grief, I find that this quote also resonates. The pain and loneliness can be awful and the idea of shaping a new life can seem impossible, but I never give up and indeed, after a little more than a year, I feel like I’ve cautiously stepped back into life. I certainly have my setbacks, but I know that every day is a new day, and some are better than others. I try to acknowledge every baby step I take as I heal. Indeed, it was a leap forward to go to London and celebrate my birthday last month. It has been a hugely comforting realization that Ben and all of my memories- the carefree, loving ones as well as the ALS and caregiving ones- will always be a part of me. The future is still daunting, and the present is still lonely and sad, but I have more pleasant days and feel more optimistic now.
I suggest to other caregivers that it’s very important to identify things that make you feel better when it seems that the sky is falling. A network of support is also crucial. Make a list now, before an emotional crisis, of people and places that you can turn to. Maybe some of my ideas will help you. I wish I knew about the Twitter chat support groups while Ben was still here. I find them useful now, too. If there are things that help you, please share them in the comments. For now, listen to the little chicken’s message!
Meeting Monsters Inc Sully and Mike. Ben LOVED Sully!
Halloween was the most fun holiday for Ben and me, especially when we were at Walt Disney World for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Halloween is extra special for me because Ben proposed to me at Walt Disney World on Halloween. It was very exciting and, of course, I told all of my Disney buddies! Ben never tired of teasing me about my ability to talk to all of my friends. Why wouldn’t I?!
There are so many videos and photos of our amazing times, but, of all of the fun Disney times we had, I think that a most poignant memory was the Halloween celebration we had back in July 2014. That’s right, July. This was a very special trip, because I think that Ben and I both knew that it would likely be our last visit to Walt Disney World, as Ben’s ALS was progressing more rapidly. I wanted it to be a most incredible trip with lots of surprises.
Traveling to Walt Disney World was stressful but Ben really did have an amazing attitude. I will write some of the details to give an idea of considerations that have to be made when dealing with ALS and other disabilities. I think it was a combination of realism, naivete, determination and pixie dust that enabled me to make these plans! First, we needed to bring another caregiver. I was advised by Ben’s doctors and the ALS team that I should not do this alone. Ben wasn’t happy about it, since another person did change the dynamic, but he had to relent and I had to be strong, since I was nervous about how much assistance he required. Getting to the airport was a bit complicated, since Ben was pretty much homebound at this point. I had to hire an ambulette service to get him down the stairs and safely to the airport. I contacted JetBlue, which was great each time we flew, before and after Ben’s diagnosis. They helped me to choose seats and let me know exactly what to do when we arrived at the airport. We were taken through security with relative ease and he was literally lifted and placed into his seat by a very kind and accommodating crew, one of whom revealed to me through tears that his brother had ALS. Ben was calm and in good spirits, while I was a smiling nervous wreck!
Disney’s Guest Services Department was very helpful and supportive when choosing a room, coordinating transportation to the hotel with a bus that had a wheelchair lift, and arranging for the electric wheelchair to meet us at the hotel. They even put me in touch with a local pharmacy that delivered Ben’s nutrition supplement to the hotel. It was waiting for us when we arrived! We had a room with a roll-in shower, which was such a treat for Ben. We take a lot for granted in life, don’t we?
Ben even had fun on the Magic Express wheelchair lift!
This was going to be a very different trip because so much about Ben’s physical abilities had changed. Ben wouldn’t be able to go on his favorite rides, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Eating was also a big challenge. Because of these obstacles, I wanted to arrange surprises for Ben that would be fun and unusual. Ben knew I had surprises in store, but he didn’t know what I had planned.
Disney has a wonderful Floral and Gift Department (click here to visit the site) that offers a variety of gift packages that can be delivered to your hotel room. They had a Halloween package but it was available during the Halloween season. I called and explained our situation, making a special request for a Halloween hotel room even though it was July. Disney is about magic and dreams come true, and they did not disappoint! When we arrived at our room, outside was a banner that said “Spooktacular Halloween July 2014!” It had a pumpkin with blinking lights. Ben thought it was a promotion for Mickey’s Halloween Party, but he still got excited. When we opened the door, the room was like a little Haunted Mansion and Ben was completely shocked, thrilled and emotional. I thought that if a full day at the parks was difficult, the room would also look very cool, and indeed, it did, but Ben did great at the parks! I was the one having a hard time keeping up with his zipping around in the electric wheelchair!
Since we were bringing Ensure to the parks in case eating was a problem, I had also ordered from the Gift and Floral Department an insulated backpack with some goodies. Also, we were joined by a giant walking Buzz Lightyear balloon. Here are pictures of some of the magic.
Ben was excited just to see the banner! He had no idea what awaited him inside!
Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse all dressed up for Halloween in July!
Treat baskets in our room, and a projectable haunted house that shone a haunted house on our ceiling!
The candelabra in our haunted hotel room!
Our hotel room was very fun!
