“Peter Pan and Wendy” – The Power Of Happy Thoughts and Friendship in Caregiving, Grief and Life

ALS,Caregiving,Grief,Walt Disney World
Ben and I with Peter Pan and Wendy Walt Disney World in 2006 Before ALS

I am pleased to say that I found Peter Pan and Wendy, now on Disney+, to be an excellent and thought-provoking live action adaptation of Disney’s beloved animated story. This film tells the story of how the relationship evolved (or disintegrated) between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. I found myself thinking of my caregiving days, relationships, responsibilities and how they have affected my perspectives and who I am today. This film helped me to reflect on what brings us to where we are in our lives. Please note that there are spoilers in this post.

We learn that Peter Pan and Captain Hook- whose name actually is James- were once best childhood friends. However, Peter banished James from Neverland because James said that he missed his mother, a sentiment that was forbidden by Peter. When Hook eventually returns, they are enemies. Peter says that he survived on his own not with faith, trust, and pixie dust, but rather, with the help of his friends. We know this is not true, because these were exactly the ingredients he used to teach Wendy, John and Michael to fly. The lie did achieve Peter’s goal of hurting James, who became embittered and evil because of the anger he harbored against Peter for abandoning him. Hook expresses that the hard part of getting old is seeing that, “Your friend can look you in the eyes and not recognize you.” This quote resonated with me. Caregiving changed me. I know that. It affected some of my relationships. Importantly, I think about the way my relationships with my dad and Ben shifted to one of caree and caregiver. It was hard to reconcile that I was becoming the parent to my dad and it was hard to feel the shift of Ben’s and my relationship. There were times that we lost who we were to each other. There were times that we lost our own identities and did not recognize ourselves. Some friends got to know me better, others drifted away. Friends who were truly there for me saw and understood me at times that I had a difficult time recognizing myself. I did recognize and acknowledge my friends and the love and support they offered. Other people disappointed me with their distance, disinterest or even dismissal. Though I had enough happy thoughts and memories to keep from becoming bitter, I sometimes still fret that some of these relationships became so superficial. I felt that these people did not even try to see me and I also struggled with the fact that I barely recognized these people as the friends they once were.

As in the original story, Peter Pan teaches Wendy, John and Michael to fly by directing them to fill their heads with happy thoughts. Tinker Bell is there to add the pixie dust. Wendy’s mind floods with lovely memories that quickly take her into the air. Memories have been a focal point of my own life, particularly as I have coped with grief. Although the sad memories of illness and loss continue to occupy space I my head, I have found that more and more, my mind seems to gravitate to the more joyful memories. I like to surround myself with photos and other memorabilia that make me smile. I let myself have setbacks but don’t dwell on resentments and negative memories. At times, I write about them to try to sort them out and give them their say. I want to be clear that I have not rewritten my past in a way that has omitted the difficult times and people, especially when I want to honestly address the challenging aspects of caregiving and grief. Still, I tend to conjure the better times. While I never literally left the ground, that perspective has served to lift my spirits and let me rise from depths of grief.

The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Palace Gardens always brings a feeling of whimsy and magic. During my first visit back to London after losing my dad and Ben, it also brought a sense of hope.

Unfortunately, Hook feels that he has no joy or good memories to propel him in a better direction, now defined only by his hook. On the contrary, Wendy is bolstered by positive, loving childhood memories and she provides the mothering that soothes the Lost Boys. Unlike Hook, Wendy can save herself with her happy thoughts. This is also something that I can relate to. I have said that caregiving was my most difficult, frustrating and devastating experience but also the most loving, meaningful and rewarding experience. The positive and loving memories have carried me forward.

In the original and in this film, Peter Pan says that “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” I find this statement particularly unsettling, particularly in light of caregiving for my dad and Ben. I can attest that neither Daddy nor Ben ever referred to their fates in that manner.  But, Peter is a boy who is not allowing himself to grow up and mature. Wendy, on the other hand, declares that to live would be an awfully big adventure and that “to grow up might be the biggest adventure of all.” There is great appeal in a Neverland kind of existence, free of responsibility and rules. I am someone whose inner child shines brightly. However, I have also pointed out that my whimsical nature does not mean that I am not grounded in reality. Experience has taught me that there is tremendous satisfaction in taking intimidating leaps ahead to cultivate positive actions and loving, deep relationships, even if the growing pains include uncomfortable changes.

