Grief

How “Up’s” Carl and Ellie Helped Me Cope With Grief During The Holidays

It’s Christmas. Since I’m technically Jewish, it shouldn’t matter all that much, and this year Chanukah and Christmas overlap. Christmas is a big deal to me and always has been. Since I was a child I was always captivated by the colorful trees and fun decorations. I loved coming into the city with my mom to see the beautiful store window displays and the giant snowflake on Fifth Avenue. In a hectic city like New York, the holidays bring out a kinder, prettier, more whimsical side of people. I like that. For me, Christmas is the time of dreams and dreaming, of taking the time to reach out to people who are always in your hearts. Chanukah is a holiday and I do light the menorah and respect the traditions, but for me, it isn’t a season or a tone of the year in the same way as Christmas. I watch the Hallmark movies and yearn for what in my mind Christmas is all about and what it looks like. With Ben, I was able to have Christmas, even if it was simply wrapping gifts that he was bringing to his kids. Without people with whom I share my quirky sense of holiday traditions, I distract myself with a whimsically decorated apartment and the magical sights of the city, but I often feel the weight of a life that still frequently feels lonely and ungrounded.

Memories play an important part in all of our lives, for better and for worse. Now, in addition to my memories of many fun Christmases spent with Ben, I also reflect on how I have spent the holidays since Ben and my dad became ill and since they have left the world. My dad died in February 2014, and the holiday season that year was seen from the windows of the train and car service to and from the hospital and then the hospice. When Ben was ill and ultimately homebound, I decorated the apartment, which added some fantasy to an otherwise depressing environment cluttered with life that had been pushed to the side to accommodate medical supplies and equipment because ALS took over literally and figuratively. Those memories continue to fill my mind at this time of year, though I continue to decorate and call upon my holiday spirit. I put Ben’s favorite ornaments and decorations where he liked them. Since he was confined to his desk and chair all day, it was important to place things where he could see and enjoy them. The first ornaments I place are the photo ornaments from Walt Disney World. I love those ornaments because we spent so much time choosing the precise photo to represent each trip, even though the photos also reflect the physical changes in Ben that resulted from the ALS. Now, as I place the ornaments in those same locations, I talk aloud to him about it, often smiling. People might think I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but I know that he hears me.

Some of the ornaments that Ben especially liked to see were Sully, Buzz, Mulan, our photo ornaments.

Two years after Ben “left,” as he called it, I got my first new ornaments during my visit to London. I chose lovely ornaments from Harrods and Liberty, but they didn’t feel right on the tree because they weren’t ours and most of the ornaments were Disney ornaments that we chose together. At that time, the ornaments unnerved me because, although they represented a favorite place and a milestone in my life that I was once again able to travel without caregiving worries and responsibilities, I also felt that they conveyed that I had stopped grieving, which was not true. It continues to be a balancing act to deal with grief that never really goes away, and coexisting with those feelings but engaging with life, finding joy again without guilt and anger.

Last year, I purchased my first Disney ornament without Ben. It was a Mary Poppins ornament and I know that he would have liked it. Mary Poppins is very dear to my heart since childhood. I love the ornament, but I admit that it carries the burden of always being seen as the first Disney ornament of which Ben was not a part. Still, I have to remind myself that healing happened- until that point, I had not been able to consider new Disney ornaments. I realized that I was ready for my tree to evolve into a representation of all the beautiful memories that Ben and I created, and of the new ones that I am creating, with the hope and wishes for the magic that Christmas seems to signify for me.

The scene with the penguins was always a favorite. Now the ornament is next to our photo ornament and one of Ben’s heroes, Buzz Lightyear.

When I was in Walt Disney World this past October, I purchased an ornament from Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I have had it hanging on a lamp and thought I would put it on the tree. I put it on the tree and removed it several times. Halloween and that party were our most special event and it felt almost disrespectful to put the ornament on the tree, as if it was a slap in the face to Ben that I could go to the party without him and then put a reminder on our tree. Finally, I decided to keep it on the tree because it accurately represented the conflict of struggling with his loss, carrying our wonderful memories with me and continuing to live and enjoy things we shared while acknowledging that they will never be quite the same.

