Caregiving

On International Women’s Day- Thoughts of My Mom, Grandma and all Caregivers

Grandma and I around 1990

My Grandma’s birthday was on March 5. She’s often on my mind, but the end of February was the anniversary of her passing, and along with the other sad milestone dates in February, it’s just a melancholy time. The good thing has been the overlap with the Jewish holiday Purim, since she taught me to make my great-grandmother’s humentashen recipe, and I make them every year in her honor. Today is also International Women’s Day. Grandma would surely scoff at this kind of occasion, as she did with Mother’s Day. She would say that women should be honored every day. Still, as I baked my great-grandma’s recipe for cookies to bring to a friend this weekend, and have been distributing humentashen among my friends, I feel deeply connected to Grandma. She would be so delighted that my creations are so well received! Since we shared a creative flair, she would love the way I have come to decorate cookies.

Making humentashen is a tradition that started a long time ago!

The fact that today is International Women’s Day led me to think about the tremendous influence my grandma and my mom have had on my life. I realize that my grandma and my mom taught me to be a caregiver. They instilled in me a sense of loyalty and desire to help my loved ones, although I do think it is also in my nature. Of course, if you read this blog, you know that my dad also played an incredibly important role in my life. Since I was his caregiver, he was in many ways a beneficiary of all that he and these wonderful women taught me.

The truth is that I was a mommy’s girl, a daddy’s girl and a grandma’s girl. That has stayed with me. In more recent years, there have been some wonderful grandmas in Disney films, which always touches my heart. Julie Andrews as a grandma and a Queen in The Princess Diaries was a treat (and great casting, in my opinion) and I related so much to her relationship with Princess Amelia (played by Anne Hathaway). I watched The Princess Dairies and the sequel this weekend. While my grandma was not as sugar-coated as Julie Andrews, she had such an elegance. Most important was that she truly knew me, and although she had her own ideas of how she would have wanted my life to go (think princess meets prince, and Jewish) but she also knew that I danced to my own beat. I was one of a very small circle whom Grandma loved unconditionally.

Grandma doing my hair. She crocheted my dress. She was very talented! I get my creative streak from her.

At one point in The Princess Diaries, Julie Andrews tells her granddaughter, “I have faith in you.” That conversation made me cry. That is the crux of my relationship with my grandmother. She had faith in me. Even though we did not always agree, and I struggled with feeling that I had two mothers when one was sufficient, I knew that Grandma had faith in me. She believed in me in a way that I still don’t believe in myself. I have lost the people closest to me who gave me that feeling. I miss it, even though, despite their faith, I have always lacked confidence. (as I’m typing I’m hearing in my head Julie singing “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music.

When Grandma was ill, although she had caregivers, I was the person she trusted. No matter what others did, my presence was the one she acknowledged. I learned the supreme value of the care in caregiving. Although I wish I did not need to call upon those skills to be the caregiver of my dad during his struggle with cancer, and Ben during his battle with ALS, I was grateful for the women who helped me to develop those skills. I watched my mom and Grandma take care of not only our immediate family, but also my great-aunts and great-uncles. My mom was the most selfless person I ever knew. Grandma commanded more attention, but she was fiercely loyal to her family and to ensuring that we were there for each other and for her. After she died, our family unraveled. I wish that my mom and Grandma had shown me more self-care skills because even now, six years after my dad died and almost five since Ben has been gone, I am not very adept at caring for and prioritizing myself. I have no regrets about what I did as a caregiver, and I am at my core someone who thrives on caring for others, but I do find myself probably unnecessarily overwhelmed at times because I get caught up in small tasks that are helpful to others and rewarding for me, but I feel lost as I think about my life strategy or plan. Still, I think that the good that they taught me outweighs the downsides.

My mom visited my great-aunt, Tanta Rosie, with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie, almost every day.

