“You don’t lose hope, love. If you lose hope, you lose everything.” – Mrs Potts , Belle’s Magical World
ALS Awareness month comes to a close today, but patients, caregivers and loved ones of those with ALS continue to live with the physical and emotional effects of the disease. August will mark two years since Ben left this world, free from his struggle with the disease. I want to conclude this month by offering this wisdom from Mrs. Potts of Beauty and the Beast fame.
I have written often about Ben’s bravery and persistence. It has taken me a long time to come to understand that I was brave in a different way. And, I can honestly say that hope played a tremendous part in our lives. There was hope that things would get better and we would find innovative ways to help him eat, use his electronics, and maintain a good quality of life. There was hope that the next day would be less stressful. There was hope that each day would have some smiles and laughs. There was hope that I would remain patient. There was hope that Ben would accept that his needs were increasing. There was hope that he would have more time. There was hope that the disease would progress slowly. There was hope that he would transition peacefully.
Was it naïve to hope? Was it like my tossing coins in Cinderella’s Wishing Well? I don’t think so. To wish is to hope, and I have often written about wishes on this blog. Hope allowed me to reach for optimism. It allowed me to see the positive things, even if the big picture was not good. It allowed me to recognize and be relieved and content that one day was better than the prior one, not because the ALS was getting better or going away, but maybe because we were in better moods or successfully solved a problem. Hope allowed me to fantasize in a healthy way, remembering wonderful times and trying to recreate those and create new ones. It allowed me to be a creative thinker. It allowed me to smile, even through tears.
Hope was my pixie dust. Because I had hope, I was able to open my mind to finding ways to help Ben and to help myself. Hoping beyond hope that Ben would transition peacefully gave me the mindset to work towards making that happen. Love let me cope with the moments when hope was waning.
Hope also has helped me get through grief. It has allowed me to envision a positive future without Ben but with love. It allows me to seek opportunities to help others who are dealing with ALS.
I still have hope and I do make wishes. I hope that I always honor Ben’s memory in a way that he would appreciate. I hope that my blog and interactions with people affected by ALS will help and comfort them. I hope that I will find love again. I hope beyond measure that a cure will be found for this horrible disease.
In a way, hope is a gift, because it allows you to escape some harsh realities. I hope that all of my readers who are affected by ALS will find ways that inspire you to be hopeful and to see past the dark clouds to clear your mind, if only temporarily. There are reasons to be hopeful as we look at the research being done. There is also hope for comfort and the future as we look at the communities and forums of supportive and caring people that connect us because we share a deep bond of understanding and empathy.
Yes, ALS Awareness Month is ending. But, I hope that the determination never wanes to continue to raise awareness of ALS and the brave battles fought by people like my Ben.
I agree with Mrs. Potts. If you lose hope, you lose everything.
2011- A visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle to wish for a cure for ALS.
Today I wore Ben’s Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey to school. When Ben was diagnosed with the disease, he asked for it. He barely got to wear it, but I have adopted it and I feel proud and especially connected to Ben when I wear it. I usually wear it once during the school year, during ALS Awareness month. Last year I chose not to wear it to school because I was still very emotional (it had not yet been even a year) and I was concerned that if the kids asked me about it, I would cry. This year, I might still cry, but I am better about talking with the kids about Ben, and most know that I have a husband who died.
The kids expect to see me in a Disney t-shirt when I’m dressing casually or during our themed dress-up days. They are shocked but thrilled to see me in a sports jersey. They run and ask me if I am a Yankees fan. I smile and shrug. Of course, they look to see whose number and name I’m wearing. Immediately, I get the question, “Who is Gehrig?”
A couple of years ago, a student asked me why I wore this particular jersey. I said that my husband had the same disease Gehrig had. He asked about it and I asked if he ever heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge. He did, but he did not make the connection to a disease. I told him the Challenge was to raise money to find a cure for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, and, trying to make sense of it, he asked if it was a disease where people were cold all the time. It made me smile then and it still does. If only it were that simple! They are young, they do not need a lot of details. Some will ask many questions, some will Google it, and they will learn. And, that’s a good thing.