This year, I spotted a very sweet ornament of Carl and Ellie from Up. It was a memory of early in their relationship, captured within a clear glass ball. That ornament touched my heart. Up is a movie with powerful messages about loss, grief and continuing to live. This ornament encapsulated for me the message that I have so many beautiful memories with Ben, and my tree is one way that I can visually display and recall those memories. My heart is fragile, like the glass that captures the memory of Ellie and Carl, but the memories are vivid and strong and beautiful, and they sustain me. The treasured memories surround each other and are, and will continue to be, joined by new memories. They are all precious parts of my story.

I think about Carl looking through Ellie’s scrapbook and reading her final message, “Thanks for the adventure. Now go and have a new one.” Here is the clip. I have put the ornament of Carl and Ellie on my tree as a reminder that although holidays are harder times without Ben, and there is definitely a void, adding new ornaments represents a way that I am coping with loss and finding new adventures while treasuring Ben and the memories we shared.

“Up” Copyright © Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios 2009

It has been more than 4 years since Ben left this world. I say that because I want anyone struggling to know that the healing has not been happening quickly for me, but I have noticed and assessed it. We all grieve in different ways and in different timeframes. Sometimes, we see progress in very subtle ways. We have good and bad times. Sometimes we need the non-judgmental support of loved ones. Blogging and journaling have helped me to identify how I have coped, or not. I wish for everyone to have a holiday season in which they feel loved and supported and that allows them to embrace in some way good memories and the hope of new ones.  Please reach out in the comments or privately if you would like to share your strategies for coping with the holiday season.

The December page from my calendar is filled with our memories from Christmas at Walt Disney World in 2007.

Walt Disney: A Legacy of More than Animation (12.5.1901-12.15.1966)

Walt Disney, Walt Disney World

Walt Disney’s legacy lives on so vibrantly and timelessly in so many ways that it’s hard to believe that today, December 15, 2018 marks 53 years since he left this earth. He’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have such vivid memories of my mom talking about her favorite Disney movies and how she loved Mickey Mouse from the time she was a child. Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. It just amazes me how Mickey and his friends touch the hearts of generation after generation. Now, I love to read about him and get a glimpse into his artistic vision and the building of his business enterprises. His belief in himself and commitment to his art are things that we can all learn from. I believe that Walt Disney’s words of wisdom and legacy will live on, as Buzz Lightyear would say, “to infinity and beyond.”

My blog was inspired by the way that I was affected by Disney films, characters and lyrics in light of caregiving and loss. As much as I love to be in NYC during the holiday season, I do have a sense of melancholy. So many of my more recent holiday memories have sadness. My dad was in the hospital and then a hospice during the holiday season of 2013 and the lights I saw were from the windows of a car that took me home from visiting him or the train to and from Long Island. When Ben was ill we couldn’t go together to see the holiday displays and I rarely had the time to go on my own. When I did have a little time, I either felt guilty or couldn’t really enjoy anything. It took a couple of years before I could bring myself to visit the tree at Rockefeller Center and look at the beautiful store displays.  I guess these memories loom, although just today I went to Rockefeller Center to admire the tree and other holiday treats.

Today seems a perfect day to honor Walt’s memory by reflecting on some of his words of wisdom.  They help me to look to the future with optimism, and I think that’s especially significant as we approach a new year. Also, they make me think about the concept of a legacy. My parents left me with a legacy of kindness, loyalty and compassion and always having a sense of humor and whimsy. I hope that I will always honor them and leave a similar legacy.

“That’s the real trouble with the world. Too many people grow up. They forget.”

ALS, Walt Disney World, Lilo and Stitch

The very first time we met Stitch, October 2006!

As someone who still has a lot of my childhood dolls and can’t resist adding new ones to my collection, it is obvious to everyone who knows me that I completely embrace the idea that you need to hold on to your inner child.  As I’ve said, my inner child is very much at the forefront of who I am. For me, watching a Disney film, and imagining a fairy or fairy godmother at my side, also allowed me to escape the realities of caregiving and loss. Ben always said that he loved Walt Disney World because you simply forgot your problems. With a diagnosis of ALS, his problems were huge, but immersed in that fantasy land, he was a big kid having a wonderful time, even despite his challenges. For him to be able to feel that sense of joy and excitement was a gift. Walt Disney envisioned and provided that magical setting. I never want to lose the attitude that allows me to step right into the fantasy the way I did with Ben. I never want to stop wishing on stars or forget the wonder and delight that I had as a child.