Tinker Bell has always been a favorite character of mine, so much so that I named my cat Tinker Bell because she was small and, in my Disney mind, fairy-sized. In this film, Tinker Bell still possesses her feisty, clever, and adorable manner. Though she does not speak, Tinker Bell is expressive, and Wendy takes the time to understand, communicate with and value her. When they part, Tinker Bell does utter a most profound and valuable expression of gratitude to Wendy, saying, “Thank you for hearing me.” To me, that was the heart of the film. Being truly heard and seen for who we are at our core is something that we all want. Feeling validated is something that we need. I saw that in my dad as he grappled with being older, weaker, and more vulnerable. I saw it in Ben as ALS took away his ability to physically care and speak for himself. They wanted to be heard and seen, to know that they mattered. During caregiving and then as I have moved through grief, I, too, wanted to be heard as I worked through how and when to delve into the world of the living and reshape my life. I also recognize this in the caregivers and grievers I support. It is something that we must all practice because it does not always come easily when we see things through our own lenses.

Tinker Bell has a little Tinker Bell costume and doll.

I am still discovering what happens when I head “to the second star to the right and then straight on till morning.” I witnessed and felt the power of thinking positive thoughts, intensively listening and hearing, and being recognized for who we are. I am grateful for those who heard and saw me and who continue to support me. The experiences- as well as my firm belief in faith, trust and pixie dust- brought me to this point in my life and compelled me to want to give back and work in support of caregivers and those in grief.

I encourage anyone reading this to document your own experiences of feeling heard and seen, and of doing the same for others. These will become your happy thoughts. Feel free to share in the comments.

Looking Back and Ahead to a New Year Through a Disney Lens

In Mary Poppins Returns, Mary Poppins said, “When you change the view from where you stood the things you view will change for good.” I believe that the past year helped me to shift my view in positive ways. I put into practice Mary Poppins’ good counsel that, “When the world turns upside down, the best thing to do is turn right along with it.” She, along with other Disney friends, helped me to find perspective, insight and positivity that I want to take with me into 2023.

As I think back to the approach of 2022, Remy from Ratatouille stands out for his very true statement that, “The only thing predictable about life is its unpredictability.” I would not have thought that last year at this time, I would spend New Year’s Eve knowing that I had upcoming surgery for breast cancer, to be followed by radiation. It was not something that I shared with many people, and I am still proud of myself for this decision and for honoring my respect for my own privacy. This year, I am relieved and thrilled that my experience with cancer is only a memory. I am so fortunate. Though I would have preferred not to have had to deal with illness, I learned that I can turn upside down with my world, and I could choose to view the experience as in a positive way, in that it helped me to find, or acknowledge, my inner strength.

Throughout my cancer treatment, I conjured a bit of Megara from Hercules. “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.” I never thought of myself in this way, generally perceiving myself as pretty weak, despite the bravery I was repeatedly told that I displayed during my days as a caregiver for Ben and Daddy. Also, I am not a good patient, to put it mildly, and I am terrified of even the anticipation of discomfort. Thankfully, I healed well, I attended daily radiation treatments for a month, during which time I soothed my heart and soul with daily visits to Central Park, where I fed my little buddy squirrels, was counseled and protected by cardinals, developed a good understanding with some blue jays, and watched the seasons change. On some days, I even treated myself to a Broadway matinee. Yes, Christopher Robin, I was braver than I believed and stronger than I seemed. Maybe I was smarter than I thought because I found ways to calm and energize myself, surrounded myself with a small group of people who were my champions, and gathered and worked so well with an incredible medical team. Medical leave was stressful, particularly financially, but I tried very hard to shift my view and to recognize and embrace that it was also a rare opportunity for self-care and reflection.

One of my favorite pictures.

