If you’ve followed my recent posts, you know that February is a difficult month for me, with several anniversaries. My dad’s birthday was February 15 and day he died was February 13. Ben’s birthday was just two days ago. And now, today, February 23, is the day my Grandma, Dora, died. Since her birthday is coming up, and things have been rough with these milestones, I want to respectfully acknowledge this date and my love for my grandmother, but I will wait until March 5, her birthday – at least a happier date – to share more about her.
I grew up in a house with Grandma. I was with her in that house when she succumbed to cancer. We were extremely close, knew the best and worst of each other and loved each other unconditionally.
Grandma is a part of so many memories, and of much of who I am, and for that I am grateful. I know that she watched over me as I made humentashen on Ben’s birthday. She was with me yesterday, when I went to the Downton Abbey Exhibition, and I thought about how much she and I would have enjoyed being in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore. I also thought of Grandma as I looked at the beautiful costumes. Grandma always had a fabulous sense of style and I got my love of fashion from her. I have many old photos of Grandma and my great-aunts and great-uncles from the Downton Abbey era.
I am thinking of you today, Grandma. You are always in my heart and I love you and miss you.
Today, February 21, is Ben’s birthday. I woke up feeling so down that I didn’t want to get out of bed. This is the third birthday without him, so I asked 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 miss Ben and I think that’s okay. 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.
In an effort to continue to make a fuss over Ben, I made a plan for today to honor him and our relationship. Making a plan was a way to prepare for the day, too. Since next week is the Jewish holiday, Purim, I decided to bake humentashen, the triangle-shaped, fruit-filled cookies. I knew Ben would like that. He loved them and was very good at shaping the cookies! Ben actually enjoyed a lot of Jewish holidays and traditions- often more than I did! He got a kick out of helping me, particularly because I used to tell him that he was better at it than my mom, who could not make that shape no matter how hard she tried. It always made me laugh to see my big, Puerto Rican man delicately making the humentashen! Grandma would have been proud of him!
Ben and Grandma would be proud of this batch of humentashen.
I am also in the midst of a Disney movie marathon of Ben’s favorites- Monsters, Inc., Mulan, Toy Story (1,2,3) and The Incredibles. It’s a quiet day filled with lots of memories.
I also looked at the video that I made last year on his birthday, which I’ve placed here once again. 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 was always there, so I embrace 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 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.
I want anyone reading this to know that, at least 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! Although I made this plan for today, I didn’t know if it would be right for me until I was in the moment. It began shakily, but I did get myself out of bed to accomplish my goals. Thankfully, though having a “Ben day” alone with my memories and baking did not make me happy, it still felt right, and that gave me a feeling of contentment. And, Ben (and Grandma) would be thrilled that the humentashen came out very well!
As I wrote last year, there is no candle on a cake now, but always wishes that he is comfortable, and running, singing and eating to his heart’s delight. And, wishes for a cure for ALS, because wishes do come true. As Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother says, “even miracles take a little time.”
2011- A visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle to wish for a cure for ALS.
When Ben proposed to me at Walt Disney World, he asked me to be His Minnie. So, on his birthday, I say
Today marks 4 years since my dad, Jacob, left this world. People might think this strange, but I still think about him every single day, remembering his humor, his advice, his kindness and his history lessons. I think about how upset he would be about the state of our country and its leadership, or lack thereof. He was a proud Marine, and a real patriot. He also loved history, particularly WW2, and he would definitely be reminding me that history does indeed repeat itself.
This is a difficult week because my dad died just two days before his birthday. I can’t help but relive the time he spent at the hospital and at the VA Hospice. I remember people from the staff telling me that I was my dad’s world. I did know that, and I am grateful that we took every opportunity to let each other know how much we loved each other way before he became ill. There were no things left unsaid. I am grateful to have had such a close relationship with him. I suppose the sharp pangs of grief and waves of sadness that permeate these days are testament to the love we had for each other. I like to think about it that way.
There are so many times that I want to call my dad, to share a story, ask for his advice, hear him laugh. I still talk to him. Somehow, I know that he hears me, because sometimes he guides me to the answers.
I wrote notes about my relationship with my dad for the Rabbi to present at his funeral. I thought that on this day I would share them to let people know a little bit about him. He would have said that he did not want any attention, but he deserves it.