“Why worry? If you’ve done the very best you can, worrying won’t make it any better.”

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2011- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I held Ben on one arm and Minnie held him on the other!

This is absolutely true. Alas, I am a worrier, and I have to work on this, but Walt was right. I can’t say that any of my worrying helped, although perhaps thinking through worst case scenarios may have helped me prepare for a variety of situations. I’ve heard that worrying burns calories, but I’ve seen no indication that this works! I worry now about my future, particularly without much family. I worry that I will never find love again and I will be alone. But, the worrying isn’t going to affect any change, so it’s time to proceed in the best way I can, and make decisions I feel will help me to create a new life, or, rather, enhance my current one with new love, laughter, joy and peace.  I’m going to try harder to listen to Walt on this piece of advice!

“Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.”

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse, Epcot

2010- First use of the scooter to go to Epcot.

There is more light in my life now, and less guilt about feeling happiness, and I know that the people who love and care for me are glad to see me enjoying life again. But there are also the shadows, and I am not someone who likes to, or can, put on a show of emotions. The good and bad moments are all okay. They make me human.

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.”

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse, Wishing Well

2011- A visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle to wish for a cure for ALS.

Some people might think that my obsession with all things Disney and talk of pixie dust and wishing on stars is silly. Well, I think silly is just fine (okay, within reason.) I like to think that it is my inner child reminding me of possibilities and letting me believe in my own happy endings. But, just like Walt, I am realistic and I have experienced enough of life to know that things get complicated, and sometimes, downright ugly. In the face of life’s complexities, it helps me to stay positive if I escape for a while into a Disney frame of mind.

“In bad times and in good, I have never lost my sense of zest for life.”

ALS,Caregiving,Grief,Walt Disney World, Disney

This quote made me think of Ben and his determination to enjoy life despite ALS. He surrounded himself with music and technology, and he ventured into the world and enjoyed all that he could with a zest for life that, I believe, let him manage the disease well for about four years. It was certainly a good lesson for me.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Ben would not be at all surprised that this Eeyore came home with me.

This quote is my inspiration for the future. It’s allowed me to reach out to people, to travel to new places and make dreams come true- I even returned to Walt Disney World, paying tribute to Ben but also creating new memories with dear friends. Throughout these experiences, I did miss Ben. I also struggle with feeling lost and lonely. At the same time, I believe that my curiosity, desire to learn, love and compassion will keep carrying me forward to find new and more love, laughter, peace and joy. I feel cautiously optimistic about the exploration.

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

My buddy is Cruz. Summer 2019- finding happiness! Meeting otters- I made a dream come true!

I think that I finally have the strength to summon the courage to follow my dreams. It feels pretty great, and yet a bit scary, to say that. I do believe that pixie dust would help.

“Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.”

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2011- This is one of my very favorite pictures of Ben because he was so full of happiness and laughter. Here, he was laughing at me when I met Tinker Bell.

This is one of my very favorite quotes. Laughter, imagination, dreams and, of course, love, were the key ingredients in surviving years of caregiving and loss. They have always been there when I needed them, even if, at times, they felt out of reach. This is something to remember always. Never lose hope. Never lose the spark of a dream.

“First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare.”

ALS,Caregiver,Caregiving,Disney,Dumbo

Here I go!

That sounds like a good plan! I’m hitting bumps in the road and struggling with confidence, but I’m working on it. Thank you, Walt

 

Gratitude: A Super Power at Thanksgiving, but also In Caregiving, Grief and Always!

Today is Thanksgiving. Of course, I always take comfort in Disney, so I try to heed the advice of Walt Disney who said, “The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for.” I have really tried to embrace that attitude and, for the most part, it helps me.

