It was just last weekend, on Donald Duck’s birthday, that I wrote some reflections about my experience with grief in the nearly three years since Ben left this world. Today, I made some new observations. Classes ended yesterday in NYC public high schools. Today, NYS Regents exams began. I’m on the late proctoring schedule, and since I am devoted to my Fitbit and daily walks, I decided to walk to school, a little more than four miles from my apartment. It was a beautiful day, not yet too warm (I do not like summer heat).
As I do every morning to begin my day, I put on my playlist of “Ben songs”- songs that were important to him and to us. Then, I listened to the Beatles album “Hard Days Night.” Ben loved the Beatles and I have developed a strong attachment to their music because of him. After all, the first time we ever danced together was to “Twist and Shout.” Maybe not the most romantic song, but there was magic when we danced that first time.
As I walked to school, I thought about Ben and how life has changed since my caregiving days. Today, I woke up at my regular time and had the luxury of deciding to leave early enough to take more than an hour to walk to school. When Ben was here, I still would have been happy to have extra time because I could have stayed with him longer and not have had to rush through getting him set for the day. When he did have a private caregiver, on a day like today, I could have stayed home until she arrived, so neither of us had the anxiety of his being alone for any amount of time. Right now, it’s all about me, and, to be perfectly honest, I’m not so comfortable with that.
Although it’s close to three years since I lost Ben, my mind still quickly reverts to my caregiving days and memories of my schedules. When I’m thrust back to those days, it sets into motion a kind of movie in my head about the chaos of juggling work and caregiving. Then, I seemed never to be able to walk at the right pace, or fast enough, to get where I had to be. I continue to replay the following scenes: the panic of Ben being alone; constant texting to check on him; receiving an urgent text from him that I needed to rush home because he needed to use the commode, and then comforting him if I didn’t get home in time; getting his “10-4” or “copy that” texts after I sent an update; walking through the streets with my phone in hand just in case something happened (for a while, it could have been my dad or Ben).
The movie in my head did not make me cry today. It didn’t even unnerve me. It does not feel like a setback. I find that I am so keenly aware of Ben’s absence, and yet, of his constant presence. I don’t feel the same guilt about my “freedom” that I initially felt. However, sometimes I wonder if I will ever really be free, because I am so tied to those memories.
As Rafiki said, “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” Maybe I have reached a point where I realize and can embrace that certain seemingly mundane or small events- even a shift in my daily activities like walking to work- will always remind me of Ben and our ALS days. Maybe these memories are becoming a kind of comforting reminder that despite the very ugly struggles of Ben’s brave battle with ALS, my caregiving days and our relationship during that time were incomparably and indefinably loving and meaningful and that now, Ben stays with me, even as I keep walking forward and looking for my new right pace.
Donald Duck’s birthday prompted me to revisit the post I wrote on this momentous occasion last year. At the time, with summer vacation right around the corner, I was propelled into the heartbreaking memories of debating with Ben how his caregiving would be done when school let out, and having those arguments negated because the summer of 2015 was spent at the hospital, where Ben ultimately succumbed to ALS. Those difficult memories have cropped up again as summer approaches. Since I read last year’s post, I have been reflecting on how my grief has shifted over these three years.
In 2016, as the first summer without Ben approached, I felt overwhelmed by the devastation of reliving every moment of time leading up to and including Ben’s time spent in the hospital, in which the end of summer coinciding with the end of his life. Of course, firsts are always difficult. I was consumed with worry about how I would feel during my first summer in many years without any caregiving responsibilities and without school as a distraction. Caregiving was pretty much the only thing on my mind, so I compiled my journal of Disney quotes and started writing this blog, which was actually very helpful as I sorted through the experience. It gave me a sense of purpose to think that maybe my words and experiences would help other caregivers. This, in itself, was an enlightenment. Although I wished that Ben had never had ALS and needed me as a caregiver, I found that I am a caregiver at heart and I am most content caring for and helping others. Unfortunately, sometimes this has proven to be a convenient way to avoid taking care of myself, but that’s a whole other blog! Since going to the theater is my favorite activity, I got tickets for all of the Broadway shows I had been wanting to see. I was excited at the prospect of seeing the shows, but, once there, I found that I could not truly enjoy myself. I missed Ben. I felt guilty about doing things that I couldn’t do when I was taking care of him. I had a lot of guilt about living my life when he was no longer here and we couldn’t not enjoy our life together. Although I had the freedom to do things, I did not feel the zest of “reclaiming” of my life that people told me I should feel. I wanted Ben to be here. I socialized more, but Ben was really the only thing I wanted to talk about. After outings, I often returned home in tears because home was so lonely without Ben. I went through motions, trying to convince myself that I was doing fine, but fighting myself often led to feeling worse. The fact was that embracing my life felt daunting, wrong, and somewhat impossible.
