Today, February 21, is Ben’s birthday. As I often do, I have been reminiscing by looking at old photos. While looking at our most recent birthday pictures, I was reminded about his table that broke over the holidays and, in so doing, broke my heart. That ugly, shaky table held many birthday cakes and other celebrations. I’m glad to have those pictures. I’ve put together a video of photos from some of these occasions, and, of course, some Walt Disney World photos. Some were taken when he had ALS and some in the pre-ALS days. The love was always there, so I embrace all of the memories.
In the background, you will hear The Beatles’, “Happy Birthday.” Ben woke me up with that song every year on my birthday. Now, I am playing it for him.
While it’s emotional to make these videos (click here for the one I made for my dad), I also find it comforting to revisit beautiful memories. It is a good way to focus my attention when I’m feeling down and a positive way to deal with grief. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with tears, but tears are okay. So are smiles.
No candle on a cake now, but always wishes that he is comfortable, and running, singing and eating to his heart’s delight. And, wishes for a cure for ALS, because wishes do come true, even if, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother says, “even miracles take a little time.”
When Ben proposed to me, he asked me to be His Minnie. So, I now say
“Cinderella” is celebrating a birthday today. The film was released on this date in 1950. She was my favorite princess when I was a child. She remains dear to my heart because there is more to Cinderella than what meets the eye. She had feistiness and determination, and also a loyalty to her father’s memory that let her tolerate the poor treatment by her stepmother and stepsisters and maintain her dignity. Cinderella knew the power of dreams, and in the end, all of those qualities got her the love of the prince of her dreams and a position of respect and power!
Cinderella knew at her core that, despite treating her horribly, “They can’t order me to stop dreaming.” There’s a good life lesson. I know that people sometimes think I’m unrealistic because of my Disney love and its connection to wishing and dreaming. On the contrary, as the caregiver for my dad and for Ben, I was hit with harsh realities on a daily basis. Dreaming and wishing were my escape. They encouraged me to find creative ways to solve problems. And, they allowed me to envision a future where my dad and Ben had peace and comfort. Now, as I work through grief, dreams help me to redefine myself and reshape my life. No one can tell me that dreams are not valuable and important.
It’s pretty cool to make dreams come true, too. Ben wanted so much to go to Walt Disney World as often as possible. That last trip we took, in July 2014, was a dream come true for him. It was a challenge, and I wished a lot for things to go smoothly. They went fantastically! We even had a Walt Disney World Halloween in July! Now THAT’s pixie dust and Disney magic at their finest!
Ben and I with Cinderella Walt Disney World July 2014
Maybe you didn’t literally talk to your Fairy Godmother, but I imagine that a lot of readers have had a similar conversation with someone, or with themselves, and questioned their faith that they could handle things or that things would be ok.
Cinderella, 1950 Walt Disney Productions
During caregiving days, when my dad and/or Ben was struggling, knowing that in the end I was going to lose them, it was easy to lose hope and optimism. In those times, I had to thank goodness for the insight and “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. For me, the dreams and the wishes got me through very difficult and sad days of terminal illness and caregiving and feeling that nothing I did really mattered. There were no cures, no one was going to get better, and things were becoming more difficult. But, I could dream, and those dreams helped me keep the faith.
There is a song in the film, “So This is Love.” The song is sweet and romantic, and love is beautiful. In the rough times, it is easy to lose sight of those feelings. The thing is, when we are watching someone struggle with illness or we are struggling with caregiving responsibilities, we accept these challenges, and embrace them, because this is love. It’s that simple. And, that complicated.
At the heart of the film is the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
A dream is a wish your heart makes When you’re fast asleep. In dreams you will lose your heartaches. Whatever you wish for, you keep. Have faith in your dreams, and someday Your rainbow will come smiling through. No matter how your heart is grieving, If you keep on believing, The dreams that you wish will come true.
I’ve always been a dreamer. I believe that my wish came true that my dad and Ben are both at peace, even though grief is hard for me. I’ve written before that I will wish for and dream about cures for ALS, and also for cancer and the many other horrible diseases. Sometimes it seems futile, but I remember that Fairy Godmother said, “Even miracles take a little time.”
Pinocchio was released on February 7, 1940. I do love this story of the mischievous little puppet who just wants to be a real boy. For me, so much of the film is about the song lyrics. They took on a special meaning when I was a caregiver.
When times are hard during caregiving, whether it is in the role of caregiving itself or in watching your caree struggle, it is easy to wish, as Pinocchio did:
I’ve got no strings So I have fun I’m not tied up to anyone They’ve got strings But you can see There are no strings on me
There were times when I just wanted to stroll home instead of rushing to tend to Ben, or go to dinner with a friend, or watch tv without an interruption. For me, much stress came when Ben was feeling frustrated and took it out on me by being critical and difficult. Ben did not want to accept that he needed more care than I alone could provide. He did not want to admit that he was afraid to stay alone. I did not know how to approach him about the fact that he needed more care. I didn’t want to disappoint him and yet I was upset because his expectations were unrealistic. I was upset with myself for rarely standing up for myself. Frustration was perfectly understandable on both of our parts.