Thanksgiving has become a bittersweet event for me. It is a holiday that reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. Last night, as I walked on Broadway and reveled in the tree stands filling with trees and the wonderful fragrance on the streets, I felt a mix of excitement and sadness. Ben and I loved this time of year and we always picked a tree from one of the stands near our apartment. Though I’ve learned to coexist with a constant feeling of missing Ben, last night I couldn’t fight the tears. I came home and talked out loud to him about how much I miss him and how hard it is at this time of year.

I’m not someone who attaches a lot of sentiment to food other than baking cookies and humentashen that my grandma taught me to make using my great-grandma’s recipe, but I realize that now, foods actually carry a lot of memories for me. I have flashbacks of my last Thanksgiving with my dad, spent in the hospital, where I schlepped a full turkey dinner that he ate, mostly, to make me feel better because I’d been crying and pleading with him to eat and get stronger. My last Thanksgiving with Ben was melancholy because he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. Last week, seeing the turkey gravy display at Trader Joe’s was an unnerving reminder of the laughter and tears of my making all sorts of combinations of foods for Ben in the Vitamix as eating became increasingly difficult for him. I always had many boxes of Trader Joe’s turkey gravy because Ben liked it mixed with chicken and mashed potatoes, and I mixed it with all kinds of things to create a puree that he liked, including, if you can believe it, teriyaki chicken! Although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, we did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to feel gratitude was indeed a super power, because it gave us perspective that allowed us to always see the love that was there, be present in the moment and have hope for the future. Now, at these more challenging times, reminding myself of the many things for which I’m grateful continues to warm my heart, even if those memories come with tears.

My dad and I

When things are not going well, it helps to think of even the tiniest thing for which to be grateful- be it a favorite song or snack. I do validate the need to have a pity party from time to time, but said that once you begin to think of those little things for which you’re thankful, you may very well find that there are many of them.

Indeed, feeling and expressing gratitude has been a super power that’s helped me throughout caregiving and grief and emotions that have turned me Inside Out. What more appropriate time to summon gratitude than Thanksgiving?!

  • At the top of my list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving surely was not easy, and I don’t think I was always good at it, but it was the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save them, but they knew that I was completely devoted to them, and that I would love them, care for them and provide a sense of security to them until they left this world. I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.
  • I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion and encouragement, while I was caregiving and then, in grief. Their spirit extended to Ben as well. When family didn’t step in or made empty promises to him-and there were indeed disappointments and dramas-Ben and I could always count on friends. I consider it a precious gift to have these wonderful people in my life and to know that I am loved and that Ben is in their hearts. To be able to return to Walt Disney World a couple of months ago with Monica and her daughters (click here for that post) and pay tribute to Ben and my sweet Disney, while creating new memories with most special friends was an unforgettable and heartwarming experience and celebration of friendship.

  • It is always hard to lose a pet because they are family, and it was particularly hard for me to lose Disney. She was there for me in good and bad times and she was there for Ben, too. Disney was my closest remaining connection to Ben, since she was home with him every day and she witnessed his ALS progression. I became her caregiver, as she had many medical issues, but she brought so much to my life and it was my privilege to take care of her.

    Brave Disney during her hospital stay.

Now, I am grateful for my cat, Tinker Bell. She is young- not yet three years old- and has kitten energy that I have never experienced, and which keeps me on my toes, and makes me laugh and smile. Disney and my previous cat, Tiffany, were senior cats when they came into my life. Tinker Bell has helped me through my sadness over losing Disney. She has a lot to say, loves to be next to me at all times and she listens to all of my stories about Disney. She reminds me that there will always be good things to welcome into my life.

On Disney’s “Gotcha Day,” February 18, 2019 at NYC’s Meow Parlour

  • I’m grateful for my love of animals, as they are often more intuitive, honest and more humane than humans. And, they completely delight me! Discovering the Georgia Aquarium has brought so much joy to me as I have reshaped my life. After losing Ben, it was hard to find my own way and to feel like I was trying to find ways to enjoy our favorite things without him. Planning my first trip to the Georgia Aquarium to meet otters, dolphins and penguins was fun and yet awkward, but I realized that being close to the animals and doing the encounter programs has been a most wonderful opportunity, not only to greet, touch and feed them, but to have discovered a joy that is all mine, though I know that Ben is with me because we did love aquariums. I went back last summer, which was otterly amazing (click here to read about it) and I plan to return this summer, too.

