On this day, December 21, 1937, Walt Disney’s first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles.
I wish I could say that I have navigated caregiving and grief like Snow White, the graceful princess who happily sang her way through taking care of the seven dwarfs to a happy ending. I do believe that at times I was that person to Ben and my dad. I was very much the cheerleader and the person who tried to keep them entertained. I was also the nurturing person who managed the details of their care, the way that Snow White kept her household together, except that I lack her stellar housekeeping skills! Alas, I relate more to the dwarfs! I’ve written about how, as a caregiver, I often felt like all seven dwarfs in the course of a single day (click here for that post). To mark this anniversary of the film’s premiere, it seems fitting to me to reflect on how, in grief as in caregiving, I can feel like all seven dwarfs- at times, within the course of a single day.
Happy– In the early days of grief, you could call me Happy in those moments when I was lost in good memories or I woke up without dreading the day and the thing that would trigger my sadness. Now, you can color me Happy when I realize that I am not just going through motions, and I actually am enjoying a moment in the present without feeling guilt.
Doc– Call me Doc as I diagnose my grief. Am I doing ok? Will people think I’m doing ok? Do I care if people think I’m doing ok? Should I care? Where should I be right now in this process? Am I “normal”?
As you can tell, Ben preferred to take my pics with the dwarfs!
Bashful– Sometimes it’s embarrassing to have a setback or to feel overwhelmed with sadness or tears, especially when I feel that people are judging how I’m grieving, how long I’m grieving, and what I am doing to continue living and reshape my life. It can be difficult to ask for help, and I’m growing too Bashful to ask people who have been listening to me to continue to do so. I’ve repeated the same things so many times, and I do wonder sometimes what people must think.
Snow White and I love Bashful!
Sleepy– There are many sleepless nights for so many reasons- recalling good and bad memories, anxiously contemplating the future and feeling the loneliness and the loss.
Walt Disney World Halloween Electrical Parade
Dopey– Being caught between the past and the present can be baffling. Sometimes I find myself buying something because Ben would have wanted it. When I get home, I am only reminded that he is no longer here, and then I do feel Dopey, and more sad. There are also times when, in the middle of nowhere, something will trigger great sadness and I will break into tears. People are generally understanding, but I still feel kind of Dopey, and Bashful, for that matter!
Not sure which of us is the real Dopey!
Grumpy– The conflicting emotions of grief definitely make me Grumpy at times. Sorry!
Ben (pre-ALS) and Grumpy, Walt Disney World, 2001
Sneezy– Still allergic to Disney, the cat! I still would not trade her for anything. She has been the greatest comfort to me.
How about you? Are you more Snow White or one or more of the dwarfs? Please share in the comments section below. If you don’t see the comment box, just click on the title of this post.
Walt Disney’s legacy lives on so vibrantly and timelessly in so many ways that it’s hard to believe that today, December 15, 2016 marks 50 years since he left this earth. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I love to read about him, and to get a glimpse into his artistic vision and the building of his business enterprises. His belief in himself and commitment to his art are things that we can all learn from. I remember my mom talking about her favorite Disney movies and how she loved Mickey Mouse from the time she was a child. She was just a little girl when he was “born.” “Mary Poppins” was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. It just amazes me how Mickey and his friends touch the hearts of generation after generation. I believe that 50 years from now, and, as Buzz Lightyear would say, “to infinity and beyond,” Walt’s words of wisdom will still stand strong, as will his legacy.
My blog was inspired by the way that I was affected by Disney films, characters and lyrics in light of caregiving and loss. The same can be said about many of the quotes I’ve read by Walt. It seems to me that this is a good day to reflect on some of his words of wisdom that have consoled me, intrigued me and entertained me. Now, they are helping me to look forward and I think that’s especially significant as we approach a new year.
“That’s the real trouble with the world. Too many people grow up. They forget.”
As someone who still has a lot of my childhood dolls and can’t resist adding new ones to my collection, it is obvious to everyone who knows me that I completely embrace the idea that you need to hold on to your inner child. As I’ve said, my inner child is very much at the forefront of who I am. For me, watching a Disney film, and imagining a fairy or fairy godmother at my side, also allowed me to escape the realities of caregiving and loss. My husband, Ben, always said that he loved Walt Disney World because you simply forgot your problems. With a diagnosis of ALS, his problems were huge, but immersed in that fantasy land, he was a big kid having a wonderful time, even despite his challenges. For him to be able to feel that sense of joy and excitement was a gift. Walt Disney envisioned and provided that magical setting. I never want to lose the attitude that allows me to step right into the fantasy the way I did with Ben. I never want to have to stop wishing on stars or forget the wonder and delight that I had as a child.
“Why worry? If you’ve done the very best you can, worrying won’t make it any better.”
This is absolutely true. Alas, I am a worrier, and I have to work on this, but Walt is right. I can’t say that any of my worrying helped, although perhaps thinking through worst case scenarios may have helped me prepare for a variety of situations. I’ve heard that worrying burns calories, but I’ve seen no indication that this works! I worry now about my future, particularly without much family. But, the worrying isn’t going to affect any change, so it’s time to proceed in the best way I can, and make decisions I feel will help me to create a new life, or, rather, enhance my current one with new love, laughter, joy and peace. I’m going to try harder to listen to Walt on this piece of advice!
“Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.”
Grief is tricky. I feel myself take steps forward, and then something triggers a setback. The reactions people have to grief also vary. Some people expect you to “get over” loss within a designated time period. Some people want you to act like everything is fine, because they are the ones who really cannot handle the emotions. I do feel like there is more light in my life now, which sometimes makes me feel guilty but also makes me happy, and I know that the people who love and care for me are glad to see me beginning to enjoy life again. But there are also shadows, and I am not someone who likes to, or can, put on a show of emotions. It’s all okay.
“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.”
The Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle. We always wished for a cure for ALS. I still hope that wish comes true.
Some people might think that my obsession with all things Disney and talk of pixie dust and wishing on stars is silly. Well, I think silly is just fine (okay, within reason.) I like to think that it is my inner child reminding me of possibilities and letting me believe in my own happy endings. But, just like Walt, I am realistic and I have experienced enough of life to know that things get complicated, and sometimes, downright ugly. In the face of life’s complexities, it helps me to stay positive if I escape for a while into a Disney frame of mind.
“In bad times and in good, I have never lost my sense of zest for life.”
This quote made me think of Ben and his determination to enjoy life despite ALS. He surrounded himself with music and technology, and he ventured into the world and enjoyed all that he could with a zest for life that, I believe, let him manage the disease well for about four years. It was certainly a good lesson for me.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
This quote is my current inspiration for the future. I believe that my curiosity, desire to learn, love and compassion will carry me forward to find new and more love, laughter, peace and joy. I cannot deny that right now I feel a bit lost. At the same time, I feel cautiously optimistic about the exploration.
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
I think that I finally have the strength to summon the courage to follow my dreams. It feels pretty great, and yet a bit scary, to say that. I do believe that pixie dust would help.
“Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.”
This is a comfort to me. Laughter, imagination, dreams and, of course, love, were the key ingredients in surviving years of caregiving and loss. They have always been there when I needed them, even if, at times, they felt out of reach. This is something to remember always. Never lose hope. Never lose the spark of a dream.
“First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare.”
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
Do you remember Pollyana, the eternal optimist from 1960 Walt Disney Productions film of the same name, and based on the novel by Eleanor Porter? Pollyana always saw the bright side, and although at first, she got on the nerves of cynics, she ended up endearing herself to them and enriching their lives. As caregivers, it’s easy to lose a sense of optimism, or to see the bright side of life. I remember waking up and dreading what the day might bring. A day without a crisis was a great and welcome surprise, but I didn’t dare expect or anticipate it. I did hope for it. Grief carries that same tug of emotions. I have a lot more good days now, so it hits me hard when I am caught off guard by something that triggers tears or sadness. I sometimes try to avoid things that I think will make me sad, but I cannot anticipate what might cause the grief to surface. It occurs to me that in these down times, I need a little Pollyana in my life!
There’s always a pressure to be in the holiday spirit, and that can be stressful for anyone. I’ve been feeling a little down since Thanksgiving. It bothers me because I’ve been feeling more empowered since I went to London. I can intellectually understand the grief, I can analyze it, I can say that what I am going through is completely normal. Grief, however, is sneaky and unpredictable. And, I have become more self-conscious about grieving. People ask how I’m feeling and I’m not sure how I should react. If I say I’m fine, they either respond with “really?” as if I am betraying my loved ones or could not possibly be fine, or they have a sense of relief. Of course, there are the people who are genuinely interested and are happy for my good days, but sympathize with my bad ones. But, there are also the people who have given me a time frame for grief, and are impatient if I do not appear to have “moved on,” or those who have lots of inappropriate and unsolicited advice, and, for those people, I am never anything but superficial in my responses. I don’t see any point in foolish discussions or being defensive about my feelings. I do, when necessary, rely on the wisdom of Scar (click here for that post).
I do love the idea of the holidays, and I do love my decorations, although now they hold memories that are bittersweet. Since I was a young girl, I have loved being in NYC during the holiday season and I have so many fond memories of looking at all of the department store windows with my mom and my aunt Eleanor. The streets here are vibrant, with holiday windows, pretty lights and holiday craft markets. I try to focus on those good memories, but I can’t seem to keep my thoughts from drifting to the winter of 2014, when the only lights I saw were from the car window as the taxis brought me to and from the hospital, where I visited my dad until he went to the hospice, and then I saw lights from the Long Island Rail Road train. After he passed away, I was Ben’s caregiver, so there was little time to wander the streets. Last year, after Ben passed away, I had the time to the see the holiday windows and I even wanted to feel the excitement. However, I quickly realized that it was too soon after losing Ben and I was hurting from the loneliness of my first holiday season without him. There were simply too many thoughts of recent sad holidays. Having the time did not mean that I had the desire or the motivation to enjoy things, and certainly not in the same way. Those thoughts began to plague me again during Thanksgiving. I had the opportunity to view Bloomingdale’s holiday windows a couple of days ago and I used a little Pollyana enthusiasm, and was even proud of myself for not avoiding a potential trigger of sadness, but I found myself just going through motions without the excitement I used to have.