The truth was that I was attached not by actual strings, but by my heart. When I did have some time to myself, Ben was pretty much the only thing on my mind. If I went out, I constantly texted him to see if everything was ok, even when someone was with him. I knew he was most comfortable with me and I was most comfortable when I was there.
When he did finally agree to get a home health aide, we had our routines for when they would update me. I had my phone with me at all times waiting for his text telling me that he was awake and seated at his computer. Even when he was in the hospital, and I knew he had constant medical attention, I felt the need to be there. After all, he could not even move his hand to use a call button. The strings that attached us were heartstrings, and there was no breaking them.
I had a lot of support from friends, his medical care team and some family. Of course, they were concerned about Ben, but they were also concerned about me and that I was running myself ragged. I know the philosophy that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. But, it was impossible for me to prioritize myself knowing that Ben had ALS and it was progressing, and knowing that he could not help needing assistance. In the back of my mind, he was dying, so while he was here I had to do anything to help, advocate for and entertain him.
There are also certain realities that affected caregiving. Insurance does not cover home health aides. Since ALS is a disease that does not have a predictable progression, even when he admitted to needing help, he was afraid that he would completely deplete his savings. These are such stressful situations to deal with in the midst of dealing with the physical and emotional impact of the disease. It is tragic that better care and attention is not given to circumstances such as these and to supporting caregivers and carees. I could devote many blogs to that subject!
I had so many people tell me that I simply had to tell Ben that I could not care for him anymore, or he could not stay in the apartment anymore, or he had to begin to pay for care. People are very good at giving advice. And, in my experience, they really do mean well. Interestingly, they don’t always follow the advice they give. Some people who told me to take a hard line with Ben have been in caregiving situations where they were also towing the line without support and with unrealistic expectations from others. In grief, people have also told me what I “should do.” Again, they mean well. Some people think that blogging and pursuing opportunities to support other caregivers keeps me in the past. I disagree. I feel it is important, and even responsible, and it is also rewarding. It allows me to take my experiences that have shaped me and use them positively as I live. But, no one should really have to defend themselves. I say this here because, as caregivers, we all have to redefine our lives, and maybe my own experience will give other caregivers food for thought. The bottom line is that we all know in our hearts what we have to do because our consciences are our guides. We can request and get advice, but only we know ourselves and our circumstances. And, until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you cannot clearly judge them. I mean this about caregivers and carees.
Jiminy Cricket was so right when he said, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” I had to do what I felt was right for Ben. I hope that I’ve come out of the experience with a stronger ability to communicate my feelings, but I still would not have changed my actions. Although I always worried that I was not a good enough caregiver, particularly when Ben was in bad spirits and critical of me, I let my conscience be my guide. I look back and am grateful that, in the end, Ben was able to stay at home with me until he went into the hospital, and I was at his side until he left this world.
As I wrote in a previous post, I still believe in making wishes, and I love the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I wished that Ben would find peace and I do believe that wish has come true and that he is in a place where he can walk and talk and eat and play his musical instruments. I wish for a cure for ALS. I will continue to wish until it comes true because, as the song goes
When you wish upon a star Makes no difference who you are Anything your heart desires Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream No request is too extreme When you wish upon a star As dreamers do
Like a bolt out of the blue Fate steps in and sees you through When you wish upon a star Your dreams come true
All music and lyrics by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington
It was an honor to participate in Caregiving.com’s live broadcast, “Caregiving: A 6-act, 24-minute Performance.”
In case you missed the presentation, you can view it right here!
To summarize, six caregivers presented their experience in different stages of caregiving, from anticipating becoming a caregiver to after caregiving is over.
Andrew Koch, The Expectant Caregiver
Tami Neumann, The Freshman Caregiver
Carolyn Grant, The Entrenched Caregiver
Lisa Riggi, The Pragmatic Caregiver
Abby Kass, The Transitioning Caregiver
Colleen Kavanaugh, The Godspeed Caregiver
Please click here for more information about everyone. Listening to the other presenters was enlightening and inspiring. The performance goes beyond textbook explanations of caregiving and takes you into our lives and through the difficult and the heartwarming aspects of being a family caregiver.
My own presentation as a Transitioning Caregiver focused on when I knew the end was near for Ben. It’s a journey my close friends and family know about and it was a difficult one. I continue to be in awe of Ben’s bravery.