I’m proud to have the opportunity to raise awareness of ALS, though I surely wish that Ben had not had it. Our experience with ALS truly is never out of my mind. The students that I had while my dad and Ben were alive and ill learned about compassion when they saw me run out of school in tears in a panic because of an emergency, or listened to me explain on rare occasions that although I never use my cell phone in class, I was awaiting an important call from a doctor. And, when my phone rang, they were silent and I know that many felt my worry. Some were sympathetic and compassionate. Those are life skills you cannot gain from a text book. They are important. Some kids do not learn this at home.
Ben’s Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey is one way that I proudly raise awareness of ALS and all it encompasses. While I love to see the students’ glee from seeing the klutziest, Disney-est teacher in school wearing a sports jersey, I know that they are also learning about a man named Lou Gehrig who had a terrible disease that my husband had, too. They see how their teacher has a “real” life in which she cared for and lost her loved ones, experiences grief and continues to live and love and care for her students on our good and bad days. Life lessons.
Today, May 21, is the Don’t Talk-a-Thon for Project ALS research. I am participating and donating to the cause to honor people like Ben, who lost their ability to speak because of this cruel disease, and to contribute to efforts to fund critical ALS research.
It is devastating, and deeply personal, to elaborate on the impact of losing his speech, on him and on me and others who loved and treated him, but I feel very strongly that sharing these details helps to convey the physical and emotional effects of ALS and the urgent need to find a cure.
Ben was fortunate that his speech was very slowly affected. However, as the impairment grew, so did the ability to understand him. Since I communicated with him so much, I was better able to figure out what he was saying. However, phone conversations were extremely difficult. That added a lot of stress because Ben was alone when I went to work. When he finally agreed to having a medic alert device installed, there was a fear that if he activated the alarm, the response team would not understand or hear him through the speaker. Fortunately, the team also notified me if the alarm was activated, and I could run home.
Think of times that you have tried to explain yourself but your point was not understood. Frustrating, isn’t it? Imagine a day full of that. Imagine that constantly feeling, day in and day out. It’s not just the difficulty moving your mouth muscles and using your voice. It’s being understood, truly heard, feeling like you matter. ALS takes that away. Watching someone struggle and surrender, because they just don’t want to keep trying to express themselves, thereby losing their sense of self, is painful.
It was when Ben had a respiratory crisis that we were both truly frightened by his inability to speak to me. He said very quietly that he was having trouble breathing, which he sometimes said out of anxiety. However, this was the first time that he was having extreme difficulty speaking, so we could not talk it through, and I had to ask him to blink if he wanted me to call 911. This event landed him in the Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Medical School. He was given a Bipap mask and I tried to read his lips.
Suddenly, teams of doctors approached me, talking about moving ahead with a feeding tube and tracheostomy. These were things Ben had always said he wanted. Just the week before this crisis, Ben had spoken to his doctor about making arrangements for the feeding tube, so this was not a shock. However, seeing him with a Bipap mask on a ventilator, and knowing that the tracheostomy was imminent, was terrifying. Once in the hospital, Ben began to rethink his choice and wanted to have the time to make a firm decision.
Doctors talked to me about the need to devise a plan for communicating with him. We had not really considered these options because until this point, a tracheostomy was something to happen down the line. I called my local ALS chapter for advice and was told about communication boards where I could point to letters and commonly used words to help Ben express himself. I brought in paper and markers and made a chart with all the letters of the alphabet. I tried pointing to the letters so Ben could spell out words one by one. It was tedious, frustrating, and tragically sad. Ben hated it. He spelled out a little and then shook his head and stopped trying. Who could blame him? He wanted me to read his lips, but with the Bipap mask, his mouth was obscured. Also, his mouth muscles were not always cooperating, so reading his lips was not always possible.