When Ben was losing his strength but persisting in his brave struggle to walk, he did sometimes fall. There were occasions when I would catch him just in time and he called me his Wonder Woman. He even got me a Wonder Woman t-shirt. Given how much of a klutz I am, it was kind of funny how proud I was of that shirt. I do believe that I learned about my inner strength when I had to care for my dad and Ben. But, the women in my life helped me to nurture those skills from the time I was a child. Caregiving let me discover and utilize them.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I honor and thank my mom and Grandma. I honor all caregivers, who are Wonder Women for exemplifying the powerful meaning of caregiving. And, I honor Julie Andrews, because she’s Mary Poppins, and that’s enough!

 

Happy Birthday, Ben, My Mickey! Thoughts On National Caregivers Day

Today, February 21, is Ben’s birthday. This is another of the February milestone dates that I dread. It is the fifth birthday without him, and I can’t help but ask myself how many of his birthdays I am going to feel like this. The truth is that I have gotten used to the waves of sadness and loneliness. I didn’t know how I would feel today but I go with the flow of my emotions. I don’t convince myself that I have to be miserable, I don’t punish myself, and I don’t anticipate anything other than that I don’t know how I am going to feel and that I will be okay with whatever mood hits. The sadness and loneliness don’t paralyze me the way they did, but the bursts of tears remain.

I thought that I might run a few errands today, but I can’t seem to get myself off the sofa, preferring to wear Ben’s flannel Mickey Mouse pajamas (my cat Disney and I had matching ones) and immerse myself in Ben’s favorite Disney and Pixar films. I already watched Monsters, Inc. I cried when Boo said good-bye to Sully. I can’t help but relive saying good-bye to Ben. It will always be painful, especially on days like today. There is no distraction from tears  or from the pain. But Ben loved Sully, and when they met, Sully was compassionate and funny.

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Sully, Monsters Inc

2012- Sully escorted Ben for his photograph!

Today also happens to be National Caregivers Day, which honors the health care professionals across the country providing long-term and hospice care. It always falls on the third Friday of February. I don’t remember being aware of this day when Ben was ill. I do remain grateful to and in contact with some of the professionals who cared for Ben. Although I was not a professional caregiver, I was a devoted one, and the memories of being Ben’s caregiver are among my most difficult and frustrating, while at the same time they are my most loving and significant. I am fortunate to have a wealth of good memories from our sixteen years together. I do tend to separate them into our pre-ALS and ALS days. Being a caregiver, for Ben and for my dad, brought out who I am at my core, and it also changed me, I hope for the better. I was able to find a stronger voice as an advocate for them, and I suppose now it’s time to use that voice for myself. I have a lot of work to do in that regard. I’m definitely better at caring for others and I prefer it.

I watched the video that I made on Ben’s birthday the first year I was without him, which I have placed here again. I miss Ben and I miss making a fuss on his birthday. When he was homebound, I decorated our apartment after I put him to bed so he would have a fun surprise in the morning. He knew I was decorating but never knew exactly what he would find, and that delighted him. When I look back, I think that making the video was my way of continuing to create a birthday celebration for him. There are photos of his birthdays and other happy occasions, and, of course, some Walt Disney World photos. Some were taken when he had ALS and some in the pre-ALS days. The love is palpable in all of the memories. I guess it will always be jarring but sweet to hear The Beatles’, “Happy Birthday.” Ben woke me up with that song every year on my birthday. Now, I am playing it for him. I do believe that he played it for me when I visited Walt Disney World and listened to the band he loved. When I watch the video now, I remember the grief that I felt as I poured through and selected the images. Still, I do find it comforting to revisit beautiful memories. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with tears, but tears are okay. So are smiles. All of the memories, even through the darkest days of grief, play along with the video but I am reminded that I will be okay and Ben is still with me.

Ben’s birthday always falls during the week that the schools have a mid-winter break. I’m glad that I have the time without having to be “on” in the classroom. I have enjoyed having some time to organize my apartment. This meant going through some of Ben’s things, particularly computer and electronics related items. I threw out things that I had been keeping only because they were his. I brought several old laptops to be recycled. I talked aloud to Ben throughout the process. It’s taken all this time, but once I realized that they brought no particular joy or memories, and that even Ben had mindlessly tossed these things into boxes rather than throw them out, I was more able to part with them. Still, the mere action of having to go through his things without him was stressful. Maybe my timing was not great. As I said, I never know how things will feel so I just go with it.

