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Happy Birthday?

Walt Disney World, Grief, ALS

At the Crystal Palace

Today, October 27, is my birthday. My third birthday without Ben. I guess I still measure time and mark events that way. I have dreaded my birthday, as I have since he’s been gone. It’s hard to deal with the conflicting feelings- that childish delight about a birthday mixed with the sadness of not having Ben or my mom, dad and grandma- the people I was closest to- with me, and guilt about continuing to navigate life when they aren’t here and conveying in any way that they are even a little bit forgotten. I’m lacking the happy in happy birthday. But, I will spend time with very wonderful people in my life, and that is special, indeed.

I think a lot about the wonderful birthdays I had with Ben. I preferred quiet birthdays at home, with a simple meal and some dancing. Of course, if we were in Walt Disney World, I dove into the fun. I was so fortunate to have spent several birthdays with Ben at Walt Disney World during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. I am so lucky to have had that kind of love and those delightfully whimsical and magical experiences.  As I’ve said before, Ben let his inner child shine and he completely indulged mine. Well, my inner child isn’t so inner- it’s front and center of who I am!

Mickey and Us

Here are just some of my favorite Walt Disney World birthday memories with Ben:

The time I asked Mickey how old I looked and he held his hand up and I asked if he thought I looked 5. He shook his head and held his hand up again and I asked if he meant 50. This went on for a while until he held up one finger at a time and I realized that he only had 4 fingers. He looked up at the ceiling and held his hand to his forehead and when I looked over at Ben, he and the PhotoPass photographer were laughing hysterically. Ben couldn’t believe that I didn’t know my Disney buddies had 4 fingers and he said the photographer was laughing so hard that she couldn’t take a picture. From that point on, Ben and I only “high four-ed” each other.

Mickey has Four Fingers!

Mickey has Four Fingers!

The birthday holiday we took there when Ben proposed to me. The actual proposal was on Halloween because he knew I would love that. I did.

Mickey congratulated us on our engagement!

Mickey congratulated us on our engagement!

Birthday hugs from Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet at the Crystal Palace, because I had to have birthday lunch with my friends from the 100 Acre Woods. I was as gleeful as a 5-year-old when the waiters sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Ben surprised me with a cake once and Pooh kissed my hand. I’ve kept all the confetti and the birthday cards.

Birthday cupcake Birthday Hugs from Tigger

The little girl at the Akershus Restaurant whom I noticed was intently watching Ben and me as we struggled a bit to get him into a chair and then as I cut his food and helped him to eat. When she saw the waiter bring me a little cake with a candle and sing happy birthday to me, she came over and wished me a happy birthday and gave me a hug. Kids have such intuition, and her mom and I both had tears in our eyes.

Cinderella at Akershus

Dancing with Stitch and Goofy at the Halloween party while Ben sat in his scooter, laughed at me (with love) and videotaped it. As if anyone who knows me would be shocked!!

Getting extra candy when we went trick-or-treating at Mickey’s Halloween Party because I announced that it was my birthday, probably more excitedly than most of the little kids. Between Ben in the electric wheelchair and my birthday, we did very well collecting candy!

Having so much fun tasting the foods at the various pavilions during the Food & Wine Festival. Even though he needed help with food, and he couldn’t eat everything he wanted, Ben loved to be at Epcot and he didn’t let himself lament what he couldn’t do or eat.  His attitude was incredible.

I am grateful to always have those very sweet memories, and so many more. I grieve for the birthdays I won’t have with Ben, and also for the birthdays he won’t have. But, I’ve felt his presence over the past year and I know that he is with me, as are my mom, dad and grandma. People say that Ben would want me to be happy and to celebrate. I’m sure that’s true, but it still doesn’t feel quite right.

The time that my birthday fell on parent teacher conference night. Ben and I had decided that we would celebrate over the weekend instead and it was no big deal. He picked me up at school, as he always did after evening events, and when we got to my apartment, I was delightfully surprised to see that he had decorated with balloons, flowers, a cake and some of my Disney toys all around the decorations. He had done all of this after work and before meeting me. That was Ben-always romantic.

Surprise Birthday

Despite all of the very difficult memories of Ben with ALS and in the hospital and hospice, I am glad to be able to recall with love and smiles, and yes, also tears, all of the wonderful times before our lives changed. Because those times tell the story of who we really were together.  Remembering that is indeed a most special birthday gift.

Another gift is having such incredible friends who shower me with birthday greetings and love. For that, I am so very grateful.