The truth was that I did not miss being at school. I missed some of the students and I missed my club. But, I did not miss the job or the environment. It took a while to realize that this was not a bad realization.  Instead of dwelling on not wanting to teach and wanting to retire (I can’t deny that I do spend a lot of time fantasizing about this!), I was presented with a chance to think about the things that really matter to me, things that I want to do, where I have come from, where I was, and where I would dare to go. I had trouble focusing because I was caught up in my medical treatment and healing, but I realize now that I was, in many ways, setting myself up to follow different paths. Walt Disney said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” The upside of my health problem was getting this time to think through my dreams and how to summon the courage to pursue them. I want 2023 to be a year where I find more courage and confidence.

I have continued working on my caregiving memoir/workbook, which is now on its fourth draft and looking good. I have also taken several classes on writing for children, which is something I have wanted to do for longer than I can remember. I am playing with a few ideas and have dedicated time on a weekly basis to work on my writing. Even when I am not writing, my head is spinning with ideas, and this feeds my soul and inspires me. Whether or not my work ever gets published, I am thriving as I push myself and my creativity to grow. Although timid, I think of Quasimodo and know that each time I put pen to paper, or keystroke to keypad, “Today is a good day to try.” I aim to make 2023 a year of good days to try!

Working on behalf of caregiving kids has also been at the forefront of my goals. This year, for the first time, my club held a couple of school-wide activities to honor November’s National Caregiving Month. We invited everyone to contribute words of support and encouragement on a huge banner for our students and staff who are caregivers. The positive response and feeling of pride among caregivers AND those who were writing the kind words was truly heartwarming. We also held journaling workshops that were so popular that we will continue them throughout the school year. As I have put myself forward and concentrated on my desire to work with children, I found an opportunity with Hope Loves Company to be a leader of an online support group for children who have or had a parent or family member with ALS. I have volunteered with Hope Loves Company in the past, and I am delighted about this new role. I am also strategizing ways to expand on my ideas in a way that extends beyond my teaching days. I get nervous about the possibilities and tend to put obstacles in my own way. I know that a lot of this is confidence, and some of it is my nature as a worrier. Still, I have seen that shifting my view and putting myself out there and reaching towards the future with my goals in mind has had positive results. I must continue to summon Merlin from The Sword and the Stone, who said, “It’s up to you how far you’ll go. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.” It is my wish and my intention to keep trying and keep moving farther in 2023.

I love Edna Mode, but I think that I will always disagree with her comment that, “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” Looking back to my caregiving days helps me to offer compassionate care to my students who are caregivers and has driven me to incorporate this into my teaching and my future plans. Even as I look ahead, I remain attached to my memories and the rituals I have established to honor them. I have added to my Christmas trees with ornaments from my travels and that conjure good memories and I continue to place Ben’s favorites where he always liked and could see them easily on the tree. That feels right to me. I have written about the photo calendars I reproduce each year that contain Ben’s and my favorite photos from Walt Disney World (click here for more on that). Each year, I re-ordered the calendar, which has been a source of comfort despite leading me to wonder if it kept me too grounded in the past. I did not change the calendar from year to year because it has been something that I rely on as it is. However, this year, when I returned to the web site to place my order, I learned that the company has folded. There was that unpredictability that Remy spoke of and it sent me into a complete panic. It felt like another loss. I researched other online sites and was devastated as I tried to recreate my calendar. I realized that I was not going to be able to make an actual replica. This led me to wonder if I should, in fact, try to make a new kind of calendar with other pictures. Ultimately, I could not let go of my Ben calendar. I am not ready, but I still think that’s okay.  I spent hours revisiting our photographs and the original calendar and I created a new version. In true Mary Poppins form, I decided to view this activity as a good opportunity to take the time to really look back and spend time with the memories and then, to choose photos that still strongly stand out among my memories. They made me smile. I learned that my calendar is an important ritual, but that I can also adapt, adjust and even change some of the things I do, while still maintaining my connections to the past. Sorry Edna, but looking back helps me step into the now and look ahead. Still, with the knowledge that I carry the memories and the people in my heart always, in 2023 I intend to be more present in the now, maybe even opening myself up for new romance.

July 2023 calendar. Slightly different arrangement but same photos and memories. I guess that’s a good analogy for grief- the memories may shift somewhat but they are still there and strong.
February 2023 calendar page. Different page but still pictures filled with love and a trajectory of ALS, too.

