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Lady And The Tramp and The Hunchback of Notre Dame- Lessons on Cherishing Memories and Living Life

Toay is the 64rd anniversary of the release of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. It was always a favorite of Ben’s and mine. We actually loved to sing the “Siamese Cat Song”; in fact, I used to sing it to my first cat, Tiffany (but she preferred “Born Free,” to which she actually meowed along!)

A poignant quote came from Tramp to Lady, when he told her, “Aw, come on, kid. Start building some memories.” I am always drawn to quotes about memories because memories played such an important part of our lives when Ben was fighting his battle against ALS. Memories became increasingly significant to Ben, particularly as he became more homebound. He loved to look at our photos and videos from Walt Disney World and to listen to the theme park music soundtracks. We could do that for hours. It was my motivation for designing the photo calendars, throw, shower curtain and towel (click here to read more about them)– Ben was surrounded by our photos everywhere in our home. It’s nearly three years since he’s left and I remain surrounded by those things. They are a comfort for the memories the photos hold and for my memory of the happiness that I gave to Ben with those gifts.

Dessert at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant- The Lady and the Tramp-themed restaurant at Walt Disney World. The Lady and the Tramp drawings were done with caramel- pretty fabulous!

We were so fortunate to be able to visit Walt Disney World four times after Ben’s ALS diagnosis. Each time, we tried to recreate our favorite memories, attending our favorite shows and visiting our favorite attractions. We did, at times, lament the attractions that Ben could no longer ride. But, we laughed that we could take the “It’s a Small World” boat repeatedly because there was never a long line and we got a boat to ourselves. Ben’s attitude was amazing. He focused on what he COULD do and, thanks to the amazing Disney cast members, we could do almost everything.

Recreating memories was, however, a tricky endeavor. Given Ben’s physical changes, it had the potential to be incredibly fun or incredibly sad. However, we were so grateful to be able to return to a place that was so important and filled with joyful memories. At Walt Disney World, we were distracted by the excitement and caught up in the fantasy. Ben loved and frequently commented about that. Once home, when Ben looked at photos, he scrutinized how he looked and how his abilities had diminished from visit to visit. For me, looking at photos is sometimes filled with splitting my world into pre-ALS and post-ALS distinctions and observations. Still, more than the physical changes, I see the joy on his face.

Our final visit to Walt Disney World in 2014 was uniquely memorable, not only because we were not sure that we would ever get there again, but also because it was filled with the creation of new memories. Frankly, I was worried that Ben would be disheartened at not being able to do a lot of the things that we used to do. Also, he could not eat many foods, so going to the restaurants that we always loved might have been an upsetting experience. So, I organized several surprises- new and different  events that gave us the opportunity to create new memories. My plan was a resounding success, which makes me so proud and grateful. I wrote about our visit in a prior post, which you can see by clicking here.

Walt Disney World 2002, the pre-ALS days. We didn’t kiss over spaghetti, but we did kiss Eeyore!

Ben and I had 16 years and a dozen visits to Walt Disney World, all filled with wonderful memories. When I was the caregiver of my dad and Ben, those memories sustained me and took me from one Walt Disney World visit to the hope of another, and I lived vicariously through my friends, reading about their adventures on Facebook and occasionally, and proudly, posting photos of Ben and me at Walt Disney World or out in our neighborhood when he was still able to ride his scooter. Our friends did like to see him out in the world. I immersed myself in those memories for some time after Ben died. I know that some people think that this blog is a way to stay hidden in those memories and in the past, but the perspective I gain and thoughts shared with other caregivers in this writing process lead me forward.

