A PhotoPass photographer caught this moment in front of the Castle at Walt Disney World. It was actually the first time we returned after Ben’s ALS diagnosis in 2010
Today would be the 18th anniversary of my first date with Ben. I think I’ll always mark these events in my heart. And, I think that’s ok. In fact, I think it’s good. I remember when we wore our “Happily Ever After” buttons at Walt Disney World, even after his ALS diagnosis. It isn’t always easy to remember pre-ALS days, but days like today bring me back to who we really were and the Disney-like romantic times that we were so fortunate to share. I like to believe that he is now watching over me now as I make new milestones, knowing that I always keep him close.
When Ben proposed to me, he asked me to be his Minnie. So, Happy Anniversary, My Mickey. I miss and love you.
Lyrics from the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney film, Pocahontas” Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Composer Alan Menken
These lyrics are from the song Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas. In the context of the film, the song relates to people learning to accept and open their minds to people of other cultures and races. I found myself thinking of the many people we may judge without really knowing them, their stories, and what it is like to be in their lives. I think about the way people responded to the way Ben chose to live and die with ALS. It is easy to have opinions, and it’s fine to have them. I have them, too. We were fortunate to have many people close to us who put aside their opinions to create a solid support network. But, there is a line that is crossed when opinions become harsh judgments that are made without full knowledge of a situation, and, more importantly, without an attempt to see a situation through a different lens and get a glimpse at what it is to “walk the footsteps” of another.
When Ben was first diagnosed, suggestions were offered by his ALS team, who had followed many people on the sad and excruciating journey of this disease. There were opinions from our friends and family. I had my own thoughts. But, Ben had to choose his own path. No one could really know exactly how he felt about facing the loss of his abilities and, in essence, his freedom, as he faced death. I lived with him every single day and talked to him about these things, trying to walk his footsteps, and I still could not truly envision what it was like to be him. Still, there was a lot of “what you should do” and “what you have to do” from people who had much to say, yet did not ask Ben (or me) questions that would have given them insight into his experience and allowed them to acknowledge and comfort him, rather than simply judge and direct him.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Ben told me that he would understand if I wanted to leave him, if I could not handle what was happening to him and if I wanted to have a different life. From his perspective, he loved me and wanted the best for me, at the same time that he feared and wanted to prepare for the possibility that I might leave him. Indeed, some people told me that I should leave him. To walk in my shoes would mean that you perceived my overwhelming fear, anger and sadness but knew that I would never leave this man whom I loved and who needed me. And, to walk in my shoes would mean that you would realize that even when he was harsh and unkind, I would either defend it because of his illness, or believe him and think that I must not be a very good caregiver, or feel helpless because he was a dying man and I was devoted to him.
There were many times throughout Ben’s illness that I would have liked to tell people – strangers and those close to us – to try to walk in our footsteps. At Walt Disney World, when Ben did not have visible signs of disability in the early stages of ALS, some guests treated him as if he was simply lazy by using a scooter, and were clearly annoyed when loading the scooter delayed a bus and when it took up seating space. Instead of being defensive and angry, we were anxious and unnecessarily apologetic for the delays. That said, there were many people who also offered assistance if they saw me helping him to stand or transfer from the wheelchair, and they were kind and good humored with Ben. Try walking in the footsteps of someone who does not have the freedom to easily step on and off a bus and has to awkwardly and anxiously enter and secure a wheelchair while being watched impatiently by other riders. Imagine knowing that this is only the first of the abilities that you will lose and that this may be the last time you will ever be able to travel. We never know the big picture behind what we are seeing, so it is important to suspend snap judgments. Ironically, though there are often controversies regarding visitors to Walt Disney World who illegitimately request disability passes to get to the front of the lines, Ben never wanted special treatment or to take advantage of having a special pass for the attractions. I must also add that the Disney cast members on the grounds and transportation were always fantastic.
There were many instances in which people bypassed Ben and only addressed me. When his speech became impaired, he joked that if they heard him speak they assumed he was somehow mentally challenged, and, although it did bother us, I was glad that he had a good sense of humor. However, I was quick to involve Ben in conversations, because I wanted people to know that he was fully capable of communicating and understanding, even if he needed my help. Then, some people realized that they could engage with Ben. Think about how it must feel to be ignored when you are vibrant, able and wanting to be a part of a world that is becoming increasingly distant. Just acknowledging someone’s presence with just a smile can lift a person’s spirits. It certainly lifted mine to see him respected and happy. Compassion goes a long way.