Ben and I never had big New Year’s Eve celebration. I did enjoy finding a new recipe and cooking a lovely dinner for us. All that changed with ALS anyway, once Ben could not chew. Tonight, Tinker Bell and I will have a peaceful evening. Mommy home and next to her is all Tinker Bell wants on any given day. I will be thinking about the past year and the things that I want to bring with me into the new year. Ben would tell me that you “can’t spell KickASS without KASS.” I’m also thinking of his hero Buzz, who would tell me that I can go “To infinity and beyond.”  I am a bit more cautious, and, always a believer in fairies and fairytales, recall Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother, who reminds me that, “Even miracles take a little time.” I can wait. I do hope 2023 is filled with some sparkles and pixie dust.

The 2022 tree- some old and new ornaments, but Ben’s favorites still remain in the place he liked them.

I hope that everyone has the new year they wish for, or, at least the peace and ability to find a positive view and to gracefully turn upside down with the world when necessary.

Our 2022 Holiday card. Tinker Bell does not exactly share my enthusiasm for taking this annual photo, but she managed to humor me.

Happy 94th, Mickey and Minnie!

Happy 93rd Birthday!

From the Mickey Original exhibition in NYC

Dear Mickey and Minnie,

Age is just a number, especially thanks to you, because you bring out the inner child in all of us.

I always miss my mom and Ben on this day. They surely would have celebrated the magic. I must admit that I feel pretty lonely at times like these. But, I’m celebrating the long history that we have and remembering wonderful, whimsical times with and about you.

Though you’re a few years older than my mom would have been, she loved you from the time she was a child and she passed that love on to me. She was in her 50s when she and my dad went to Walt Disney World for the first and only time, and without me! I will never forget her phone call, giggling as she exclaimed, “Abby, I met Mickey!” This picture was taken on that day, and it is my favorite picture of my parents because, for me, it captures my mom at such a happy moment with her inner child aglow, and my dad was so amused. When I picked them up at the airport, my mom deplaned like the other children, unabashedly carrying a big Mickey Mouse and Epcot Figment in her arms. My mom was the consummate child at heart, and I get that from her!

Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, Disney
My parents with Mickey in 1987

When Ben and I began our relationship, our first dates often began with a stroll through the Disney Store that was near the office where we worked and met. We went to every new Disney film on opening day and we practically studied the Disney Catalogs, which, sadly, are no longer published. I found several copies that he kept because he loved the covers and I have kept those.

We always treasured our visits to Walt Disney World, so after Ben’s ALS diagnosis, the first thing we did was book a trip to Walt Disney World, and we were so fortunate to be able to go four more times. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, or how much time we had, and we wanted to go to the place that made all our worries disappear, at least temporarily.

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, ALS, Walt Disney World, Disney
Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party 2012

I admit that I was the one who had to greet all of my Disney friends. But, with you it was different. Ben always wanted to see you. And, after his ALS diagnosis, it was emotional and tear-filled. With an ALS diagnosis, we wanted and needed to feel the pixie dust, and more than once I asked you for some magic. You both made a fuss over him and gave me the hugs of support that you just knew that I needed. I will never forget that.

Mickey was always there to help Ben.

For as long as he could, Ben would insist on getting out of the scooter and walking to stand in his pictures with you. It was when he chose to ride his scooter and then electric wheelchair up to you  that I was hit with the reality of his situation. It might seem strange that this moment was a revelation, when I was living with his ALS. But, living with something didn’t mean I really reflected on the entire situation. We adapted to the issues as they arose without really looking at them as milestones in the progression of the disease. Deciding that he could no longer walk up to you was a sign that ALS was winning the battle. But, Ben also had an incredible attitude, never lost his smile and laughter, and he remained determined to engage in life, especially with you at Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney, Walt Disney World, ALS, Caregiver, Grief
July 2014

You and your friends brought us a lot of joy at very trying times. You welcomed us into your kingdom and gave us fantastic memories. Since he has been gone, you have continued to entertain, console and inspire me. I was so happy to see you both when I returned to Walt Disney World back in October of 2019. I was grateful to have an opportunity to thank you for all that you did to raise our spirits and levels of hope. Although sadness loomed due to Ben’s absence, hugs from you let me connect with the past, feel secure in the present and know that I can count on you when I hit bumps in the road in the future. That is quite a gift!