Coincidentally, as I reflect on the importance of my memories, I realize that today is also the 23rd anniversary of the release of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think about what 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’.” This quote holds an important message for me. I think that one of the most difficult things for me was when people told me it was time for me or time to take care of myself.  I don’t really like to put the spotlight on myself. It was particularly difficult to go out and be distracted and even somewhat happy, just to return to an empty apartment and reminded of the loss and alone-ness, as well as guilt for even trying to enjoy myself.I preferred to put my energy into helping Ben relive and create new memories and, after he left this world, I took pride and comfort in thinking about those memories. The truth is that I will always love to visit with my memories of Ben, the good and bad times. But, my memories don’t have to end there. I can delve into new adventures that will become a part of my treasure trove of beautiful memories. I do not have to live vicariously through other people.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1996 Walt Disney Pictures

A sadness looms over my summers because they represent the most difficult times in Ben’s battle, and ultimately when he succumbed to ALS. However, I proactively made plans to do things I love: travel to see my friends, take part in some animal adventures, do some volunteer work, and continue to work on my blog while formulating new ways to reach out to caregivers.

Although sometimes I do prefer to be a spectator in life and to get caught in fantasies of what I think I would like my life to look like, I don’t want my life to go by without me. It helps me to  find peace in the knowledge that Ben’s spirit will always accompany me as I follow my life’s paths, make some dreams come true and make new memories.

My photo collage calendar filled with wonderful memories and new events that will bring new memories. where Ben will be present in my heart

Happy Anniversary, Lilo and Stitch!

ALS, Walt Disney World, Lilo and Stitch

The very first time we met Stitch, October 2006!

Today is a very exciting day for Toy Story fans, with the release of Toy Story 4. I already have my tickets to see it tomorrow morning, and I have my tissues ready, but today is already an important day in Disney history. On this date in 2002, Lilo and Stich (Walt Disney Pictures) was released. I have loved Stitch since I saw that film. When Ben and I went to Walt Disney World and I had read that Stitch could be found at the Magic Kingdom, I was on a mission to find him. Ben was very patient!  In honor of the film and my buddy Stitch, here are some photos from our visits to Walt Disney World over the years. Ben liked taking pictures of me with Stitch because he was my good buddy and Ben got a kick out of that. I look at those photos and even though Ben was the photographer, in my mind and in my memories, he is so present in those moments and I can vividly see him laughing. I am so grateful for these memories.

Halloween with my buddy in 2010. Ben could still take photos at this point, which makes this picture especially sentimental.

I think the funniest memory I have is from our 2012 trip. Walt Disney World has many and great accessible restrooms, which made life much easier for Ben. I would get Ben situated and wait outside because he couldn’t walk to lock the door. Also, I could hear him if he needed assistance. One day, while I was waiting for Ben, Stitch walked by and I yelled hello to him. OK, yelled a lot, with much waving. Moments later, Ben called to me. As I helped him into his scooter, he couldn’t stop laughing, imitating my calling Stitch and saying that he started wondering how he was going to get himself out of the bathroom because he knew Stitch was one of my favorite friends and he thought I might abandon him! I did not! And, I’m not telling if I thought about it!

I love this little guy!

I hunted him down at the Animal Kingdom in 2007!

On our last visit in July 2014, Ben knew that one of the things I had always wanted to do was have breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel with Lilo and Stitch. I had not mentioned it because it was a long commute from our own hotel and I didn’t want to tire Ben. But, he wanted us to have that experience. I think Ben wanted to laugh at me gushing at Stitch, which, of course, I did! Stitch was his adorable self, as was Lilo. They were very attentive and considerate of Ben and his inability to get out of his seat. It was an incredible time that I will never forget, particularly wonderful because it was a brand new memory, as opposed to memories we were trying to recreate to almost try to turn back time to the days before ALS. I will never forget the magical connection that Ben and I felt when we were at Walt Disney World.

July 2014, Breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel.

Stitch gave Ben some extra love!

Happy Anniversary, Lilo and Stitch!

Mulan’s Anniversary: Reflections of Caregiving, Grief And Who I Am Inside

Reflection
Music by Matthew Wilder
Lyrics by David Zippel
Performed by Lea Salonga

Mulan (1998)  Walt Disney Feature Animation

Today is the anniversary of the release of Mulan. It was actually the first Disney film Ben and I saw together when we began dating. It is hard to believe it was 21 years ago. At that time, Ben was not quite the Disney fanatic that I was, but he wanted to impress me so we made frequent visits to the Disney Store and he took me to see this film on opening day in what became our tradition of opening day viewings of Disney and Pixar films. As it turned out, Ben loved this film and he was very happy to find Mulan ornaments for our Christmas tree. He particularly loved the song in this clip, Reflection. I can relate to it, although Mulan was struggling with her identity within her family and I am struggling more within myself.

Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am, though I’ve tried.
When will my reflection show who I am, inside?

grief,ALS,Disney,Christmas

Ben loved Mulan and Buzz Lightyear!

I’ve written a lot about feeling like I was, and still am, floundering, because when I lost my dad and Ben, I also lost my role as a caregiver. Caregiving consumed my life. I did what I was expected to do but also what I felt in my heart was the right thing to do. Despite the emotional and physical stress, it was the most important, meaningful and loving work I have ever done. The attentive and devoted caregiver was who I was inside and out. Caregiving also revealed to me a strength that I never would have believed I possess, and that my often emotional demeanor would never have conveyed. Once that role was removed, I lost myself and my reflection was blurred.

Because caregiving was so much of who I’ve come to be, it is difficult for me when I realize that people I meet now do not know the story of Ben and my dad. I am no longer known as Abby, Ben’s caregiver, or Abby who was so devoted to her dad and her husband. Being my dad’s caregiver and his whole world, and being the person at Ben’s side throughout his battle with ALS are aspects of how I see myself, even though those actual days are done. Presenting myself apart from Ben, as a person on my own, seems incomplete, and almost disrespectful. I have to keep reminding myself that Ben is still a part of everything that I do and we will always be connected. However, I have to find my own way now.

Now, when I look at myself, I see much of the former, more eccentric and whimsical Abby, though I was changed by seeing my dad and Ben face death and by having the responsibility of caregiving. I still do struggle with compartmentalizing my caregiving experiences and losses. The truth is that I embraced my caregiving qualities as positive parts of myself.  It is an accomplishment to feel proud of myself, and caregiving did that for me, though it took a long time after the fact for me to realize it.  My struggle has been finding a balance of being true to Ben and my dad, and true to myself, while living in the present.  I want the Abby I am now to reflect all of those experiences without remaining immersed in only memories.

I have managed to integrate my caregiving into volunteer work, which is great. I did a small program with my local ALS chapter for children who are affected by ALS in their families. It was great because my background is in arts education and I care deeply about children. I also made a connection and volunteered for an organization called Hope Loves Company, which serves children who are affected by ALS in their families. I attended one of their family camps and did a scrapbooking workshop, which the kids (and I!) enjoyed. I know the importance of memories and I hope that creating a scrapbook leaves a lasting idea of ways to express their experiences and feelings. I look forward to continuing to volunteer. I am thrilled to see that my blog has built some new connections and provided support to caregivers and, in some cases, to people with ALS. I will continue to explore ways to reach out to this community and to the community of young caregivers. In this new phase of my life, my “new” and maybe somewhat “improved” self is exploring the possibilities for self-exploration and reinvention that will hopefully allow me to make a difference in the lives of others and maintain my tie to Ben, my dad and caregiving. I would love to know that they are proud of me and happy that they are continuing to inspire me. I know that inside myself, I hold all of my love and experiences.

All of our experiences help us grow and evolve. I will always see the people I’ve cared for, loved and lost in my reflection and I am proud and comforted that this will always keep their spirits alive and close. I hope that what others see in me honors them and our love and does justice to all of us.

 

Happy Anniversary “The Incredibles 2”: Tapping Our Super Powers in Caregiving and Grief

July 2014 at Walt Disney World

Today marks the one year anniversary of the release of Disney’s The Incredibles 2. The Incredibles hold a particular place in my heart because Mr. Incredible was one of Ben’s top three Disney buddies, along with Buzz Lightyear and Sully.

Because of this, and since it was our tradition, it was especially important to me to see the film on opening day. I remember that I had my little cry in the theater as the film began. Where I usually feel Ben’s presence at these films, at this film I profoundly felt his absence. I was angry that he did not have the chance to see this movie. Grief had brought a lot of emotions, but until this point, I can’t say that I had felt anger, despite often feeling frustrated that he was cheated of so much of life. I went on to feel more anger later in the summer when I visited the Georgia Aquarium, another place that Ben would have loved. There are certainly more profound life moments that Ben is missing and will miss that I should probably be more angry about, but sometimes the little moments make a tremendous impact.