I spent that first summer dreading and planning how to spend the first anniversary of the day Ben left this world. I decided to make a video tribute to Ben for the blog and I pored over our photographs and videos. It kept me very busy and made me feel good to do this for him, for us. I bought a couple of computer programs to help me with the task, taking pride in the knowledge that Ben would have appreciated my mastery of the software. The anniversary day came with many tears and my keeping a low profile, except for sharing the video with friends, family and some of the special people who took care of Ben. I remember that the day after that anniversary was almost worse than the actual day. I spent so much time bracing myself for that anniversary, anticipating the sadness, making a plan to honor Ben. The next day, I was lost and I was miserable. I was unsure of how to act. Would people not want to hear about Ben and my grief anymore because that one-year marker had passed? What was appropriate in terms of talking about him? What was “healthy?” I knew enough to ignore the people who told me what I “should” or “had to” do, but I didn’t have any answers of my own. I’m a person who wears my heart on my sleeve, and I just had to let my life unfold, understanding that there would be good and bad days ahead.
The second year passed- I became more immersed in supporting other caregivers, particularly those caring for people with ALS, through my blog and various online support groups. I embarked on a certificate program to become a caregiving consultant. I did a lot of reflection and realized that I am most comfortable defining myself as a caregiver, so losing my dad and Ben also signified the loss of much of my identity. In many ways, the second year of grief was harder than the first, because the first year becomes such a fog and the loss is new and raw. In the second year, it seemed like I felt the sadness more intensely. Since I had formed some new routines, when a wave of grief hit me and threw me off course, I had a very hard time getting back on track. There was a constant loneliness, even though I was surrounded by people whom I love and who love me. I assessed everything I did, trying to prove to myself that I was respecting Ben, grieving appropriately, and coping well with life. The truth was that although I was active, going to the theater, seeing friends, writing, volunteering, and I even created a profile for online dating, I was also floundering. I was tiptoeing in the world of the living without really delving into it.
It was during that second year, last June, when I wrote Donald’s birthday post, and I could not shake all of the memories of the summer of 2015, when Ben went into the emergency room and everything changed. I found myself wondering if I was grieving too much, crying too much, dwelling on Ben too much. Still, I was determined to have a productive and positive summer and take grief with me. I made plans to travel to spend time with good friends, something I had not been able to do for several years. I was excited about it, and I did have a wonderful time, but Ben still had a huge presence. I talked about him frequently and kept him close, which sometimes made me miss him even more. I even bought things simply because he would have liked them, bringing them home only to face the obvious truth that he was not really here to enjoy them and then dealing with another setback. But, I have only come to understand in retrospect that I could not venture forth without him.
On the second anniversary of his “leaving,” as he called it, I reposted the video I made the year before. I decided to stay home and keep a low profile. Sadly, as it turned out, I had to attend the funeral of my best friend’s mother, who was often like a surrogate mom to me. It was a day of loss and tears but also of thinking of good times.