True Love

The Loving Sense of Scents in Memories

Film clip: The Parent Trap (1961)  Walt Disney Productions

I’ve written so often about memories. Memories give me so much comfort, even when accompanied by tears. They sustain me yet they do not hold me back because they let me know that I have the power to hold them dear while reaching for new memories. I love this clip from “The Parent Trap,” when Susan/Sharon meets her grandfather for the first time (unbeknownst to him). I’ve written about it before (click here for that post). I guess it especially tugs at my heartstrings because I was so close to my grandma and my great-aunts and great-uncles.

I had an experience over the weekend that made me think of this clip and the memories conjured by scents. I cooked dinner for a good friend who is recuperating from surgery. I have not really cooked since my dad died back in February of 2014. Shortly after that, Ben began to struggle with eating. Yes, I made dinners. I cooked chicken that I pureed with all sorts of sauces and mashed potatoes for Ben. We did have many laughs about my Vitamix concoctions. But, once Ben could no longer chew with ease, I stopped cooking the meals he loved but could no longer enjoy.

When my friend asked if I could help her by preparing some meals, I decided to cook one of the meals my dad and Ben loved- Greek shrimp with home-made tomato sauce and feta cheese (from Jane Brody’s seafood cookbook). As I walked to Fairway for ingredients, I felt overwhelmingly sad. As I’ve written before, firsts are always hard. It didn’t occur to me to think of cooking in this way, but it was a first.  I always miss Ben when I go grocery shopping. It’s those little things that are unexpectedly difficult and therefore, unpredictably emotional. They leave me feeling lonely and alone.  I tried to comfort myself with the memories of our adventures in cooking, when I would find a new recipe, or try one of my own, and it would be delicious. I would always cook enough for us, to bring to my dad, and with leftovers for all. I committed to making this meal and just had to get through this first time.

As I began to sauté the garlic and shallots, I remembered how much Ben loved that smell. He always laughed and said it made him hungry and I joked that I didn’t even have to add anything else. His presence at that moment was so strong. I could vividly picture him smiling. I missed him. It was not the same to cook without him, and it was not the same to cook that meal for anyone other than Ben and my dad. I don’t actually think I could have done this cooking soon after the loss of Ben. Now, after two years, I can broaden my perspective to feel sad yet also consoled by the memories that keep Ben and my dad (and mom and grandma) close to me.

I’m pleased that my friend was very happy with the meal. Ben and my dad would have been proud. I think that I will always think of them when I make that dish and other ones that we all loved. I will always picture Ben’s smile when I sauté garlic with other herbs and vegetables. In one way, it will probably always make me sad. But, I hope that I will also look up and smile, as I did last weekend, as I remember the good times and take pleasure in sharing those memories of Ben while creating new memories with other special people in my life.

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2011- This is one of my very favorite pictures of Ben because he was so full of happiness and laughter.

One Dance, Many Memories

The photo at the beginning of this video came up on my Facebook memories today. It is such a cherished memory because it was a happy time and the last time that Ben and I danced together. It reminded me of the following post, which I wrote quite a while ago about a special song and magical memories. I wanted to share it again to revisit the thoughts and share the beauty that music and lyrics offer as we sort through our feelings and experiences.

This beautiful song by Chris Martin, and performed by Jodi Benson, never made the final cut of “The Little Mermaid.” I discovered it on “The Essential Collection of Disney Love Songs” and it also appears on other Disney albums. Unlike many other Disney memories that I share on this blog, this song was not one that held a specific meaning for Ben and me, and it did not represent a special time in our lives or relationship. It was not even associated with our time spent at Walt Disney World. But, it is the song whose lyrics spoke to me at a critical time when Ben was in the hospital. Given Ben’s profound love of music, I believe that he would appreciate that it was the lyrics to a song that proved to be so powerful to me.

As the title of the song might imply, Ben and I loved to dance. Nothing fancy, but we would put on music in the apartment and just dance. And, when we worked together at The Little Orchestra Society, we always danced at the organization’s events. It was romantic, silly, fun- it was us.

Before he ever went to a doctor, much less was diagnosed with ALS, Ben started having trouble with his legs. It took him a long time to admit to me that he had fallen down the steps in the subway and on the street, though he had told me that he was perplexed that I could do my Zumba routines better than he could- coordination and grace are not my strongest suits!

The first and last pictures on this slide show were taken at the Bar Mitzvah of my good friends’ son. Ben’s legs were bothering him but he wanted to dance. We were having so much fun at this happy event. As it turned out, this was the last time we danced together. Who could have guessed? I am so grateful to have this photo!

As it became more difficult for Ben to stand on his own, music and dancing still played a part in our lives. While he could still walk several steps, sometimes I would just help him up and we would hug and sway to the music. It felt like dancing, and like old times, and that felt good.