I continue to find comfort and optimism from you. I look forward to returning to Walt Disney World and seeing you in person to get some pixie dust and Disney magic.

On your birthday, I shower you with tremendous gratitude, loyalty and love.

Happy Birthday, Mickey and Minnie. May you always continue to be the spark of hope, inspiration and happiness for children of all ages.

I will always love and thank you,


Cost of Living- Tales of Care Giving

I have written about theater and its importance in my life (click here to see a prior blog post). It was the thing I missed the most when I was caregiving for my dad and Ben, the thing I turned to for peace of mind, enlightenment and inspiration. It is my favorite form of self-care. Of course, a Disney show is pure magic! Even when it is very difficult, as today was, theater always sheds light on my world.

This afternoon, I saw an off-Broadway play called Cost of Living, by Martyna Majok. It is a brilliant play that tells the stories of people who are brought together and who are caregivers or need them. I cannot deny that I was nervous about seeing the play. I am always emotional, and this is a tough topic, albeit one that is integral to my very being. I was also curious about how it would tackle the subject- the title itself was intriguing.

As it turns out, it was, indeed an intense experience. There were aspects of caregiving- from the physical tasks to the impacts on relationships- that brought back memories that had begun to haunt me less frequently. Still, it was beautifully done. It is important to tell these stories. This is a play that should be required viewing, particularly for those who know and want to support caregivers. The vulnerability and fear were palpable, and so are the strength and bravery. It feels good to know that these stories are making their way into art.

I couldn’t find words after the play. I walked to the Hershey’s store, where, ironically, I was buying chocolate for my school club that is essentially serving as caregivers for the school and local community, and even planning events for next month’s National Family Caregivers Month. My club is a positive result of my own caregiving experiences, and I am thankful that I have been able to channel the hard times to help others. Still, it doesn’t take much to invoke a storm of bad memories and tears.

I ended up needing the long walk home. I rehashed memories of caregiving and of the rough times. I thought about the character who missed his wife and how much I still miss Ben, say good night to him every night and often turn to his desk chair and talk to him. He’s very present in my life despite his absence.

NYC is a big and busy city. No one would notice my crying. That is a good thing, actually. I just needed to be with my thoughts. I put on my “Ben Playlist” and listened to our songs. I thought about the times  when I was rushing to run errands quickly because I did not like to leave Ben alone, and it struck me that no one could have known what was going on at home. I remembered meeting the woman on the street who on the surface seemed unnecessarily annoyed at not finding the address she sought, but I walked with her and, sensing her panic, I found the location for her and then accompanied her. As we walked she revealed her own illness, which was not apparent (click here for more about this experience) and I was thankful that I helped rather than judged her. When the pandemic hit, and some people were complaining about wearing masks, I said that I wore mine because if Ben had been alive, I would have been terrified about potentially bringing COVID to him. in support of anyone feeling that kind of stress, I wore my mask even when guidelines cautiously eased about their necessity in some settings.

There is indeed a cost of living. We never know what is going on in someone else’s life. Are they ill? Are they a caregiver? Are they in grief? One of the most important mantras for me has been that it is incredibly difficult to be a caregiver, AND it is incredibly difficult to need a caregiver. As I have taken steps forward, I have found that the costs have also brought the rewards of insight and motivation to support others. So much comes down to kindness without judgment.

I am grateful to Manhattan Theatre Club for producing this beautiful piece of theater and to the immensely talented cast for performances that will stay with me. I hope that the theater community continues to tell these stories. The fact that the cast included members who know and have lived the experience heightened the power of the play. It is my hope that this kind of diversity will also continue to spread throughout the theater and arts community. It will be my honor to attend and cry in support, compassion and, solidarity.

Here is a link for more information about the production.

A New School Year Requires My Disney-est Thoughts About Memories of Caregiving and Grief

It is time once again to brace for another school year. Summer is a time filled with so many difficult memories, particularly Ben’s last summer spent in the hospital. As excited as I am to end each school year, there has always been a bit of dread because I know that I will be haunted by those memories. Each new school year has conjured memories of my often unsuccessful attempts to balance full-time caregiving with full-time work. The quote that always gives me pause was said by Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in the 2015 Live Action version of the film: “Time passed, and pain turned to memory.” Seven years later, I can say that the pain is still felt. It is felt differently, and is not as debilitating, but particularly on milestone dates, and at times like summer and the beginning of a new school year, the memories are still gutting. However, for the first summer in seven years, I felt like a whole person, and I gave myself permission to feel alive. As much as I lament crossing the threshold to another school year, I hope that I do not allow school to defeat my spirit!