This year, heading towards the third anniversary of Ben’s passing, I am facing the summer with less dread. I still think of this time of year in terms of the markers of Ben’s battle with ALS, and I drift back to those memories and give into the bouts of sadness, but as Dory taught me, I just keep swimming. I accept that this time of year will probably always have a tinge of melancholy. However, with more enthusiasm and confidence, I once again made plans that I am looking forward to. I do not feel the same level of guilt about enjoying my life, although I still grapple with the knowledge that adventures would be better if Ben was still here. Some of my plans include things that Ben and I wanted to do together, like a penguin encounter at the Georgia Aquarium. I’m a little wary about it because it stands to be emotional, but I also want to honor our relationship and the things that were special to us. I guess the positive thing is that I am not letting grief or guilt hold me back from living. I am not yet comfortable being on my own, and still often refer to Ben and our life, but I am out in the world having new experiences. Maybe on some level keeping him so close keeps me in our relationship, but I fully believe in my heart that Ben is always watching over me, which gives me comfort. But, I am also creating new wonderful memories. I am not worrying- at least not yet- about how I will spend the third anniversary of Ben’s leaving. I have come to realize that I cannot plan my emotions. The day may be easier or harder than I anticipate. I will let my heart guide me and not fight myself. There will be no right or wrong about what I choose to do or not to do. As I reflect on the past three years, I see that I have learned to coexist with grief as I respectfully give grief its time.
I would not have predicted that Donald Duck’s birthday would provide an opportunity for reflection and insight into my grief, but reading my post from last year and once again poring over our photographs, with a combination of smiles and tears, let’s me know that I am doing ok. I still cry, I still feel sadness, I still miss Ben, and I am okay with that because those feelings speak to the wonderful times that we have over sixteen years.
Donald Duck hangs out in the Mexican pavilion at Epcot but I don’t know how much Spanish he spoke!
The Disney magic must never be underestimated. When we were at Walt Disney World, Ben and I stepped into a carefree fantasy that helped us to, at least momentarily, transcend the challenges of ALS. Our photos, some of which I share here, were so important to Ben as his ALS progressed. He loved to relive the healthy days, but he also examined his physical changes as a result of ALS. The photos were essential to me in the early stages of grief, particularly when I wanted to keep him as close to actually being with me as possible. They remain a treasured and positive part of my dealing with the rough times of missing him. I never lose sight of how lucky we were to have a special love and to share this love of Disney that always shed much needed pixie dust on our lives. Donald is part of those special memories that comfort me.
So, with gratitude and joy, I say Happy Birthday, Donald Duck.
Yesterday, I wore Ben’s Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey to school. I have made it a tradition to wear the jersey once a year during ALS Awareness Month. The jersey is significant to me because when Ben asked me to get it for him when was diagnosed with the disease. He wanted to be a fighter like Lou Gehrig. Ben barely got to wear his jersey, but now I have adopted it and I feel proud and especially connected to Ben when I wear it. This year, going on three years since he left this world, I did choke up in one class as I briefly talked about Ben and ALS, but it’s okay if the kids see me being human.
My students 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?”
The first year that I wore the jersey, one of my middle school students asked me why I wore this particular jersey with the name of a player he did not know. 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. 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 dedicated to taking the opportunity to raise awareness of ALS because Ben’s and my 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 when they 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.
This year I am in a high school and the kids had many questions about ALS. We talked about how Ben had to have all of his food pureed, how if his hand slid off of his computer mouse that he had to wait for me to reposition it so he could type, how we sometimes had to spell out entire sentences, letter by letter. It was the inability to communicate that struck them the deepest, which is perhaps why the Project ALS Don’t Talk-a-Thon is so resonant and important. Mostly, we talked about having compassion and not making assumptions about people with disabilities. Some of them sat in stunned silence with their mouths open, some had questions about feeding tubes and ventilators, others were uncomfortable talking about anything sad. One student, who is going through her own family issues with illness, jumped out of her seat and hugged me. It was an emotional and unifying feeling for the class and I hope that feeling fuels the way they treat each other, particularly during difficult times. I think it does, because today, some students asked if I was feeling better because I must have been sad thinking about Ben, while others said that they spent a lot of time thinking about things that I told them.
Ben wanted to fight ALS, and he did, very bravely. Now, I fight to advocate for awareness and to support efforts to understand and work towards a cure for the disease.I may teach Spanish, but my class encompasses cultural understandings and often addresses issues of understanding and interrelations within the context of holidays and current events. I dedicate this small amount of time to 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, 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. You don’t get those from textbooks.
Today is Memorial Day, and on this day I honor my dad, Jacob, who left this world on February 2014. I salute my dad and all the men and women who have served this country. Of course, Memorial Day is to honor those who died in service, and mercifully, my dad did not. However, he often reflected on friends he lost during the Korean War, and this day was important to him, as it should be to all of us in this country.