Deciding what to share in the presentation was actually a valuable and interesting process. When I first talked to Denise Brown, the Director, and narrator, of the performance, I recounted the details of what transpired from the time Ben went into the Emergency Room until he left this world. Denise pointed out that I was telling Ben’s story and not my own. Until that point, I never really thought about that. I had thought of the journey as Ben’s, although I was his caregiver. However, this process prompted me to think about my own journey as Ben’s caregiver and as the person closest to him as I watched him succumb to ALS.
I’ve said before that being a caregiver changed me. It is who I am. I embrace all of the emotions associated with it- good and bad- and continue to sort through some of my feelings and memories. My blog’s Disney-sprinkled reflections on these experiences help me in this process and will hopefully inform, inspire and/or validate other current and former caregivers.
I welcome your comments on this presentation. And, please visit www.caregiving.com to learn more about its many services.
Ben and I with Peter Pan and Wendy Walt Disney World 2006 Pre-ALS days
Peter Pan was originally released on February 5, 1953. Ben and I loved the film. What adult has not chuckled at how they spent their childhoods waiting to grow up just to wish that they had stayed children? I am a firm believer in embracing my inner child. Ben also loved to tap his inner child. Walt Disney World is a place where it is a requirement! Maybe that’s why Ben and I loved it so much!
The phrase “think happy thoughts” took on a whole new meaning when Ben was struggling with ALS and I was struggling with caregiving. ALS is known to be a very isolating disease. I’m sure that even when he was not literally alone, Ben felt isolated. I felt so helpless when Ben hurt because sometimes, it was so hard to speak to explain himself and be understood, that he just shook his head and stopped trying. Also, with every day came the dread of what ability he would lose. Sometimes he simply had a bad day and other times there was an obvious change in his health. There were days when I was able to care for him without any problems, but then there were the days when it was exhausting and overwhelming, and if I was having back issues, it was physically painful. We cannot walk in the shoes of our loved ones, we can only love them. Love is a lot. Thinking happy thoughts is a lot, too, because, along with love, it lets us remember who we were and what was important before illness changed things.
For us, happy thoughts almost always included memories of our visits to Walt Disney World. Ben spent so much time every day looking at the videos and photos from our visits to Walt Disney World. We loved to listen to the music from the parks, too. He went on their vacation planning web site to plan fantasy trips. I liked to see him planning because I felt it kept his head in living and focusing on what he could do. I truly believe that helped him manage the disease pretty well for about four years.
On those very difficult days when eating was a challenge, or there was a fall, or some other accident, or even just a lack of energy to transfer or be transferred, we had to remember, “All you need is faith, trust and a little pixie dust!” So much happens with illnesses and caregiving that is unpredictable and beyond our control. For me to maintain a certain state of calm that allowed me to be a problem solver, I needed to have faith and trust that things would ultimately be okay. The pixie dust was the whimsy that always let my inner child thrive in the midst of very grown-up, complex circumstances. Sometimes it was just a loving moment between Ben and me that would make us laugh. Sometimes it came from friends, sometimes it came from caring strangers, and sometimes it came from both of us taking a moment to remember the good and loving times. And, with faith, trust and pixie dust, we even made it back to Walt Disney World four times during his illness.
I named my blog Pixie Dust For Caregivers because quotes like this, as well as many Disney characters, films, lyrics and attractions from the Parks were the pixie dust that gave me perspective, inspiration, and comfort during the caregiving years and now, as I work through grief. They helped Ben, too. At times, they simply gave us much needed entertainment.
We did love the Peter Pan attraction at Walt Disney World. We loved to soar over Neverland on the pirate ship. Unfortunately, it is not accessible and has to be boarded while it is in motion. Ben had trouble with balance and walking early on, so it was the first ride we had to give up. Still, we never lost our love for Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
After a respiratory crisis, Ben landed in the hospital, and life with a tracheostomy and feeding tube was not going well, including infections and pneumonia. After six weeks, Ben chose to go to the hospital’s palliative care unit.
It was painful beyond words to know that Ben was miserable. Tragically, ALS was not going away. He was not going to get better. But, to know that he had only days left in this world was devastating. At the same time, there was a certain relief that he would be free from the physical and emotional pain and constraints of the disease that rendered him unable to breathe on his own, speak, eat, walk, use the computer or play his instruments- things he loved. A line in the song “You Can Fly,” is, “Think of all the joy you’ll find when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye.” I wanted Ben to have peace and to feel comfort he had not felt in the nearly six years he bravely battled ALS.
Peter Pan said, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” I don’t know that I would call ALS an adventure, but it was a journey. A very difficult journey that Ben navigated with much bravery. Now, I put faith, trust and pixie dust in the belief that Ben has “bid his cares goodbye” and he is in a peaceful place where he can walk and run and eat and talk and sing and use his hands to use the computer and play his instruments. That gives me peace.