I did pick up Ben’s favorite meal from our local store and will have that for dinner. I so often think of how Ben wanted to be able to eat the foods he loved, and how I always say that I hope that he is now eating, walking and singing, free of the constraints of ALS. For the first time, the idea struck me to have one of his favorite meals in his honor, with the knowledge in my heart that he can now enjoy that freedom. In my opinion, there is no “right” way to deal with events like this. If I had felt like I did not want to do anything special for Ben’s birthday, and just share a quiet thought of him, that would have been fine, too. I feel no compulsion to defend myself. That, in itself, feels like progress!

As I wrote last year, there is no candle on a cake now, but always wishes that Ben is comfortable and at peace. Also, wishes for a cure for ALS, because wishes do come true.  As Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother says, “even miracles take a little time.”

Wishing well at Walt Disney World
July 2014

 

When Ben proposed to me at Walt Disney World, he asked me to be His Minnie. So, on his birthday, I say
Happy Birthday, My Mickey!
With much love and pixie dust,

Your Minnie

Halloween 2012. Eeyore’s wearing a birthday hat!

 

Sleeping Beauty and Lessons in Caregiving From The Fairies

Today marks the anniversary of the 1959 release of Walt Disney Productions’ Sleeping Beauty.

With the upcoming anniversary in mind, I watched the film last weekend. I have to admit that my favorite characters are the three fairies. In fact, after my cat Disney passed away and a new, small young cat and I adopted each other, I thought about naming her Merryweather, but it just didn’t flow off the tongue. Instead, I named her for another feisty fairy- Tinker Bell!

There is a scene when the fairies brainstorm ways to counteract the curse that Maleficent has placed on Princess Aurora. While Merryweather has the idea of turning Maleficent into “a fat old pop-toad,” Flora reminds her that their magic can only do good to bring joy and happiness.

Fauna believes that Maleficent probably isn’t very happy because she doesn’t know anything about love, or kindness or the joy of helping others. In the story, the three fairies decide to give up their magic and their identities and move to a secluded area in the forest to take care of Aurora until her eighteenth birthday, to keep her safe from Maleficent’s spell. Their entire lives turn upside down. They put Aurora’s needs before their own. That’s a scenario that is familiar to many caregivers. I watched this movie often while Ben’s ALS was progressing but I don’t think I saw the connection at that time. I think that I was too entrenched in the difficulties and what I thought I was doing wrong to see that the love and care in caregiving were always coming through and were nurturing Ben and me.

In my own story, when Ben was diagnosed with ALS, although he lived in denial about its progression, we went crisis to crisis and began shifting things in the apartment as necessary. I had to take many days off from work to help him or just to provide emotional support if he was having an anxiety attack. There were a couple of times that I thought my job was on the line until my principal helped me to arrange for family medical leave. I was tired and stressed, but that was not a priority. There was sometimes tension between Ben and me because I was having a difficult time juggling full-time work with full-time caregiving and Ben would not admit that it was difficult and that he needed more care than I alone could provide.

When the fairies were scrambling to make Aurora a beautiful birthday cake and dress without the use of magic, I thought of the many times that I would experiment with foods and the Vitamix, or help Ben to devise some kind of contraption to help with his lack of dexterity. The fairies wanted to surprise Aurora with a party, finding ways to get her out of the house so they could decorate. I thought of the many nights that I waited until after I had put Ben in bed to decorate the apartment for holidays or Ben’s birthday, so he would awaken to a surprise. I lacked the wand, but like any caregiver, I had to create a kind of magic to make life easier and entertaining. Only in retrospect can I see how it may have exhausted me, but it also fueled me.

We all have to deal with our Maleficents. These were the unreliable family members or even the completely unhelpful but judgmental health care professionals. Like Merryweather, I had some spirited fantasies, but they were more along the lines of banishing them from our kingdom! Alas, I, too, had to focus on the caregiving and vent to my friends the way Merryweather vented or fantasized aloud to Flora and Fauna.