His doctor suggested a new strategy of asking if each word started at the beginning of the alphabet, A-M, or the end of the alphabet, N-Z. Based on this, we literally recited the alphabet until he nodded that we hit the right letter. Imagine spelling an entire sentence like this, and then having an entire conversation like this. Sometimes Ben got frustrated that I said the alphabet too slowly, he understandably lacked the patience to spell the words out. Ben did prefer that we try to read his lips, and we tried. Since I was with him so much, it was somewhat easier for me to figure out what he was saying, but it was not always possible. There was very little small talk. A long blink was his way of sending me a kiss.
In the hospital, there was also no ability to call or text him. And, there was no ability for him to call for help in the hospital. People wondered why I spent 16 hour days in the hospital, and stayed over at his request, but it worried me as much as it did Ben that he could not call for help. His hands did not allow him to press the call button and the variations of the call button also did not work. The nursing staffs really were generally great and they did stop by frequently, but I know that I will never fully be able to understand the depth of Ben’s fear and feeling of helplessness. They were very patient with my phone calls and requests. But, when I was present, there were some people who addressed me as if he was not there, despite the fact that he understood everything. I had to redirect the conversations to include him. Sometimes, I’m sure it had to do with needing to do things quickly, but it took a toll on Ben. He felt invisible. Ben was at least fortunate to be able to nod or shake his head as they tried to determine his needs. Many with ALS are not.
Basic conversation was challenging enough, with Ben having to spell out the simplest of requests, like blankets or asking me to play a specific playlist on his iPad. But, Ben was also making very serious decisions about how he wanted to proceed in life and death with ALS. I will never forget the meetings with his medical team where they discussed his options: life with a tracheostomy and ventilator at a facility or hospice.
Ultimately, Ben spelled out this message for his medical team.
I took a photo of it and texted it to his daughter, who shared it with the rest of her family. I felt that rather than my conveying a message, she should know her dad’s exact words. I don’t really know why I kept such a horrible message, but I simply had to.
Once he decided to go to the palliative care/hospice unit of the hospital, we had to choose the day that he would separate from the ventilator. I remember him spelling out for me, “When is a good day to die?” It broke my heart to write that and to have to grapple with that. Try to imagine what it must have been like for Ben to tediously spell that out. I still can’t. You can’t either. I’ve said it before and I will always stay in awe of his bravery.
In his last days, I did try to read his lips as much as possible. On the morning of the day that he left us, he asked to say our vows, and he mouthed them and his, “I do.” It is heartbreaking to think of it, and yet, it gave him joy, and it does give me joy to know that he had a beautiful last day filled with love and music.
I share this with you because learning about the actual experiences of people with ALS and their loved ones is, in my opinion, the most heartfelt and accurate way to begin to explain the tremendous cruelty of ALS and the very specific ways in which it affects patients and their loved ones.
Ben was fortunate to have had his voice for five of the nearly six years that he battled ALS, even though it was impaired. His physical voice gave him an emotional strength. When he lost the ability to be heard, he felt invisible and terribly vulnerable. Many people with ALS lose their voices very quickly and live with that feeling for several years. The Don’t Talk-A-Thon asks people to take a vow not to use their voice for at least an hour. Just an hour. Think of the trivial things that we often say over the course of an hour. Think of the many silly texts we send over the course of an hour. Those are luxuries for someone with ALS. But, those little things convey who we are and envelope our personalities. ALS robs speech but we cannot allow it to rob dignity. As caregivers, family members and friends of people with ALS, our patience, creativity and compassion helps people with ALS have a voice and feel significant.
By supporting ALS research, we can be the voice for people with ALS, and contribute to efforts to find a cure.
If you would like to learn more, participate in, and/or contribute to the Project ALS Don’t Talk-a-Thon, please click here:
I think back to caregiving days and I often had to cheer myself on and cheer on Ben and my dad. Ben was actually great at motivating himself. I can picture him singing this song from “Hercules” with a big smile on his face. I still have such great admiration for how he was inventive and determined to maintain as normal a life as possible despite the abilities ALS was stripping away. I was there to help him accomplish his goals, make him smile, and do for and with him what he could not do on his own. Although it was heartbreaking, and at times very tense, we did have a lot of laughs. But, he really did strive to go the distance, up until he left this world. I remain in awe of his bravery and strength.