My dad was a one-of-a-kind. He was so funny, so kind, so generous, but he liked you to think he was Archie Bunker. I don’t think he ever knew or believed how loved he was.
He was such a proud Marine. He wore his USMC cap so proudly and loved to run into other veterans and share stories. But I was his Private Benjamin. The first time I drove him to the VA out in Northport he just shook his head when I clapped and waved as the guard at the gate saluted us when I flashed Daddy’s VA card. Daddy saluted, shook his head and laughed. Although he was not an observant Jew, his Marine Corps experience, where he was one of 3 Jews, gave him a sense of pride in his religion and he did not tolerate any discrimination, gaining the nickname of “that crazy Jew” because he would fight anyone who even looked like they were going to say anything derogatory. He trained down south during the days of segregation, and he remembered with sadness and contempt the way he was not allowed to sit on the bus with his African American USMC buddies and how disgusted he was by those attitudes because it was so different than up here.
He lived and breathed dogs but really loved all animals. When I was a little girl we used to read the Dog Breed book all the time. I knew every breed and I used to say that I couldn’t be Daddy’s daughter if I could not identify every kind of dog! But, he took great pride in his dogs and Schnauzers were our breed. The whole neighborhood knew my dad as Dulcie’s dad. And we all lived by the motto of “love me love my dog.” He was delighted when a group of kids told their sister, who was afraid of Dulcie and making a bit of a scene, to “go inside if you don’t want to play with Dulcie” instead of telling Dulcie to go away. When he was selling our house, a real estate agent brashly told him to put the dog outside. He told her she could stand outside but the dog lived there. She left and never came back. My dad was fine with that! He used to leave messages for my cat when he knew she was alone and let her know that it was a grave injustice that her mommy left her alone.
He was so proud of me and excited that in 2010 I finally was able to launch my dream pet souvenir business and he loved helping me with ideas and business advice. Just last weekend Ben put pictures from a recent dog event I was asked to participate in on his iPad so I could show them to my dad. He loved to look at the pictures and was interested so in my life that he even knew my doggie friends by name.
He had such a good sense of humor and was also a prankster. He got such a kick out of calling companies to review their products or ask questions and having them send him coupons. Once he called me laughing so hard about his call to Uncle Ben’s Rice. He drove the poor girl crazy asking about the measurements, explaining that his mother in law had always cooked for him but now he was on his own. She asked him to hold on and he heard her say, “I don’t know if this guy is sorry that his mother-in-law died, but I sure am!”
He liked teasing my grandmother, sometimes by pretending to sneak into the kitchen to steal her freshly made matzah balls, to the point where she started counting them! To this day when I bake the cookies and hamentashen she taught me to make, I count the number of each shape and/or flavor!
He loved to laugh and to make people laugh. His facial expressions were priceless. His humor made stressful situations tolerable. I remember giving him books on Jewish humor and how he would call me to read some of the jokes, laughing so hard with his cutest laugh. He called me when he was watching our favorite comedies to recount a scene as he was watching it, and his laughter was so contagious that it always made laugh. Some of our favorite quotes came from Mel Brooks’ “The History of the World: Part 1,” “Tootsie,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Hope and Glory.”
My dad loved history and military aviation. He knew so much about WW2. It was a challenge to find books about things he didn’t know, but he loved to read. I used to call him from Barnes and Noble and read the summaries of the new arrivals to see what he responded to. When there was someone or something that he didn’t know well, I knew I had a winner! Ben and I used to find documentaries for him and Ben would convert them to DVDs. He loved seeing footage he had never seen, and it wasn’t easy to find it!!! And we had many, many discussions about history.
As much as he loved gadgets, he had no patience. While he screamed about the bad instructions, I constructed tv stands and bookshelves. FIOS drove him crazy. I got many frantic phone calls when he could not get the tv to work. Ben and I downloaded manuals with the remote layouts so we could walk him through possible solutions. Ironically, he was a master at his trade in heating/air conditioning and was incredibly good at home repairs, helping neighbors and families with boilers, clearing floods, making heating/A/C decisions. Even from the hospice he gave me the perfect solution for dealing with the radiator and my freezing apartment.
He was like a father to Ben, who has ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was always looking for any gadget that would make his life easier. And they often do! I never had dinner with him where he didn’t order something for me to bring Ben, who cannot really get out very much at all any more. In the days when we did visit my dad, he would show Ben his gadgets, books and WW2 bullet casings and they would sit and talk about the wars. They both loved it.