Taken at Walt Disney World in 2002, the pre-ALS days.

As I look back at my caregiving days, I realize that although it was the most difficult work I ever did, it was the most important and loving work, too. The fairies were entrusted with Aurora’s life and they did whatever they had to do to protect and care for her. I was not as selfless as the fairies-  there were times that it made me angry and resentful to have to juggle so much, especially when Ben was not acknowledging that his ALS was progressing and I was losing my ability to “just keep swimming.” At the same time, I also would not have had it any other way. Ben knew that about me and I knew that about myself. Caregiving let me see that I found the most satisfaction and joy in showing love and kindness while helping Ben and my dad.  It wasn’t a matter of feeling happy all the time. In fact, I was not happy to Ben – and my dad- decline and to see our lives and future disappear. However, I felt purposeful and proud that I was the person they knew they could count on to always be there for them.  I realize now that I had the most true sense of myself when I was caring for and bringing joy to them. Although those days are behind me, I often reflect on them, and looking back through the lens of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather remind me of the valuable life and love lessons of caregiving.

Another favorite part of Sleeping Beauty is when Aurora tells her forest friends about the prince she sees in her dreams. She says, “If you dream a thing more than once, it’s sure to come true.” So, I will keep wishing and dreaming and feeling the pixie dust for cures for ALS and all awful illnesses, and for love and all good things. I hope you do, too, and I hope your wishes and dreams come true.

Thank you, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, and Happy Anniversary, Sleeping Beauty.

Walt Disney World, July 2014

Happy National Hugging Day! Who Needs A Hug?

Who wouldn’t be happy with a big hug from Mickey!?!?! July 2014

Today is National Hugging Day. Why not? There’s a National Day for everything!

Ben gave the best hugs. As his ALS progressed and his arms became weaker, he could no longer hug me. I remember, in particular, that he felt terrible that he could not hug me when I got the phone call that my dad had died. I remember being afraid to hug him tight, too, because everything felt so heavy to him. It’s strange that a day celebrating something joyful like hugging should trigger sadness, but that’s the thing about grief and loss. I miss Ben’s hugs.

Fortunately, there are so many good memories, too.This picture is one of my very favorites. The story is interesting and, I think, worth sharing.Ben and I were always so happy to meet Mickey and Minnie. As his ALS progressed, Ben still tried to walk to see Mickey. I knew that it was getting bad when he stopped trying to walk and just rode his electric wheelchair up to Mickey. I was always the one who got super excited to see my friends. In this photo, we had just entered the room and were greeted by Mickey. He actually spoke to us. I was just shocked and he reacted with surprise at my shock, so I started laughing.

What you cannot tell by looking at the pure happiness on my face is that this picture was taken on our last visit to Walt Disney World in July 2014. It was a truly wonderful visit, but stressful because Ben needed much more assistance (we brought a paid caregiver with us) and because we knew in our hearts that it would likely be our last visit. You can read more about that visit by clicking here. The Magic Kingdom is very accessible, but making sure that Ben had what he needed, that there were accessible bathrooms nearby and that Ben would be able to fully enjoy himself did come with stress. Getting to meet Mickey without any issue and with Ben feeling truly delighted gave me a feeling of success and relief. What you also don’t see in this picture is that I whispered in Mickey’s ear that we really needed some magic. Mickey just had to look at Ben in his electric wheelchair- unable to speak very clearly, very thin but with super swollen feet- to know there was a medical issue. Mickey held me tight and he patted my hand. He and Minnie gave Ben a lot of attention. It was emotional and it was beautiful.  I needed that hug. I needed to believe that Mickey could help.

I believe the Disney magic did help. No, it didn’t cure Ben’s ALS, but, being at Walt Disney World brought Ben such happiness, it allowed him to feel free, and, as Ben described, he forgot his problems, which is saying quite a lot. We had four years after his diagnosis during which we were fortunate to enjoy several visits to Walt Disney World. I do call that pixie dust. So was the hug.