My buddy is Cruz. Summer 2019- finding happiness!

  • I am grateful to be teaching in a wonderful public high school. Not only is it a healthier environment than my prior school, but it allowed me to start fresh, away from my old school and the memories it held of the crises, illnesses and, ultimately, the losses of my dad and Ben. Those memories certainly follow me, but it’s good to see that I can move beyond being seen only as Abby, the person everyone marveled at and felt bad for because I spun in circles juggling caregiving and teaching; Abby the caregiver and the Daddy’s girl who lost her dad and then her husband, even though those experiences are an integral part of me. My stories sometimes help my students share their own stories, and we build a strong sense of community and compassion.
  • As I’ve said, I lost myself in caregiving but I also found myself. I discovered that I am a caregiver to my core. I still have not quite figured out how to use my certificate as a caregiving consultant. However, I have enjoyed doing volunteer work and I am grateful to have met some terrific people who, tragically, are experiencing, ALS as patients or caregivers. This year, I began a club in my school that I intended for students who are caregivers for ill family members or even just for siblings. It is shaping up to be a club of caring, and somewhat shy, kids who need to find themselves and are interested in volunteering. So, in a sense, I am their caregiver! In all of these situations, sharing our experiences is emotional and powerful.
  • I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors.  Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and I am grateful to know that readers find comfort in my words and I am thankful to have connected with many people.
  • I’m grateful to have settled into my life, enjoying many of the things I always loved, like going to the theater and spending time with old and new friends. Yes, there is still loneliness and aloneness, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by wonderful people, a lot of love, and to carry with me in my heart very beautiful memories.
  • I’m certainly not grateful to have had a romance cut short by ALS and to have to try to date and look for love again. However, I’m grateful to have met some nice people who give me hope that someone may very well be out there for me! And, it’s nice to feel the excitement of a little crush or at least the possibility of romance from time to time!
  • I am grateful to Walt Disney and all he created for providing me with entertainment, inspiration, motivation, joy and opportunities to reflect and sort through my feelings. I’m grateful to believe that wishes can come true and that there will one day be a cure for ALS and all devastating and terminal diseases. I’m grateful for my sense of whimsy and belief that if you wish and dream enough, your wish will come true. It lets me know that I will have even more to be grateful for next year!

Wishing well at Walt Disney World
July 2014

At this time of year in particular, I think about Pollyana, her wonderful world view and the “Glad Game” in the 1960 Walt Disney Productions film of the same name, and based on the novel by Eleanor Porter. (click to read my original post about that). This was a game that Pollyana’s father taught her to deal with disappointment, in which you turn every bad situation around and think about something you’re glad about regarding that situation. As time has passed, I’ve learned that being “in a state of gratitude” is not to naively play the Glad Game. It is not to ignore the bad experiences or diminish their impact, but, instead, to draw upon the very important power of perspective. I have a good cry when I need to, or when something triggers it, but I can also shift my focus to aspects of these experiences that compel gratitude. That said, I don’t like when people tell me that things happen for a reason with regard to my Dad and Ben and their experiences- there is no reason for those kinds of illnesses. The lessons could have been learned without that kind of suffering and loss.

Film clip: Pollyana, 1960, Copyright © Walt Disney Productions  For those of you who remember the TV series Bewitched, the woman in this clip, Agnes Moorehead, was Endora!

There are and there will be setbacks and I am consumed with feelings of wanting to be respectful to Ben’s memory and to make my dad proud. My memories will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. And, I keep reminding myself of what Christopher Robin said to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay because I have the super power of gratitude that gives me a positive perspective.

Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. Please feel free to use the comment space to share your own expressions of gratitude. You will likely find it comforting and encouraging.

Happy Thanksgiving.