I always knew how loved I was and I loved him. We used to speak maybe 5 or 7 times a day, sometimes to share what was on TV, or make each other laugh, or more recently, when he was living alone, I would remind him to eat and see how he felt every time I had a free period at school. Because I was a Spanish teacher he started watching Spanish television and he would call and ask me what words meant. I used to joke with my students that he worked harder than they did. But, it also intrigued them that my dad cared so much about what I did. And that was an important life lesson for many of them.
He was a man who was so devoted to his family. He always said that he just loved to hear my mom and I giggle with my grandmother. He was so proud to send my mom to meet me in England, even though both of us were amazed at her inability to work a luggage cart! He took care of my grandma, his mother-in-law, driving to and from work in Brooklyn to Woodmere to drive her to the beauty parlor, wait for her to be finished, drive her home, and then go back to work. He was honored and almost humbled that Uncle Larry called him every single Friday. He really missed Uncle Larry. There isn’t a friend or a child of a friend of mine that he did not ask and care about.
He was generous and was more comfortable giving than receiving help. He taught me by example to be kind, generous and compassionate and to have a sense of humor. I already miss the phone calls. But I am still talking to him.
The beginning of a new year should be a positive time of looking ahead, setting goals, and optimism. For me, I kind of dread January and February because of the anniversaries- my mom died in January, my dad’s birthday and death occurred two days apart in February, and Ben’s birthday was in February. All I can do is sigh. I guess the melancholy that looms conjures for me of the uglier and sadder caregiving memories, and strengthens the waves of grief.
Last year, I was thrown when Ben’s table collapsed during the holidays and I had to throw it out (click here to read about the things that mattered). I still miss that ugly table because it held so many beautiful memories of Ben. Then, I was unnerved when I added new ornaments from London to the tree because everything about the tree represented Ben and me. This year, I was prepared for the conflicting emotions as I decorated the tree. I still put the Ben’s favorite ornaments exactly where he liked them, so he could see them from his chair at his table.
When I plugged in the pre-lit tree I saw that the lights didn’t work in several places. Another heartbreak. Ben got that sparkly pink Christmas tree for me when having a real one became too complicated given our space. I admit that I get sentimentally attached to a lot of things, as evidenced by my home filled with mementos from loved ones and special times. Therefore, it is hard for me to part with things that Ben gave me, because represent parts of our relationship. I kept the tree up for the holiday season, feeling that the lack of brightness reflected my mood, and I procrastinated about taking it down. I knew that dismantling the tree meant throwing it away.
Yesterday was the day I had to take the tree out to the curb. As I looked at it, the sadness I felt was not just about letting go of the tree, but of how small and insignificant the tree looked on the tree. Nobody passing this discarded tree would know what that tree represented, how it brought joy during holidays that were not joyful. They would not know that it was the last tree Ben ever saw and how it was decorated according to his wishes and delights.
Although I now feel particularly vulnerable, and I was thrown by the loss of our silly, sparkly pink tree, I also realize that Aladdin’s Iago was right when he said, “You’ll be surprised the things you can live through.” That’s a good life lesson and an important reminder. Although losing the tree doesn’t come close to the tragic and frightening events that occurred as I watched my dad and Ben succumb to their illnesses, it conjured many of those bad memories. The tree was yet another symbolic loss that amplified that loneliness and makes me wonder when and if all of this will end. I do know that somehow, I keep going.
Throughout my life, I have generally thought of myself as a crybaby, very squeamish, and not physically or emotionally strong. I had a hard time comprehending why people told me that I was brave, when I was not the one facing death, though I have come to understand what was perceived as my bravery. I will always believe that caregiving was the most important and loving thing I have ever done, but it was also intensely difficult, devastating and exhausting. This is probably why I relate to Christopher Robin’s quote, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you feel and smarter than you think.”
During caregiving for my dad and Ben and then, in grief, despite the times that I felt so close breaking down and so incapable of meeting the challenges, I must remind myself that lived through it. In fact, I did more than live through it because Ben and my dad knew that I did my best for them, advocating, caring for and loving them. And, although there are still unexpected triggers that cause me to stumble in grief, I know that Iago was right and I’ll continue to get through the waves of sadness and floundering. After all, I don’t want the worst times in my experiences to be what define me or the deeply loving relationships I had with these people whom I love and miss so much. It’s taken time, but I have come to realize that integral to getting through these times is my finding ways to honor my Ben and my mom and dad every day- even through my blogging- and keeping them in my hearts, letting them guide me as I reshape my life, embrace the present, and look to the future.