I learned that there was a Pirates and Pals Fireworks Cruise with a party where you could meet Captain Hook and Mr. Smee. When I found out that the boat was accessible, I had my next surprise for Ben! The day of the cruise, I gave him as a hint a little pirate coin I’d found at one of the gift shops. His first guess was that I’d arranged for him to go on Pirates of the Caribbean, which, sadly, I couldn’t do. We took the monorail (also accessible) to the Contemporary Hotel, where the party began. Ben laughed when he saw the really great pirate-themed decorations. We were given bandanas, too. One of the truly brilliant aspects of the Disney team is that they never make someone with disabilities feel uncomfortable. A cast member came and escorted us with no fuss on an accessible path to our boat. The cruise was so much fun, the fireworks looked magnificent from the water, and, as a surprise, Peter Pan was on the dock to greet us when we returned! OK, so I was more excited than some of the children! There were tears and there was joy as we listened to the “Wishes” fireworks lyrics, but watching the delight on Ben’s face is something I will never forget.
At the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Cruise Party with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee.
Ben loving the Pirates & Pals Fireworks Cruise.
Ben had not had a proper haircut in a few months, so I arranged for him to have a haircut and shave at the Main Street Barbershop. He was a little bit apprehensive, but, as I’ve said, he had such a great attitude, and he ended up having a great time. The staff accommodated his electric wheelchair and made him completely comfortable. Outside of the barbershop he met up with the Dapper Dans, the singing quartet he loved.
Ben got a kick out of getting his hair cut on Main Street, especially because it was decorated like an old fashioned barber shop.
The Dapper Dans were very cool! Ben always loved them.
We loved our usual attractions, and Ben loved the new Little Mermaid attraction, where his wheelchair could go right into the clamshell. Of course, we were happy to see our friends.
Buzz was one of Ben’s heroes, but he loved Woody and friends, too!
We visited the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle, which was emotional. We also became overwhelmed when we met Mickey and Minnie at Epcot. Maybe it’s silly, but when dealing with something like ALS, you just want to believe in magic, or something, that will make things better. People sometimes ask me how I can believe in Disney magic, or that dreams come true. I just do, even when it’s difficult. After all, Ben did okay with ALS for about 4 years, and we were fortunate to be able to travel to Walt Disney World many times, even after his diagnosis. We shared a lot of love and wonderful memories that he relived daily as he looked at our many photos and videos. We even had Halloween in July! And, he left this world surrounded by music, love and even Disney. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, but I feel the pixie dust.
At the Walt Disney World Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle
Firsts are always hard. The one year anniversary of Ben’s passing away. His first birthday that he wasn’t here to celebrate. My first birthday without him. Every “first” milestone has been a hurdle to overcome. The same can be said about my first solo travel jaunt to London earlier this month to celebrate my birthday. I was a very independent traveler before I met Ben, and London has always been a favorite place to go, especially because I have wonderful friends there. Since I never went there with Ben, I felt like I would not have constant distressing reminders of things we used to do together.
I had such conflicting emotions as I made my plans- I was excited yet I did feel the alone-ness. Every reservation was daunting and decision-making was so difficult. Having been someone who enjoyed traveling by myself, it bothered me to feel that way. I do, however, have amazing friends here and in England, who supported and cheered me on in my planning.
I became apprehensive about the whole trip when I felt terribly lonely on the way to the airport. The apprehension led to near regret at the first sight of someone in a wheelchair, which had me in tears because it brought back so many memories of getting Ben to and around the airport and security and then, onto the plane. I tried to stay focused on how terrific it would be to see my friends and do things I love- see theater and ballet, shop and walk around the city I love. I told myself to be proud for making the journey and acknowledging it as a milestone in dealing with my grief. I repeated my usual mantra, as Christopher Robin told Pooh, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
Landing in London and seeing the signature taxis was indeed exciting. Upon arrival at the hotel, the staff was very friendly and I said I was happy to be back. When they asked why I had not returned in a long time, I choked up as I said that my dad and my husband both had been ill. You just never know when the triggers of sadness will hit. I went to my room wondering if I’d made a mistake and was not ready for this trip, but was greeted by a gorgeous flower arrangement sent by my friends. It brought a huge smile to my face and reassured me that I was not alone and I am fortunate in so many ways. The staff was also very kind and kept tabs on me throughout my stay, even when they saw me in the neighborhood after their shifts. There really are great people everywhere.
I visited with my friends Penny and Jeremy the day after I arrived. It was wonderful to see them and it felt good to talk to them about Ben, and the good and bad times. It helped me see that I will always carry Ben with me as I continue to move through life. I do sometimes wonder if I dwell on the past to the point that I am not fully engaging in the present. But, I took a big leap by going away, and surely, that is a good sign that I’m doing better.
Penny and I at Whiteleaf Cross.
Jeremy and I at Whiteleaf Cross.