With all good wishes,

Abby

 

What Edna Mode Didn’t Know About Grief

Edna Mode, The Incredibles

There are times that I know exactly what I want to write about. There are times when I have a plan but an event arises that causes me to write about something else and postpone my original post. For the past couple of weeks, with my birthday and Halloween as events that literally haunt me, I was struggling with so many thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t quite organize my thoughts and simply did not want to fight with myself to make sense of everything I was feeling. I kept rereading my posts from previous years and thinking about this year and how it is different, and suddenly this quote by Edna Mode stuck out to me: I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now. This is a quote that will always intrigue me and yet, as much as I love Edna and her indisputable fashion sense and see her point, I disagree.  Looking back has its value and significance. Rereading my blog posts and revisiting milestone dates over the years, as well as moments in caregiving and grief, has allowed me to reflect on how far I have come and also where I can continue to grow as a person. This was particularly important to me at this time.

October is always a challenging month because aside from my birthday and Halloween being a holiday that Ben and I adored, Ben even proposed to me on Halloween at Walt Disney World! I still avoid my birthday to a large degree, and I have wondered if I would ever be able to feel the fun of Halloween without Ben. I did not know if I would ever be able to return to Walt Disney World without Ben. I knew it would not have been wrong to return, but it didn’t feel right.

This was my fifth Halloween without Ben. It was last year that I was finally able to go through our collection of Halloween decorations, many from our last trip to Walt Disney World. I chose to display a couple of things, and I got a few new things in case being surrounded by the old memories was too difficult. It was interesting to me that a Halloween countdown calendar figurine, which I reluctantly displayed, proved to be very comforting. This was something that I got for Ben as a surprise. I had placed it on his desk for him to see when he woke up and was situated at his desk by his home health aide. He loved it and thought it was hilarious to count down to Halloween. I thought that I might be too unnerved by the idea of counting down time, since Ben’s battle with ALS seemed like a countdown in his life, and the memories of giving it to Ben when his ALS was progressing more rapidly. But, unpredictable as grief is, using that countdown calendar and saying a few words aloud to Ben every morning, has continued to bring a smile to my face. Then, I play the little wind-up music box that plays “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” from Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, which I purchased last year because it reminded me of Ben and I know he would love it. He always said that once he was gone he would be a grim grinning ghost. These things and rituals, including writing blog posts, help me to look back on my memories and see that I am slowly and steadily gaining control of my present.

Our Halloween countdown calendar figurine

I do love to remember the many wonderful Halloweens that Ben and I spent in Walt Disney World. I am most proud of our last Halloween at Walt Disney World, because it was filled with so many surprises that I had arranged for Ben. I was July, after all, so arriving at our hotel room that was decorated like a haunted mansion was a true surprise for him! To read about that visit, please click here. I continue to play the soundtrack to the “Boo To You” parade from Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Ben loved that parade even more than I did and I loved to watch his face at the sight of the first float. Was it living in the past? Yes, for a while, and that was important to me. I needed, and still do, to vividly hold close to my heart those wonderful, romantic and whimsical times. I also needed to remind myself that although I didn’t always do things as I would have wanted, I loved and dedicated myself to Ben and always tried to be the best caregiver that I could be. By reliving memories, I keep his spirit alive.

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse

2011- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I held Ben on one arm and Minnie held him on the other!

Something that stood out to me from a post I wrote in 2017 was that I referred to myself as more of an observer than a participant in Halloween. That was something profoundly true about my entire life after Ben left this world. For a while, I went through motions and floundered, not engaged in life. I accepted invitations to socialize but ended up feeling terribly alone and lonely. When Halloween arrived, I lived in my memories and grieved the Halloweens that Ben would not have and that we would not enjoy together. I lost myself in our photos and videos, just as Ben had done throughout his illness, crying for the loss of Ben, the life we had and the life we would never know. I brought candy for my students and enjoyed seeing the costumed kids on the streets, but I did not take part in any festivities. Last year, I baked my signature Halloween cookies, something Ben enjoyed watching (and eating!). Baking and decorating cookies is like my therapy, so I was able to get lost in memories and the deep connection to Ben and to my grandma, who taught me how to make my great-grandma’s recipe. Grandma really would be delighted by how much I have done to decorate them. Still, emotionally, I was not a part of the holiday. I was trying to keep my Halloween spirit by recreating rituals that existed for Ben and me, but past was conflicting with present. I don’t know what I even expected or wanted. As I reflect on the past few years, I think I can say that the fact that I did question how and when I would step back into the world of the living indicates that I did not want to stay in the past. The fact that I do look back at my posts to see if there have been some shifts, and hoping to see them, says that I am ready to make those shifts. Edna makes a point in that if I had only lived with my memories, I would not have even begun to consider how to tiptoe back into the world of the living and thoughts of reshaping my life. I had to find a way to look back, be present AND look ahead, and in grief that is a daunting task. It could only be accomplished in my own time and that’s always my advice to those in grief who ask when things will change or how long they should grieve in any manner. I went with the flow of my emotions (and, truth be told, the flow of the tears). I didn’t fight feeling bad and I didn’t fight feeling okay. Now, I don’t fight feeling downright happy either.