My dad was a boy in Brooklyn during WW2 and loved to tell stories about the neighborhood. This was a picture he had of my grandfather and neighbors. When I look at it, I can hear my dad’s cute giggle as he told this story: There were concerns that we would be bombed and these gentlemen were the team that was tasked with extinguishing fires in the case of a bombing. My dad never stopped laughing as he pointed out the little bucket, which would need constant refilling, and the short hose that would not reach very far, clearly not the most effective method for dealing with the situation!
Brooklyn, sometime during WW2. My grandfather is the second from the right. Look at how proud and serious the men are!
Daddy was such a proud Marine and a real patriot. It upset him that over the years he saw less and less flags flown around our neighborhood. 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 Hospital out in Northport, Long Island 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, which were so different from up here in the north.
Daddy at Mitchel Air Field on Long Island.
The Cradle of Aviation Museum and events at Mitchel Field were favorite destinations for my dad. Since he was trained as a pilot, he loved to see the old planes. I went there with him a few times and although I cannot say I shared his enthusiasm, I loved to see him so happy. And, I felt a lot of pride to see him meeting other veterans and sharing stories of their time in service. I proudly display in my apartment his model of the F7, the plane he flew, along with one of his USMC caps.
In more recent years, Daddy knew the young guys in his neighborhood who returned from deployment. Some of them had trouble getting back into life and my dad was concerned about them. I was always surprised by how much he knew about them, but he took the time to really talk to them. We read a lot about the effects of multiple and extended deployments. My dad understood it well and he felt for these “kids,” as he called them. I learned so much about compassion from my dad.
Daddy loved when people spotted him in his USMC cap and said, “thank you for your service.” He said it to any veterans that he met, too. I had the privilege of meeting many veterans when he was at the VA hospice in Northport. They were proud. They had many stories. And they were still fighting for their lives, in a different way. They were patriots and they inspired me.
You could take the man out of the USMC but you couldn’t take the USMC (or the camouflage) out of the man!
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of and miss my dad. I miss his laugh, his kindness, his advice, his sense of humor, and his history lessons. I have to admit that I’m glad he’s not witnessing the current events in this country. He’d be devastated and frightened for my future and the future of the next generations, and he would also be reminding me that history does indeed repeat itself. I do wish I could call to discuss things with him, knowing that I would be holding the phone away from my ear because he would definitely be yelling!
Memorial Day is a special time to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in service to this country, to make things better for us. It saddens me to feel that our current administration does not really care about making things better for its citizens. But, maybe that’s why it’s even more important to remember those people who did care, to honor and support those people who do, and to reaffirm our love for this country and determination to honor our founding principles.
Semper fi, Daddy! I love and miss you!
A Disney note:
Since I do make Disney connections in most of my posts, I would like to recommend:
Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War is a fascinating coffee table book published in 2014. Although it was published after my dad passed away, I bought the book because it reminded me of my dad and how much we embraced each other’s lives.
Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, is a 2-disc DVD set, released in 2003, which highlights Disney’s contribution to American military participation in World War II. This collection contains 32 short films used for training, propaganda and education. This set also contains the feature-length Victory Through Air Power, a propaganda film not released since its 1943 theatrical debut. My dad was always amused at my ability to find this connection between my love for Disney and his love for WW2!
Today is Mother’s Day. My grandmother used to say 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.
People often described Mommy and me as being 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. The best shopping I ever did was in her closets and drawers. In fact, I still have some of her clothing and jewelry. 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. At times, it was also difficult for me to feel that I had two moms telling me what to do, and that my mom seemed to have a supervisor. But, Grandma and I 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. 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.
My mom was at her core a natural, nurturing caregiver, at a time when there was no real acknowledgment of the role of caregivers. 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.
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.
When I was the sole caregiver both for Ben and my dad, I often thought about how hard my mom worked, and that served as a tremendous inspiration. Ben admired the closeness and devotion that we had. He saw it in my relationship with Daddy and felt it as I shared stories, rituals and memorabilia with him.
As time has passed, I recall many wonderful memories of my mom and Grandma and our time together. So much of 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.