I remember that during our first visit to Walt Disney World after his diagnosis, I was helping him to stand up from a rather low sofa in our hotel room. I counted to 3, but then, remembering the song “1,2,3” by Gloria Estefan, I added the song lyrics, “4, come on baby say you love me!” From that point on, we rarely just counted to 3 and he often laughed as I reached “3,” waiting for me to add the rest. As the ALS progressed, Ben was less and less mobile, but our counting and that song continued to make us laugh. Transferring a person is not easy, and it can be stressful because there is always a risk of falling, or dropping, so it was good to have these little moments of levity.

Our lives changed drastically, but because it happened over a period of almost six years, maybe some changes felt more subtle. ALS slowly took away Ben’s ability to use his legs, his arms, his hands, his voice. He couldn’t eat foods unless they were pureed. He had difficulty breathing. But, he was still Ben and he had determination (at times, stubbornness) and a good sense of humor. He was also clever and he loved gadgets and technology. For example, he used an app and an on-screen keyboard to use his computer and to send texts through his computer when he could no longer handle the phone. He figured out how to organize some of his things so he could make them accessible. These are just a few of the things that were part of living with ALS. We adapted as best we could.

Ben adjusted to the things he could and could not do as the ALS progressed and I adjusted to new tasks to help him. When I think of Ben’s very serious challenges, it may seem silly to lament an inability to dance. But, dancing was one of the things that was so special, so intimate, so us. In the chaos of the disease, I can’t say that I thought to analyze how much the changes in our lives were affecting us beyond our daily routines. I can’t say that either of us even had, or took, the time to dissect the dynamics. We just kept going. But, losing something like dancing made more painful the shift in our relationship from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. Impromptu moments like dancing to a favorite song were replaced with the more immediate tasks of caregiving. To mention missing things like dancing meant the possibility of upsetting Ben, and making myself sadder, because things were not going to get better and we could not change that fact. Sharing a memory was wonderful, but expressing sadness about our losses was not.

Eventually, yet in a pretty rapid and intense decline, Ben began to have more and more difficulty breathing and eating. His feet were also swelling very badly. He opted to get a feeding tube. However, just before the arrangements were made, Ben ended up in the Emergency Room and he got a feeding tube and a tracheostomy. It felt like it happened in a whirlwind and yet it felt like time stopped. So many decisions to make, and so many adjustments. Suddenly, we could not even communicate in the same way. It was frightening and devastating, but he was so incredibly brave and calm. It was clear that he was not going to be able to come home because he would need 24-hour nursing care, and, intellectually, I understood that. But, I believe that my mind was spinning too much to think about what it really meant. Ben was frustrated and upset about not coming home, and that broke my heart. I was worried about him not being home and my not being able to be with him constantly, but I was also dealing with logistics and his medical teams, and simply being present for him as we determined next steps.

I spent every day and several nights with him during the nearly two months that he spent in the hospital. I usually got home very late at night and sometimes relaxed with music, using Ben’s computer for his playlists, which I found comforting. One evening, I remember sitting at his desk when “One Dance” played. I thought about the fun times that Ben and I had dancing in the apartment and I realized just how much I missed those moments. I had done pretty well with recreating memories, especially when we returned to Walt Disney World for our last visit. But, in that instant of hearing the lyrics to the song, the realization came crashing down on me that we would never dance again, and he would never be home again, and he really was going to die. Maybe you’re thinking that he had ALS, so, of course, he was going to die. Yes, I did know that, but that does not mean I truly accepted it or the fact that the time was nearing. But somehow, hearing those lyrics was a jolt of reality that I had not yet faced.  On that quiet night, listening to this song, I finally accepted and reacted to what I had not until that moment let myself fully believe–that Ben would soon leave this earth and nothing would ever be the same.

There are stars that fill the night, can you see them? 
There are two, or three or gee, a million more 
And I see you in their light 
Oh, me? A dance? All right. 
Just to move and glide with you across the floor 

I would change who I am 
Leave the sea for the sand 
Just to stand with you 
I would leap at the chance 
For a glimpse of a glance 
Of one dance with you 

I still listen to the song even though it always makes me cry. In fact, sometimes I play it when I need a good cry, because, yes, there are those times. I have become unapologetic about embracing sadness, because, frankly, there will always be the tears over the loss of Ben, and how much he and we lost. At this point in time, however, I think it’s a matter of my finding the balance between grief and life. It’s not an easy balance to find, but I do feel a steady shift in my perspective that’s allowed me to bring more joy back into my life while I keep Ben in my heart.

It makes perfect sense that the clearer memories are the more recent ones, during Ben’s ALS, when the physical and emotional issues and tension were center stage. Those issues were not unique to us or even to ALS. They certainly are not the memories I want to define us. However, they are important in their own way, because they represent a strength of heart, love and compassion that saw us through such terrible experiences.