Maybe because I underwent my own medical issues with cancer treatment over the past year, I was intent on following doctors’ orders to relax and enjoy my summer. I made plans that excited me, traveled for the first time since the pandemic and visited some of my very favorite people. I felt like I had come into my own, doing things that I love, happy when they honored Ben and our relationship, and feeling comfort at looking at things through his eyes, but not doing anything solely for that purpose. For the first time, I realized that although I will always feel heartbreak that Ben was cheated of so much time, and that we were cheated of our time together, I did not feel guilty about living and finding joy in the fun I planned.

A few years ago, one of the first things I did on my own was fly to the Georgia Aquarium to do animal encounters. It touches my heart very deeply to interact with animals. It was an indescribably moving experience to feed Mara and Gibson, the two baby sea otters I had followed on social media since their rescue; to dance with a sea lion; be kissed by a beluga whale (and even get into the water for it!); and to actually touch a penguin! When I took that trip, there was guilt for enjoying an aquarium without Ben (click for that blog post). There were many tears and there was loneliness, but I took pictures I knew he would have taken, and I mentioned him in every social media post. The only way that I could justify the trip was to make him a part of it. Still, it was a big step to plan and take the trip the Georgia. Of course, it was motivated by my love of animals and fascination with the aquarium I had read about for years. But, it opened my eyes to how much it means to me to be around animals.

A most unforgettable experience at the Georgia Aquarium. August 2019

The pandemic made most animal encounters impossible and, at least for me, travel was out of the question. While I was undergoing cancer treatment, I made a decision that this was going to be a summer that brought me back to the people I missed and that nurtured my profound love of and connection to animals. Turtles and penguins were precious to Ben and me, but my deep passion for animals goes back to my childhood and was instilled in me by my parents. Central Park is a place that I love because it is so beautiful and peaceful, and it was indeed healing during daily visits after radiation, but I am most delighted that I have developed relationships with the squirrels that I feed. I feel protected by the cardinals and am very proud that I even developed a relationship with some blue jays, who have learned that if they do not steal the food from the squirrels, I will give them their own peanuts.

One of my little buddies hanging out on the bench with me.
One of the cardinals that has visited with me.

For years, I had read about an animal sanctuary called Nurtured by Nature, where you can swim with river otters. Otters are my favorite animals- sea or river otters. Swimming with them was my dream, and it was also a place that was always booked. I finally saw some available slots and Ruth, my very best and oldest friend, humored my desire and drove us to this secluded but almost enchanting location. While Ruth definitely would not like Fairy Godmother or any other Disney-ish status, she made my dream come true. The otters were so playful, curious and as cute, and being face to face with them was more delightful than I even imagined. We also got to meet and feed a capybara, armadillos, kangaroos and a ruffed lemur. The experience of being with the animals is so emotional it brings me to tears. Ruth has been there for me in the many good and bad times, and she was the person I trusted with my medical information and to talk to my doctors, so it was a particular delight to share this positive and whimsical experience with her.

To learn more about Nurtured by Nature, click here. It is a wonderful not-for-profit organization that provides unique experiences to children in need and their families, often partnering with Make-A-Wish.

Ruth surprised me with more unforgettable animal encounters at another amazing sanctuary called Wildlife Learning Center. We met and fed a bunch of darling animals including sloths, porcupines and tortoises. I was happy to learn that the Pixar folks used the resident sloth, Sid, as the model for Flash in Zootopia. They also used the Fennec fox as a model for the film, but he was hiding during our visit, which was a shame because fennec foxes are quite cute and I always appreciate a good Disney reference. I even got to hold a hedgehog, something I have been wanting to do! Scrabble was much more prickly than I expected but such a tiny, sweet hedgehog!