In the past year, there have been more Disney films. Each one comes with sadness and acknowledgement of Ben’s physical absence but spiritual presence. However, I have also seen some growth in my perspective and experience with grief. I have noticed that I no longer debate with myself whether I can and should enjoy myself. The experiences are a time to focus thoughts on Ben and good memories. This seems to, on some level, alleviate the deep sadness and loneliness. It’s respectful of him and maintains the Disney bond that was such a strong part of our relationship.

This blog is a clear reflection of the way I look to each Disney film for enlightenment, and hopefully a quote that will carry me forward or give me perspective. I like to be able to share these thoughts with other caregivers with the intention that they will validate, inspire or comfort. The Incredibles 2 did not disappoint. The film actually has a lot of messages about inclusion, diversity, fighting for justice, family and love. I do remember the audible expressions of agreement when Dicker said, “Politicians don’t understand people who do good things. That makes them nervous.“

Interestingly, the quote that resonated with me was very appropriate for caregivers, and for an opening weekend that included Father’s Day. Edna Moda told Mr. Incredible, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. Done properly.”  I was so fortunate to have had two devoted and loving parents. As a public school teacher, over the years I have seen many children who are not parented properly, in fact, they are barely parented at all.  Good parenting is indeed a heroic, selfless act of love. The same came be said for good caregiving.

As a caregiver, I often questioned my abilities, especially when I was struggling with exhaustion, sadness and patience with Ben when he was stubborn and demanding. But, like any other caregiver, I put my emotions and feelings aside, or, at least on hold, and trudged on because the immediate needs of caregiving are not negotiable. Phone calls abruptly ended, activities were thrown to the side, chores ignored (well, I can’t say I minded that very much) as I attempted to create order amidst chaos, calm when he was panicked, and peace amidst the devastation of watching Ben deteriorate and suffer, physically and/or emotionally. Like all caregivers, I also ran interference among medical professionals and other related staff, as well as family and friends. I provided spirit boosts and levity and also administered difficult doses of reality, as tactfully as possible.

It certainly wasn’t my goal as a caregiver to be heroic and I don’t think that caregivers generally perceive themselves as heroes. We probably spend more time following Dory’s advice to “just keep swimming.” As a crybaby, I’ve never seen myself as heroic- at any point in my life- which is why, I think, I was puzzled when people told me that I was brave. Ben was brave, I was along for the ride, trying to be helpful and, a good deal of the time, not sure if I was much of a success. My insecurities made me feel much less than a superhero. However, I can attest that I definitely earned the Wonder Woman t-shirt Ben got me after I managed to grab him and keep him from falling off the bed!

In the film we are introduced to new super hero, Voyd, who asks Mrs. Incredible/Elastigirl, “How do you balance the superhero stuff with the life stuff?” Indeed, that’s a very important consideration for caregivers. For me, I constantly struggled with balancing the responsibilities of caregiving against a full-time job, daily life chores, relationships with friends and family, the emotional strain of losing the life Ben and I had, and knowing that ultimately, I was going to lose Ben. In retrospect, I think the balancing act IS the superhero stuff.

Young Dash tells his dad, Mr. Incredible, that he wants to fight bad guys because “It defines me.” I can say that caregiving defined me for several years and I found that it is a significant part of who I am and how I see myself. I have written about how I floundered when I was no longer a caregiver, until I found myself again through blogging, volunteering and trying to support other caregivers. Although I would rather not have discovered this through the illness and loss of my dad and Ben, I feel like I have identified caregiving as my super power. Unfortunately, I was not able to defeat cancer or ALS, but my dad and Ben always felt cared and advocated for and loved, and that is incredibly powerful. I did not see it while I was actively caregiving, but time and distance have provided valuable perspective.

Mr. Incredible at Walt Disney World’s parade, 2014.