How fortunate I am to have friends that are like family living around London! I’ve known Penny and Jeremy’s daughters, Eleanor and Florence, since they were babies and they will always be little girls to me, but it touched my heart to see what lovely women they have become. I was able to visit Eleanor where she teaches, in a most amazing school, Christ’s Hospital. Click here if you’d like information about his historic and fascinating school. I met Florence in the heart of London, where she is living my dream of living and working in London!
Walking through London and visiting my favorite places, I found that I was looking at them through Ben’s eyes. I made mental notes of what Ben would like, and what he would say and do. I took pictures that I knew he would have taken. I have always loved the British use of language, and I know he would have chuckled as I took such delight in hearing the very well-worded explanations, directions and commentary. It was so nice not to hear constant cursing that I feel surrounds me in NYC, and I had to laugh that when I did occasionally hear it, the words were often coming from my own mouth!
Ben would have photographed every phone box, mail box and double decker box in London! So, when I saw these together, I quickly snagged the shot!
When I began planning my itinerary, I knew that at the top of my list would be a visit to the crossing at Abbey Road, made famous by The Beatles album cover. I had never done that before, but I know Ben would have loved it and I wanted to go in his honor. As I approached the crossing, a purple double decker bus also approached. Purple was our favorite color, and I had never seen a purple double decker bus before in England (and I only saw one other one on my last day in London), so I truly believe that it was a sign that Ben was with me. I understand that not everyone agrees with that thinking, but it makes sense and is comforting to me.
The purple bus that approached the crossing at Abbey Road as I arrived. I believe it was a sign!
On the rare occasion like this, when I did want a picture of myself in the crossing, it is especially lousy, and almost embarrassing, to be alone, but I was grateful that some nice students were willing to snap my picture.
The famous crossing! It really was a fun thing to do and extra fun because Ben would have loved it.
I found the Abbey Road Café (which is not on Abbey Road- go figure), where I saw that they had a Halloween display. Ben would have loved the combination of Beatles and Halloween things and would have taken photos, so I did, too.
While sad not to have him there to enjoy it, I did feel that I was honoring him with every step I took. I needed to do that. Knowing how much fun it would have been for Ben, and that I’d gone there just for him, felt good and right.
Of course, I had to visit the Disney Stores in London. I’d done my research, and I knew there were 3 in central London. I visited the first one in Covent Garden on my first day of wandering around. The emotions are always conflicting: excitement about being there knowing that Ben would also be so excited, yet overwhelming sadness and loneliness because, in fact, he was not there. At Harrod’s, I was so happy to find an exclusive Mickey Mouse toy. I walked proudly around the store hugging it and one of the sweet saleswomen chatted with me about this Disney Store within the landmark Harrod’s. I guess my enthusiasm was apparent, because before I left with my new Mickey and an Eeyore who just had to come home with me, she handed me a little card that said, “Have a Magical Day” and “My First Visit to Harrod’s Disney Store.” I could vividly picture Ben laughing about it the way he did when I waited on line for stickers with all the little kids at Walt Disney World. I often felt on the brink of tears, sometimes giving in to them and at other times finding a way to smile at the thought of how he would react. As I write this, I wonder if including thoughts of him in everything I did was a way of allowing myself to be happy on this journey.
Exclusive Oxford Street Disney Store Mickey and Minnie. Quite regal, don’t you think?
Exclusive Harrod’s Mickey Mouse! So adorable! I love Eeyore, and this little guy asked to come home with me. Eeyore is holding the card I was given marking my first visit to that Disney Store!
I went to the theater and to the ballet almost every night, which is one of my favorite things about London. These are things that Ben enjoyed but that are my passion. I was even able to get a ticket to both parts of the very popular and sold out “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which I consider an intervention by my dad and Ben! And yes, also my friend Ed, who kept telling me to stop by the box office. The show was absolutely incredible.
Ben loved history and I know that he would have enjoyed tremendously the sights and sounds of this London. It makes me sad that we never got to visit this enchanting city together. I missed Ben’s company strolling the streets and neighborhoods of London even though I did feel like he was with me. I missed sharing favorite places with him. I wish he could have spent time with and gotten to know the friends he knew were so important to me.
When I felt lonely, I did text and email my friends, who were totally amazing and supportive, as they have been throughout my entire experience with Ben and ALS and now, with grief. I have not completely given into happiness but I am now finally coming out the other side of the caregiving and loss. I have come to dislike the expression “moving on” because I feel like it implies leaving something behind. I’m not leaving Ben behind. I do “keep going” because I’m still here and that does come with some guilt. But, I hold in my heart who he was, and who we were together. Those memories and feelings came with me to London. They allowed me to gain a new perspective on the London that I love and to have a great time despite the emotional roller coaster. They will help to shape this new phase of my life. That thought actually gives me some peace and comfort and lets me look toward the future with growing confidence and optimism.
The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Palace Gardens always brings a feeling of whimsy and magic. This time, it also brought a sense of hope.