My dad was another story, spending seven years counting down to his impending demise. We joked about his negative attitude, but at times it did drain and frustrate me to the point of tears. I was his cheerleader, and I did enjoy hearing from him and from so many people that I was his life. I was a Daddy’s girl, and he was my life, too. My dad loved history, he was a very proud Marine, and he loved to read. I spent much time calling him from bookstores to read aloud book jacket descriptions of new books about World War II. It was hard to find books with an angle he did not know. When he asked a lot of questions but concluded by saying that I should not buy the book because, “where I’m going I won’t need books,” I knew I had a winner. Ben and I also found lots of World War II documentaries for my dad to watch, and he and I frequently watched one of his favorite films, “Mrs. Miniver.” I had to go the distance and be strong to find ways to give my dad strength and optimism. That was indeed a Herculean task!
Living with and succumbing to a terminal illness is indeed courageous. Caregiving, too, requires super powers. When I was exhausted, or feeling downtrodden as a caregiver, I had to force myself to believe that I could be strong and that I could “go the distance.” Sometimes, it was a matter of reflecting on the difficult time that Ben and my dad were having, physically and emotionally. I was the caregiver, but they were the patients. I think back to the times that I just managed to keep Ben from falling, which, given my own lack of coordination, was quite a surprising feat to accomplish, and in those instances, he called me Wonder Woman. He even got me a Wonder Woman t-shirt. Those shows of strength did take a physical toll on me, but “every mile was worth my while.” I knew that I belonged at Ben’s side. And, in retrospect, I learned a lot about myself in that process. It brings me to my favorite Christopher Robin quote, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
Managing grief has been another Herculean task. The ups and downs have been hard, but I cheer myself on, more successfully on some days than on others. I have definitely stepped back into the world of the living again. I am more comfortable in, or better resigned to, my routine of living alone, and I enjoy with less guilt the freedom to socialize again and to enjoy doing things I love, like going to the theater. I even added to my routine with strolls through Central Park, where I do see signs of Ben from time to time. I have changed things in my apartment, though Ben is very present here in photographs, things of his that give me comfort, and things of ours that bring good memories.
When I think of the future, I still have to convince myself to go the distance. It’s not easy for me to perceive myself as strong, though intellectually, I know that I have shown physical and emotional resilience over the past several years.
I have blogged about my memories, and coping with my present, but the future is still daunting. I recently began entertaining the notion of dating again, tiptoeing into the online dating realm (not loving it!). My relationship with Ben brought so much to my life, and I do desire to find love again. I believe that Ben would want that for me, too. After sixteen years with Ben, it is very challenging to be vulnerable again. I like to think the best in people, so to have to have my guard up is out of my comfort zone. Armed with my Disney soul, I still believe that I can have a happy ending, so, I have to believe that it will be worth my while to go the distance and be strong to find where I belong. I’ll keep you posted…
Today is Mother’s Day. My grandmother believed that every day should be Mother’s Day. And, the truth is that when my mom was alive, every day WAS Mother’s Day. We were so close that we did not need an actual holiday to celebrate that fact. Living in a house with Grandma, I feel like I grew up with two mothers, and I would like to honor them today.
My mom died of a sudden, massive heart attack at the age of 59. She was way too young. The day before she died we were playing outside with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie. There are no hospital memories, or memories of seeing her ill. I’m grateful that my last memories of her are of her laughing. However, there was no opportunity to say goodbye. She was just gone.
My mom and I were very close, or, as everyone said, attached at the hip. My dad always said that he loved to listen to us giggle. She was a child at heart and I get that spirit from her. She loved Mickey Mouse and Paddington Bear and she loved children. Children loved her, too. She was a teacher at our local early childhood school and she loved when kids would greet her when we were out shopping. People laughed that we spoke on the phone many times every single day. We went to the theater and ballet together. Our excursions to NYC from Long Island for the holiday windows and the after-Christmas sales were epic, strategically choreographed events. We loved each other unconditionally and had so much fun. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died.