Seeing things through another’s perspective is not always easy, especially when you are dealing with someone who has a terminal illness, like ALS. Among my biggest frustrations was that some of the people with the strongest opinions, arguments and accusations were also the people who were not actively or consistently involved in Ben’s care. They promised to visit and did not. They did not try to gain a clear picture of his medical and emotional situation and dilemmas or ask how they could help, but they were vocal with their criticism, even if completely unfounded. Instead of walking in his footsteps, they stepped on his feet and tripped me up with the unnecessary drama they created. It is imperative to be honest with yourself about the role you have had in someone’s care and life, and to recognize when to put aside your own needs and agendas, in order to watch and listen, and to “learn things you never knew you never knew.” With that insight and knowledge, you are more able to play a meaningful part in someone else’s journey.
In Ben’s fifth year with the disease, he made the choice to proceed with plans to get a feeding tube but those plans were interrupted by an urgent respiratory crisis that landed us in the emergency room. Then, admitted to the hospital with a biPAP mask and being fed intravenously, he had to decide for sure if he wanted a feeding tube and a tracheostomy. It took him more than two weeks to make that decision. I held his hand, I tried to answer his questions and to get a sense of what he was feeling, but I could not tell him what to do. I was worried about what his quality of life would be in a skilled nursing facility, which was where he would have to go with a tracheostomy. However, talking to him helped me to understand that Ben was focused on living and the things that he would be able to do. I could not begin to imagine all he was experiencing, but talking to him helped me to see his viewpoint and gain insight into his thoughts. I embraced his beliefs and supported him.
Ben did decide to get the feeding tube and tracheostomy, but things did not go smoothly in the hospital. He quickly developed an infection and then pneumonia. He was miserable. After a few weeks, he made the decision to go to the hospice unit of the hospital and to be removed from the ventilator, which was his life support.
Life and death decisions can be debated based on a range of convictions, from emotional to clinical to religious. Ben navigated his journey with ALS in a way that was right for him. I respected that and I admired his bravery. I had to see his situation through his eyes, and although I did agree with him, I understood that agreement with him was not the issue. I was there for him. Whether you are a caregiver, friend, family member or even a patient, it is so important to try to walk someone else’s footsteps. Maybe I did not handle being a caregiver the way some people thought I should and maybe I did. Maybe Ben did not navigate his life with ALS the way some people thought he should, and maybe he did. Keeping an open mind, even if we do not agree, helps us to “paint with all the colors of the wind” and support each other with a more positive, meaningful, loving and helpful connection.
Ben liked scooting through the princess tower at the Disney Store in the Palisades Mall, NY!
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Disney Store. Who would think of the Disney Store as a romantic date idea? We did, and that is exactly where Ben and I began our relationship. When we started spending time together, we always took a stroll through the Disney Store. We had so much fun looking at the toys and quizzing each other on Disney trivia. The flagship NYC store on Fifth Avenue was a special destination on our dates and we always looked forward to seeing new merchandise and exclusive NYC items. Ben knew that Disney was a definite way to my heart, and he expanded my Disney collection by many, many things! And, he always scored points by suggesting a walk to the flagship NYC store on Fifth Avenue. I miss that store- it was quite beautiful. But, wherever we traveled, whenever we found a Disney Store, we were happy shoppers!
I think that my favorite memory of the Disney Store was walking through the flagship location one day and hearing, with great excitement, “Abby, look, it’s Piglet and his best friend, Pooh!” Ben had spotted the figurine in this picture.
Piglet and his Best Friend Pooh! A very special figurine with very sweet memories.
I laughed as he caught himself and jokingly lamented that he was macho before he met me (not so macho, trust me!) He later got it for me as a surprise and I treasure it for those memories. From that point on, we would always exclaim, “Look, it’s Piglet and his best friend Pooh!” whenever we spotted things with these two best friends. This figurine and memories of our sweet times at the Disney Stores always make me smile because it is a sweet reminder of this man I loved who was such a romantic and such a child at heart. It’s nice to think back to the very early, pre-ALS days of our relationship.
A Valentine’s Day gift from Ben with Piglet and his best friend Pooh!
I was excited to see the live action Beauty and the Beast on its opening weekend. Beauty and the Beast was a special film for Ben and me, so I knew it would be emotional to see it without him. I tried to see it through our eyes, as if he was sitting next to me. Sometimes that made it easier, sometimes it made it harder. When I love an animated film, as I do Beauty and the Beast, I worry that the live action will disappoint. It did not. Beauty and the Beast was absolutely spectacular, with excellent casting. I was captivated. And, at the end, I could feel Ben smiling. I, of course, was a puddle of tears!