I feel it’s an important story to tell because we never know what’s going on in someone’s head or their story. I love that this photo captured a very vibrant smile before the tears that came with the emotion. That photo reminds me that a hug from Mickey Mouse came with all of the dreams, wishes and comfort that is Disney magic. That hug was compassion. We all need to show and to feel that. Mickey didn’t have to say anything, didn’t have to offer any advice or judgment- his hug was the compassion that we needed.

This is another favorite picture of mine- Ben loved Sully, and when Sully saw Ben in the electric wheelchair, he ran over to him and offered to help him up. Sully gave Ben the biggest hug, which made Ben so happy. You can just see his inner child shining in this photo. It absolutely delights me to have these memories.

I send everyone a big hug of compassion on this National Hugging Day!

Two Goofy guys! July 2014

The Passage of Time and Grief- For My Mom

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

Today, January 13, 2020, marks 28 years since my mom, Sandra-“Sandy”- left this earth. There is not a day that I don’t think of her. As I revisited my very first blog post of this date, in 2017, I find myself reflecting on the passage of time as it relates to grief.

Even after all these  years, I find myself completely reliving the day she passed away. My mom died of a sudden, massive heart attack at the age of 59, without any prior medical conditions. 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 and we were left to pick up the pieces. In the first of the anniversaries of her passing, I was completely unable to function, staying home and in bed. I watched family movies and let the tears flow. I think that I actually welcomed the tears. I guess they were tangible expressions of my grief. Today, I went to school and was very distracted by a fundraiser that I am coordinating for the animals in Australia, but the memories loomed. It didn’t help that I am feeling under the weather. I always wonder what my mom would think of me and my life. She is still such a vibrant presence in my life. I talk about her often, and so much so that some people do not realize she’s gone, or for how long she’s been gone. I don’t know if that is good, or “healthy,” but she is so much a part of me. I still, and always will, wonder if she would be proud of me.

These are the thoughts that I posted back in 2017. I am sharing them once again to focus on the beauty of her life rather than her death.

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, but I think we were fortunate to have had such a close relationship. We went to the theater and ballet together and spent a lot of time together and even with my friends. Our excursions to NYC from Long Island for the holiday windows and the after-Christmas sales were epic, strategically choreographed events to see all we could and find the best sales. She was simply an adorable person. Being in London with her was also a hilarious occasion- I still remember laughing at how I would have to translate English to English because the British accent baffled her. Everything delighted her there, as it still delights me. We had so much fun. I loved my mom and she loved me, unconditionally. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died.

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 my grandma, who lived with us, 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.

My mom visited my great-aunt, Tanta Rosie, with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie, almost every day.

In many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after my grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with my 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. For a change of pace, I often brought home treats from Zabars or other NYC places. My grandma did not want to be cheered, and I understood that, though it was frustrating to me that she pushed people away. 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. 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.

London 1987. My mom could not wait to visit the Paddington store!

As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and our time together. So much of who I am and what I do reminds me of her. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit from her. You won’t be surprised that Disney played an important part in our relationship, too. One of my favorite memories is when she called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” (picture below, left) Another is watching and giggling through “The Little Mermaid,” especially because my grandma was straight-faced and completely bemused by our amusement.

I proudly say like mother, like daughter!

I still miss my mom terribly. It remains a wound that is easy to open. When watching movies, I often cry at the mere mention of mother daughter love or the passing of a mother, and Ben intuitively handed me tissues in these instances before he even saw my tears. Of course, that made me laugh through my tears, and that was a good thing. Ben never knew my mom, but he knew how important she was to me and it touched my heart that he always marked in his calendar her birthday and this anniversary and on those days he would plan something Disney-related, like our date to “Beauty and the Beast-3D” (click here for that post).

I enjoyed the movie “Brave” and the feistiness of Merida as she searched to find herself. Fortunately, I never had big issues with my mom. But, the scene in the clip at the bottom of this post says it all. Even after 25 years, I just want her back.

I have struggled, I have adjusted, and I have had to accept her death. Now, although there is still much pain, I must take comfort in knowing that she’s always been with me and always will live in my heart. On this day and always, I miss and I love you, Mommy.