Grandma and I were also very close. From the time I was a child, I was in awe of Grandma and her elegance. I loved her sense of fashion. She had a wonderful way of putting together colors and fabrics and styles. I still have some of her clothing and jewelry. The best shopping I ever did was in her closets and drawers. More than once, sales people at stores would approach me and ask, “are you the person who called your grandmother for fashion advice?” They found that admirable. If they knew her, they would have called her, too! When I’m feeling lazy about dressing up or putting on make-up- it happens rarely, but it happens!- I hear her warning me that I never know who I am going to meet and I should always look my best. Clearly, she was hoping for a nice, Jewish Prince Charming. My fairytale was not quite exactly her idea of the “tale as old as time,” but Grandma always seemed to understand that I danced to my own beat. Sometimes we frustrated each other, particularly when I challenged her ideas of an ideal life. But, we had a special bond and an unconditional love for each other.
Grandma doing my hair. She crocheted my dress- so talented! I get my creative streak from her.
Grandma had four brothers and a sister, my great-aunts and great-uncles, and I loved them all dearly. I loved spending time with my great-aunts and great-uncles. Losing Grandma and my older relatives left a huge void in my life. However, through our loving relationships, I developed a tremendous appreciation of and compassion for elderly people that I have to this day.
My mom visited my great-aunt, Tanta Rosie, with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie, almost every day.
Grandma was very artistic and I inherited her abilities and passion for crafts. She crocheted many aphgans and sweaters, skirts, dresses and ponchos. I remember choosing wool colors with her and how each item had to represent the gift recipient, yet had to be timeless and classic. I can see my own shifting tastes as I look at my childhood aphgan in its pastel colors and then the gray, maroon and cream colors in my college aphgan. I remember waking up in the morning covered with the squares she made while I was asleep. My dollhouse and dolls even got aphgans! I still have many things that she made. They hold such beautiful memories of time spent watching her and learning how to crochet. Eventually, she helped me to make an aphgan of my own. Ben used it often. Grandma’s talents extended to the piano, and she inspired me to learn how to play. I never played as well as she did, but she helped and encouraged me to play, and I’ve kept some of the sheet music.
When I was a caregiver, juggling responsibilities for Ben and my dad, I realized how hard my mom worked, at a time when there was no real acknowledgment of the role of caregivers. My mom was at her core a natural, nurturing caregiver. She took care of my dad, brother, our dogs and me, as well as Grandma, but was also responsible for looking after my great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, and even my cousins. She even knew the treats that my friends liked and made sure to have them on hand at all times. She took care of everyone in myriad ways. My mom was the most selfless person I have ever known.
I realize now that in many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after Grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with Grandma and my dad and helping them tend to various chores. I also loved and kept in close touch with my great-aunts and great-uncles. I went home every weekend to help in any way I could, and sometimes that was simply keeping everyone company and making them laugh. My grandma did not want to be cheered, and I understood that. I don’t think that anyone fully comprehends the loss of a child unless they experience it. My aunt, my mom’s older sister, also visited every weekend. But, after a sudden death, everyone floundered and tried to pick up pieces while still in shock and feeling profound sadness at the loss of the key person in our family. And, as in any family, the dynamics led to tensions that were, at times, explosive. I found that, just like I believe my mom would have done, I spent my time with them being a cheerleader and my private time at home collapsing in grief. Sometimes I came home, sat on the sofa and cried, and at other times I dropped my bags and took myself to a movie just to escape.
Grandma and I around 1990
When Grandma was ill, I helped with her caregiving, and although I was not her primary caregiver, I was the one she usually relied on for comfort. At the same time, she wanted to protect me from the fact that she was dying.
As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and Grandma and our time together. So much who I am and what I do reminds me of them. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit and love of Disney from my mom. You won’t be surprised that one of my favorite memories is when my mom called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” Every time I bake I feel Grandma with me, and she is a part of all of my creative and artistic endeavors, as well as my fashion choices.
Making humentashen is a tradition that started a long time ago!
There is not a day that I don’t think of my mom and Grandma. I am proud to honor them on Mother’s Day, though in truth, I celebrate and treasure them always.