I have read for years about the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, and they were magnificent. I saw my first live koalas, which was a tremendous thrill. Koalas have been favorite animals of mine since childhood, and they are probably the main reason that I want to visit Australia. I want to hug them! We saw so many stunning animals and I fed some giraffes, which was great fun, because they are such gorgeous and elegant animals, and their very long black tongues are funny and oh so strong! I cannot pass up any opportunity to get up close and personal with an animal. Well, not birds. Definitely not birds.

Our animal adventures continued at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was beautiful but a bit disappointing in that there were not many animals out in the Bay. I expected to see a lot of sea otters, in particular, and I think I might have seen one. I was told that kayakers do not follow rules, go into the kelp beds, and scare away the otters. How sad! The resident otters were great fun to watch in their habitat and I was able to capture their antics on film.

A very cute resident sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Ruth also surprised me with a visit to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. What an extraordinary sight to see so many massive adult male elephant seals and young seals- lounging on the beach or bullying each other! The females had already headed back to Alaska and soon these fellows and their kids would follow them.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

I must add that although animals were the running theme of our holiday, the other highlights included the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum (I saw one of Cher’s outfits there!), the La Brea Tar Pits and Solvang, the Danish capital of America. Throughout my visit I thought of Ben and how he would have enjoyed these experiences, and how much fun we would have had. Actually, my dad really would have loved to be there, because it was like living the National Geographic articles we shared. At the same time, and for the first time in seven years, I seemed to be fully myself, immersed in animal adventures that I discovered truly fueled me and were not about Ben or us. It was enough of an unusual sensation that it did register with me, but it did not make me sad or guilty, which was also a first. I chalk it up to yet another phase of grief to accept that Ben is always in my heart, but I can and will evolve and redefine myself, wholeheartedly delving into my life and maybe even discovering new joys. Little things can have big significance, and I am proud that I was emotionally ready to add to Ben’s and my Disney collection of mugs a new and fabulous sea otter mug from the Aquarium. I have used it every morning since I returned, and it shows me that, like the rest of my life, my Ben memories will intertwine with my new memories.

More than a mug, this is a symbol of a new memory meshing with my older memories.

I am grateful that I returned from California feeling invigorated and inspired. I have been working on a few picture book ideas, and I completed the third draft of my caregiving memoir/workbook. I earned my certification as a grief support facilitator and look forward to supporting caregivers and those in various stages of grief. I do allow the undertow of grief to immerse me in the sadness and aloneness that I feel at times. Still, it feels good to know that I have grown to be more productive and that I feel more of a sense of direction, albeit with a lot of anxiety that I am trying to manage. Of course, as I reach to follow these new dreams, it is even more difficult to return to school. Although it is not where I want to be, I remind myself of my club, and it is my hope that I will continue to reach caregiving kids. This is where I will find the fulfillment that I need and that, frankly, can feed my desire for growth in a way that teaching, or the school system, more to the point, does not.

It stands to reason that after my animal adventures, I felt compelled to watch Zootopia. I was struck by the quote byChief Bogo: Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true.  Chief Bogo was right. It reminds me of a quote by Walt Disney, who said, Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.” While some might say it is childish and naïve, ALS, cancer, caregiving, and loss made me very well aware of life’s grim realities. A wave of the wand would not make my troubles disappear. However, Disney has helped me through some very dark times. It inspired and comforted me during caregiving and throughout grief. Disney helped me escape and to make sense of things that were happening. Disney helps me to understand my grief and has inspired me to look inside myself and push towards pursuing dreams like animal encounters and writing, which give me a sense of fulfillment. It does take time and effort to balance the light and shadows and to temper the struggles with growth and positivity.

As the beginning of the school year looms, I remember how I was known by my former school staff as Abby who ran in circles trying to take care of her dad and her husband and then who lost both of them. I remember that despite being relieved (for several reasons) that with my position in a new school I was able to shed that persona, I struggled that new people really did not know who I was, because those years, although the most challenging and heartbreaking, really represented the most important and meaningful time in my life. Now, some teachers know my story and others do not, and all of that is okay. I feel like I am again getting to know myself better and writing new chapters. I hope that reflections will always result in my being a new and improved version of myself and that, even if it takes time and there are shadows, that I can and will work to make my dreams come true. I take comfort in knowing that my dad and Ben, along with all my other loved ones, are watching and supporting me along the way. That said, an insipid song sung by a Fairy Godmother would be a good idea right about now!