I also want to let myself get transported back to those dances and special times that made us who we were together. The memories I cherish, and that belong only to Ben and me, are simple joys like dancing and, of course, anything related to Disney! I will always miss those times, and I will always know that I am fortunate to have had them. I am pretty sure that I also always will believe in happy endings, pixie dust and Disney magic, too.

One dance, just you and me 
Beneath the moon, beside the sea 
One dance and it’s happily ever after 

Happy 35th Anniversary, Epcot!

ALS,Caregiving,Epcot,Walt Disney World

July 2014

Learning about this anniversary brought a big smile to my face, as I remembered how much Ben enjoyed Epcot, and how much fun we had there together. I consider it a gift that, in the face of difficult memories of ALS, our experiences at Epcot were so positive and full of joy.

After Ben’s diagnosis, we splurged and stayed at the Boardwalk Inn, because it was the hotel that always impressed us when we strolled the Boardwalk, and we never know which visit would be our last. As it turned out, the Boardwalk was a perfect location, because Ben could easily scoot to the back entrance of Epcot by the World Pavilions, which he absolutely loved. The World Pavilions have less attractions requiring transfers, so he had the freedom to ride around in his electric wheelchair. As I’ve written in my post about our visits to Walt Disney World, another highlight of Epcot was that during the Food and Wine Festival, we could try a variety of foods from the kiosks and then find a discreet place to sit where I could feed him and we could take as long as needed.

We met Mickey and many of his friends, laughed with Crush, and Ben played the air guitar along with the bands he loved to listen to.

I will always be grateful for the good memories of our time at Epcot, and for the kindness and graciousness with which the Disney cast members accommodated and welcomed Ben.

Thank you, Epcot, and may your anniversaries continue to infinity and beyond!

Here are some favorite memories from visits to Epcot. They range from our carefree, pre-ALS days to our last visit in 2014. You can see some of the physical effects of ALS on Ben, but his attitude was always great!

I took this in “Mexico” during our first visit together to Walt Disney World, in 2001, when there were no thoughts of ALS or physical limitations.

ALS,Caregiving,Epcot,Walt Disney World

Fun times pre-ALS, 2006

2006

2006

This was Ben’s first excursion in the scooter, May 2010

Epcot shopping in the rain in our matching Mickey and Minnie rain ponchos! May 2010

October 2011

Ben needed a cane but he walked to Mickey! 2012

July 2014. Things were harder to do, but Ben was still smiling! Below: air guitar at the England Pavilion. He always looked forward to hearing the live bands, and was especially thrilled when they played The Beatles!

 

A Spoonful of Sugar and More Supplies Every Caregiver Should Have On Hand

Mary Poppins is my favorite nanny, and extra special because Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. While her “spoonful of sugar” certainly held the pixie dust to make the medicine go down smoothly, here is a list of some other practical supplies that should be found every caregiver’s closet.

I originally prepared the following article for Parentgiving.com

How to Stock Your Caregiving Closet
By Abby Kass, Parentgiving contributor

Given the demands of caregiving and the possibility of urgent situations that make running errands impossible, family caregivers can benefit from keeping a cadre of supplies on hand for themselves and their carees. There are a lot of potential home care situations to be ready for, and you never want to be caught off guard. Having the right caregiving supplies will keep you prepared and can save a sudden panic if you don’t have an urgent item and can’t make it to the store right away.

To help others with what to store in their caregiving supply closet, I have created a list of items I used when I cared for my dad, who had cancer, and for my husband, who had ALS. I’ve also included item suggestions from family caregivers who cared for individuals with a wide variety of needs. Peruse this list and see what relates to your experience – and what may currently be missing from your shelves. Depending on the item and frequency of use, you may want to have at least one- or two-month supplies on hand.

Keep the following documents in a clearly marked envelope in your supply closet:

  • A written or typed list of meds, including dosages, times to administer and special instructions.
  • Important contact names and numbers (including physicians and the pharmacy) as well as important documents such as the health care proxy, living will or special directives.

This information is essential on multiple levels. If gives you something to look at if you ever have a memory lapse, and it will also be there if someone else suddenly has to step in and provide care.

General Supplies

  • Small dry erase boards for lists and notes to and from the family caregiver, the hired caregiver and other family members.
  • Post-it notes to indicate dosages, preferences and reminders. Also good for sweet nothings!
  • Paper towels
  • Tissues
  • First aid kit
  • Non-stick bandages to avoid a bandage sticking to aging skin, which becomes paper-thin and fragile.
  • Gauze in various sizes and shapes. You can wrap the gauze around non-stick bandage and add tape over the gauze to ensure the bandage covers the wound.
  • Paper tape, which is gentler on sensitive skin.
  • Surgical tape
  • Antibiotic ointment

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