Mr. Incredible summed up well the life of a caregiver when he said: “How do I do it? By rolling with the punches, baby!” I can picture Ben smiling and nodding, because, in actuality, both he and I rolled with the punches. I am still in awe of how well he rolled with the severe punches dealt to him by ALS. I guess we were both super heroes, albeit without the cute costumes.

I highly recommend The Incredibles 2. It’s quite fun and fantastic and offers unexpected words of wisdom for caregivers and everyone else. Post your thoughts! I look forward to reading them.

ALS, Caregiving, The Incredibles, Disney, Pixar, Caregiving, Grief

Ben as Mr. Incredible- Part of a birthday collage that I made for Ben. When it came to battling ALS, Ben was indeed a super hero!

On My Aunt Eleanor’s Birthday- Where Do The Memories Go?

Aunt Eleanor with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie. Ellie was never a huge dog lover until she met Dulcie.

Today is my aunt Eleanor’s 91st birthday. I visited her in the nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s disease that has progressed to the point where, for the most part, she does not speak coherently, though she does seem to understand much of what is said to her. Her eyes do light up a bit when she sees me, and she smiles sometimes when I talk to her. I believe that her memories of me are floating somewhere in her mind, or I let myself believe that to cope with my profound sadness. A perfect moment was when I handed her the Mickey Mouse birthday card and asked if she remembered him- she smiled. Disney magic! Pixie dust!

We were so close and she has influenced much of who I am. I look like her and have many of her mannerisms. Ellie was the person who took me to the theater and ballet and inspired my love of the arts and of travel. Ellie took me to book signings when I was young, and I was always thrilled to meet famous and wildly talented people. Now, attending book signings is one of my favorite activities. For a long time, after her Alzheimer’s advanced and she could no longer accompany me, I got books signed for her.  We looked at the books together, which she enjoyed despite the changes in her memory, and I enjoyed because it let me step back in time and relate to her in a way that transcended the Alzheimer’s. I remember how excited I was to bring her a children’s book written by Wendy Wasserstein. It was about a girl whose aunt takes her to her first musical. When I handed Wendy the book to sign, I told her that my aunt Ellie was like her book’s Aunt Pamela. She smiled and inscribed the book, “To Eleanor, who IS Aunt Pamela.”  I am tremendously proud of my collection of signed books and CDs, and proud to honor the relationship that I have maintained with my aunt.

I tried to maintain our favorite activities and took her to the theater even as her Alzheimer’s progressed. I once took her to a Yiddish theater production where they gave our pickles at intermission. It seems that she immediately forgot the play, but she told people she had pickles. I felt like that was still a good memory for her, and I was glad that in the moment, she enjoyed sitting through the show. After spending another day at the theater with her, I took her home, and when I got home there was a panicked phone message from her asking if we were supposed to see each other that day. She had completely forgotten the day. I could only reason with myself that at least while we were at the theater she enjoyed watching the play. I stopped taking her when she seemed to not have as much fun because she was easily confused and disoriented. It would have been selfish to keep trying to keep things the same when things had changed and I had to accept it.

Ellie was the remaining relative to whom I was closest and with whom I spent a lot of time. Although she is still physically here, our relationship is not the same. It hurts to see her and her largely diminished quality of life, though I try to be comforted by the moments that I make her laugh. It feels somehow disrespectful, but I see that in many ways I am grieving her loss.

She was a Spanish teacher and although my career has been varied, I have been walking in her footsteps for the past fifteen years. Today, I can’t help but think of the beautiful song Remember Me from Disney’s Coco. She would have loved it. I’ve put the song clip and lyrics here. The film dealt so beautifully with aging and loss, conveying that our loved ones are always in our hearts. With that in mind, I will spend this evening trying not to dwell on the Ellie I saw today and instead think of all of the wonderful memories that we shared. I hope that somewhere in her mind during her visit, she had a happy birthday and that she felt loved.


The lyrics from the song “Remember Me” were very emotional.

Remember Me
Lyrics from Coco
Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Performed by Miguel, featuring Natalia Lafourcade

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
Remember me