Watching Walt Disney Productions’ Pollyana recently, I was reminded of her wonderful world view and of the “Glad Game.” This was a game that Pollyana’s father taught her to deal with disappointment. You turn every bad situation around and think about something you’re glad about regarding that situation. What a gift to be able to always see a good side of things, even if it signals a bit of naivete. I was inspired by watching this sweet little orphan tirelessly bring cheer and optimism to everyone.
Given my current less than upbeat mood, I decided to play the “Glad Game” like Pollyana, and here are a few things I learned:
Being a caregiver was difficult and heartbreaking, and the memories of those experiences continue to weigh on me. There were times of high tension, anger and resentment on my part and on Ben’s, which time has helped me to better understand, but which have also left me somewhat scarred. But, I’m glad to have been able to take the opportunity to show so much love and caring to him and to have had such a profoundly loving and rewarding experience. And, I’m glad that over the course of our 16 years together and while he was in the hospice that we shared great love and appreciation for each other.
I’m still sad that my dad isolated himself and did not let himself enjoy life while he could. I always hear that I was his whole world, and that means everything to me, but it was also a huge responsibility as well as an exhausting task to always try to motivate and cheer him up (I think my dad would even have been a challenge for Pollyana). But, I’m beyond glad that I made him so happy with the books and gadgets I brought him, our many daily conversations, hearing about my adventures, and my constant presence, caregiving and love. That’s a uniquely special feeling.
I’ve lost the people in my family I was closest to in this world and I miss them every single day. But, I’m glad to have had those deep and meaningful relationships and, in the case of my dad and Ben, that I could be the person they turned to as caregiver. I carry all of them with me in my heart and I know that their strong influence is reflected in the person I am.
During these family holidays, I have very little sense of family and very big sense of not belonging anywhere. But, I am very glad to have wonderful friends who include me as part of the family, and they have become my family.
My holiday ornaments bring back memories that are beautiful, but are also reminders of memories I can never relive. But, I’m so glad and lucky to have had the experiences that created those memories. I am glad that I am still able to smile when I look at them, even if I smile through tears. I’m also glad I found the strength and zest to begin to create new memories, even though I have not quite worked through how to weave together past and present.
My emotions are all over the place and I feel very vulnerable and unsettled. But, I’m glad that am a creative and resourceful person who can blog to help myself and engage with other people who struggle as caregivers or grievers. I’ve been inspired and comforted, as well as validated, by much of what I’ve read, and I hope that my words have a positive effect on other people.
So, did the “Glad Game” help me? For me, I think that the notion of “glad” is a little simplistic, and it’s more about gratitude. But, to get myself into the habit of trying to look at things from a different perspective, as the “Glad Game” does, serves me well. I think it would serve most of us well. And, it might help caregivers get through difficult circumstances. When I was a caregiver, my feelings and emotions were very conflicted- I was satisfied yet frustrated, strong yet weak, giving yet resentful, optimistic yet pessimistic. Coming out the other side of that experience, and now in grief, I see that caregiving has changed me at my core. Some of the positive and negative ways are visible and I believe that there are other aspects that I have yet to discover. I feel that in some ways I found myself and for that I’m glad, or grateful. I see that I am comfortable as a caregiver and maybe that’s why I always loved the field of education and teaching. I do not romanticize the experience, or forget the extreme hurdles, but I treasure the unique relationships that developed as a result of caregiving. I am even pursuing certification as a caregiving consultant beginning in January 2017. I have a heightened sense of gratitude that has improved my outlook and sense of myself. I am a compassionate person, and the compassion I’ve seen in others has shown me that compassion will reveal itself where least expected. I am most assuredly glad about that, because that is the kind of magic that keeps me believing in pixie dust and wishing on stars. Maybe I do have a little bit of Pollyana in me after all!
Try the “Glad Game.” And watch Pollyana. Please get back to me and post your comments in the space below.
For those of you who remember the TV series Bewitched, the woman in this clip, Agnes Moorehead, was Endora!
Today is the 25th anniversary of the release of Walt Disney Pictures’ Beauty and the Beast, one of my all-time favorite films. I am reminded of the 2012 release of the 3D version of the film. Ben and I had made a tradition of attending opening days of the Disney movies. As his ALS progressed and getting out and about was more difficult, we could not maintain the tradition, but we did continue to see the films. Ben knew that I was eagerly awaiting Beauty and the Beast 3D because I couldn’t even imagine how they could make it more beautiful (they did.) I did not mention going on opening day and I thought it would be too exhausting and complicated to get him dressed and down the stairs after a day of work. That release date was also the anniversary of the passing of my mom, and I was not in the best frame of mind. No problem. We’d see it at some point. When I got home, Ben was waiting for me, all ready to go. It touched my heart more than I can express in writing. His dexterity and motor skills were already compromised, and it took him all day to get dressed, but he wanted to have our date night. And, because my mom and I shared a love of Disney, he thought that going to a Disney film on that day would be a lovely way to honor her. That was Ben- always romantic. We had a beautiful evening. And, now I have another special memory.