In the beginning of the film, Belle’s father, Maurice, sings a lovely little song with these lyrics:
How does a moment last forever? How can a story never die? It is love we must hold onto Never easy, but we try Sometimes our happiness is captured Somehow, a time and place stand still Love lives on inside our hearts and always will
Here is the music clip:
Beauty and the Beast (2017) Walt Disney Pictures Pictured: Kevin Kline (Maurice) and Emma Watson (Belle)
These lyrics touched my heart, so simple and yet so profound. I know that Ben would have handed me tissues knowing the tears would flow. But this is the magic of Disney. At the heart of the whimsy and fantasy lie our deepest emotions.
I believe that these lyrics beautifully capture the thoughts of caregivers and those grieving the loss of a loved one. In caregiving, I grieved the loss of the life we had. I grieved what ALS took away from Ben and from us. I grieved the relationship we had as it shifted to that of caregiver and patient. We clung to memories and those brought a mix of pain and joy. And, we both lived with the knowledge that Ben was going to “leave,” as he referred to dying.
In grief, I have relied on the memories and the love that we felt. The heartache is there, but as the song says, “it is love we must hold onto.” I write so often of the importance of the memories that keep Ben in my heart. Love and our stories will always keep him there, along with my parents and other loved ones.
Early in our relationship, Ben gave me this frame with his own picture inside.
I immediately got the soundtrack to the film, which I also heartily recommend. And, although it makes me cry, I keep listening to this song and the longer version, performed by Celine Dion. Just like “One Dance,” this song struck a chord (pun intended) within me! Sometimes I am caught off-guard by overwhelming emotion and at other times I just need to immerse myself in the grief and have a good cry.
Music and lyrics were so important to Ben. I believe that he would appreciate how the lyrics of this song spoke to and moved me, and how they confirm that he will always live on in the song that was our love and life.
As for the comparison to the original, animated version of the film, I love them both. When I came home after seeing the new version, I immediately watched the Blu-Ray of the animated version. It remains dear to my heart. I don’t think they detract from each other in any way. In my opinion, they are both wonderful. I will enjoy watching them both on Blu-Ray!
I told Beast that he was much more handsome in person!
To say that caregiving was difficult is no grand revelation. In fact, it’s a grand understatement. I’ve written about it and will continue to do so, to share what the experience is like and to sort through my feelings, with the hope that it will comfort, inform, validate or inspire others. Since ALS is a rare disease, I feel especially compelled to share with people what is involved in this disease, sometimes from my perspective, and when I can, from what I observed about Ben’s perspective. My most profound revelation has been that as much as I lost myself while caregiving, I was also the most myself.
In bereavement support groups, I found that some participants could not get far enough away from caregiving. They were concerned about pursuing new relationships for fear of having to be caregivers again. I understand that, but contrary to my support group friends, I actually missed caregiving. Although, obviously, I would never wish for someone I would become involved with to suffer, I don’t think I would run away from being a caregiver again. Despite the ugliness of disease and the sadness and frustrations, there was something uniquely beautiful in caring for my dad and Ben during their journeys from this world. Although immersed in day-to-day difficulties and unexpected crises, I thrived when I was focused on ways to give them joy, to make them comfortable, to see them smile.
After caregiving, I felt like I had no purpose. People said it was time to take care of myself. That might have been a good idea, but I didn’t especially like it. I prefer taking care of others. I did catch up on doctor appointments. I also resumed favorite activities like going to the theater and seeing friends. But, I was lonely and lost. Everything was a reminder of my dad and Ben. I came home and had time to do things, but I had no focus and just floundered. Part of it was grief. I have lost many people close to me, so grief is not a new feeling for me. I have learned to co-exist with it and to integrate those feelings into my life. Despite the emotional roller coaster, I love the good memories and I do not underestimate how fortunate I am to have them.
As I began to redefine myself and the world around me, I seemed to cling to my role as a caregiver. True, it was a constant struggle that could be disheartening and maddening, and, in the end, I could not save Ben or my dad. But, it was also deeply loving, giving and nurturing, in a most special and compassionate way. Successfully caring for them gave me an incomparable sense of pride and purpose. Time to think and reflect on the caregiving journey enabled me to embrace that, as confusing as it was.