Our last family Christmas/Chanukah, 2014 with our sparkly pink tree. We got matching Mickey and Friends pajamas- even Disney! (She liked the pajamas, but not the picture-taking!)
Disney ornaments, one of our photo ornaments, one from Liberty and one from Harrod’s in London. There’s also a Schnauzer I got with Ben- I grew up with Schnauzers.
Yesterday, I received an email from a friend who was doing a crossword puzzle. He wanted to know who was Pooh’s 6-letter friend. I wrote back that it could be Piglet, Tigger or Eeyore, but Piglet was Pooh’s best friend. Sure enough, the correct response was Piglet. I didn’t expect the day to be filled with memories that were conjured by that simple email.
When Ben and I first started dating, we often walked to the flagship Disney Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It is no longer at that location. We wandered the 3 floors and I often left with little gifts- the courting phase of a relationship is fun, indeed!
Having spent increasing amounts of time with me, Ben was becoming fully immersed in the Disney mindset, and loving it, sometimes to his own amazement. One day, as we strolled through the store, Ben called me to look at a figurine, exclaiming, “Abby, look! It’s Piglet and his best friend, Pooh!” I stared at him, speechless, and then started to laugh. He shook his head, laughed, and said, “I was macho before I met you!” Truth be told, he was not so macho. He was a big teddy bear, and he could calm me down with his great hugs. He was also a big kid at heart, and he indulged my inner child, and that was us. He bought me that figurine as a surprise, and it will always be so special to me.
Piglet and his Best Friend Pooh! A very special figurine with very sweet memories.
Because of that incident, Pooh and his friends had a particularly special place in our hearts. At Walt Disney World, we always ate at the Crystal Palace buffet, so we could see them. After Ben’s ALS had progressed a bit, I got him settled at our table and then got a plate of food for him. There was one time that Pooh came by our table when I was at the buffet. When I returned, Ben told me that I’d missed Pooh but that he told him that I was going to be disappointed that I missed him. Ben was concerned that Pooh might not have understood him, since his speech was impaired and the costume would make it even harder to hear him (Yes, we did know it was really an actor in a costume, but when we were at Walt Disney World, we completely dove into the fantasy) A few moments later, I looked up and Pooh was literally running towards our table. He pointed to Ben and then tapped his own forehead, letting me know that he remembered to come back (I speak fluent Disney). Pooh gave me a big hug and we posed for photos. Ben was absolutely thrilled. In fact, making that happen for me was monumental for Ben because, at this point, Ben needed a lot of assistance, and that was difficult for him on a lot of levels: It was not easy for him to be so vulnerable, he was self-conscious, he liked to take care of me and he felt like he could not do that anymore, and there was always a looming worry of what was going to happen next. In this moment, Ben was the hero- he brought Pooh to me! This remains a most treasured memory.
Walt Disney World, 2012
The memories are important. They are everywhere. People might find it odd that so much that I have and do is tied to Ben, and that I continue to regularly share these memories and talk about him. Am I dwelling in the past? Am I keeping myself in a relationship that is no longer here?
There are times when I find that I do want to retreat into the comfort of my memories with Ben. There is also a feeling that I want and need to keep Ben in people’s hearts. I still have a relationship with Ben, though, of course, it is changed. He now resides in my heart and guides me. The fact that we had a perfectly imperfect relationship makes me want to find love again and to create new special memories, though it is also hard to imagine.
Walt Disney World, 2002 The pre-ALS days.
Grief is predictably unpredictable, and I do measure my reactions to these kinds of occurrences. Am I doing better? Am I handling the grief differently? Better? It’s a day by day co-existence. Yesterday, I found that although the email from my friend made me stumble at first because I immediately thought about how much I miss Ben, I found myself smiling throughout the day as our sweet Pooh memories popped into my head. That was a good feeling. I know and am comforted that Ben is still with me, and that our time together- the good times and the ALS times- has helped to shape me. I struggle with the reminders that our time was cut short and there will be no new memories with Ben. I do feel like I am becoming more accepting of and comforted by knowing that he is with me in my heart, so he will be present in my future.