Walt Disney said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I think that’s true. Some people have said that I remain too connected to Ben to be able to move forward. Some say that I am staying in the past by constantly revisiting caregiving and grief. I don’t believe that. Ben and my dad, and really, all of my loved ones, will always be with me in my heart. But, I have learned a lot about myself through my experiences and now, curiosity and determination are propelling me to use what I’ve learned in positive, compassionate and creative ways as I follow new paths in my own journey. Here are some of the doors I have opened:
Blogging on Pixie Dust For Caregivers was the way that I started to reconcile my feelings about caregiving and grief. Actually, I had long been collecting Disney quotes for my own inspiration and consolation after Ben’s diagnosis. As it turns out, my experiences, combined with Disney things that inspired me, also inform, comfort and motivate others. It is a huge gift to know that. It’s a different kind of caring, but it’s caring nonetheless.
On Facebook, there is a group of lovely people who either have ALS or are caregivers of people with ALS. I wish that I had thought to look for this kind of support when Ben was here. I want to be a resource or compassionate shoulder for people if it’s helpful. Likewise, it is healing for to me to hear about the experiences of other people dealing with ALS, as patients or as current or former caregivers, because even a year and a half later, I am still trying to make sense of so much about my experience with Ben. The dialogues in this group are fascinating, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking, but also heartwarming. Twitter (@PixieD4Caring) has also presented a wealth of information and opportunity to interact with other caregivers. I do plan to expand the resources section of PixieDustForCaregivers.com.
Education and Professional Development Caregiving.com offers a certificate program in caregiving consulting. Though I currently focus on my blog and informal interactions, I enrolled in the program and I love the coursework, chat group discussions and strategies for providing various types of assistance and emotional support. I find that it informs my writing and direction. Other students in the program are embarking on wonderful projects as well. Through the certificate program, I was invited to be a presenter in a virtual performance on the stages of caregiving. Click here to watch this engaging and interesting video. I also encourage you to visit the web site to learn about the certificate program, and to discover the vast number resources available there.
I am grateful to have kept in touch with some of the people who helped Ben. In talking with the social worker from my local ALS Association, I learned that their office conducts some events for children who have a parent with ALS. As hard as it is to comprehend ALS as an adult, I cannot even fathom how a child processes watching a parent succumb to the disease. I was eager to participate in bringing some joy and fun to these children. I volunteered to work with the ALS team to create craft activities for a kids day event for young children. It was a perfect fit for me, because my background is in arts education administration, which has always been my personal and professional passion. In fact, I met Ben when we worked at The Little Orchestra Society, where I was the Director of Education and planned many workshops for kids and families. Ben was responsible for finance and technology, but he was great with children and he liked to help me out.
The kids event was last weekend. It was a small group of children, which was nice and intimate, and the children decorated memory boxes and beaded friendship bracelets. They also drew and painted and explored the craft supplies at their whim. They ate pizza and ice cream and sang along to some Disney music. There was no talk of ALS among the kids, except for one child who asked me if everyone there had a daddy in a wheelchair. It was an afternoon of undivided attention and a fun time in the midst of a difficult period in their lives that they might not even be able to fully articulate.
Even the moms participated. They talked amongst themselves a bit about their husbands and situations, and it is a great opportunity to talk to someone also immersed in caring for someone with ALS, even if the progression varies, as it often does. I realized, from the looks on their faces that when I told them that Ben had passed away, that I was also giving them a dose of reality and the future that they may not have wanted to see. On the other hand, although it took time to reach this place, and I’m changed in some ways, I’m here, I’m smiling, I’m still full of love and I want to help.
During the workshop, I made myself a bracelet, including words that a couple of the girls chose for me. I added “believe” and “ALS.” “Special secret” is just that, so I won’t tell! “Peace” may have been a somewhat random selection from an emergent reader, but it’s meaningful to me because I wished for it for myself and for Ben. “Believe” is a powerful word for me because it encompasses magic and faith and hope that wishes will come true. I left the event feeling so positive, but also emotional from the combination of excitement of a successful event but the heartbreak of what the families are experiencing, and my own memories. I volunteered to work on more of these events for children and I hope to see these children again.
I would not have predicted that caregiving, which presented much inner conflict for me at times, would be the part of me that most resonates now in terms of who I am and who I want to be. Then again, as Timothy Mouse said to Dumbo, “The very things that hold you down are going to lift you up.”
It turns out that, for me, sprinkling pixie dust on others- giving support, compassion, joy and comfort- is very healing pixie dust for me!