My photo collage calendar is filled with Halloween memories, especially for the October-Halloween memories!

I came to terms with not knowing if I would ever return to Walt Disney World for Halloween and being okay with leaving it as a treasured memory that just belonged to Ben and me. However, last month, thanks to my friend Monica and her two amazing daughters Abby (my namesake!) and Andi, I was able to return to Walt Disney World and to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party. Please click here to read about that experience. I was nervous about how I would feel being back without Ben, but I was looking forward to having a very different kind of experience with friends who are family. We did have a truly magical and, for me, a kind of spiritual experience. There were many times that I shared my memories and there were times that I took some quiet moments to pay tribute to Ben. I even took the opportunity to thank Mickey, Minnie and Buzz for giving Ben such joy during his battle with ALS when we visited Walt Disney World. There were laughs about our silly adventures, as well as tears shed for missing him and grieving the time he was cheated on this earth and we were cheated of being together. There were photos I enjoyed having with everyone else, and a few that I needed to have by myself because I had them with Ben and I needed to show myself that although things were different, I was still okay and Ben was still with me. What I learned was that it was a comfort to be able to conjure Ben and once again be a part of Walt Disney World and its most special Halloween celebration. I was part of the planning and the choices, I laughed and had fun, and saw things through the eyes of my friends, knowing that Ben was still a vital part of our trip. Although at times I felt like I was watching myself as I reacted to the experiences, I was not just a spectator, I was one of the happy partygoers. I was back in the Disney magic, singing and dancing along with “It’s a Small World,” just as I did with Ben and still having a fantastic time in honor and in memory of him and of us but also in celebration of life and the gratitude I have for such wonderful friends.

Looking back and being happy in the now!

I was not certain before I boarded the plan to Orlando, but I was ready to return. I was also well supported. Being able to look back and take that love and those memories with me allowed me to embrace the now rather than just watch it go by.

Sorry, Edna, darling, you may understand fashion, but you don’t understand grief.

Never losing sight of that I’m really not alone (and I don’t just mean those ghosty ghost buddies).

Reflections on Returning to Walt Disney World, Friendship and Getting Unstuck From Grief

It’s taken me a while to sort through my feelings and experiences during my return a couple of weeks ago to Walt Disney World for the first time since I lost Ben to ALS. The last time Ben and I went there together was in 2014, and he passed away in 2015. My very dear college friend, Monica, and her two daughters very generously gave me the opportunity to return and to pay tribute to Ben and to my cat, Disney. While some might find it odd to include Disney with Ben, it is important to note that the way I was raised, pets are family, and Disney was there for me throughout Ben’s illness and beyond. In addition to being her loving Mommy, I became her caregiver shortly after Ben left this world because she was diagnosed with several illnesses and required much medication and attention. Losing Disney back in February was losing the one who was closest to both of us and entrenched with us in the ALS experience.

Disney loved Marie and the Marie bed that Ben got for her birthday!

Halloween 2010, shortly after Ben’s ALS diagnosis. I had to tell Marie that she was Disney’s favorite actress!

I thought about all my favorite Disney and Pixar movies and quotes and their significance to this trip. Of course, it was Walt Disney who best summed up my time, but who would have thought that I would find it on a coffee cup at the Polynesian Hotel?! He said, “I love the nostalgic myself. I hope we never lose some of the things of the past.” He also said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things.” This trip represented a combination of nostalgia and looking ahead and it represented a milestone in that I was able to go back and step forward.

It was nerve-wracking to gear up for the visit and I was caught between excitement and fear of the emotions. I flew on a different airline, which had me nervous because I never handle flying particularly well, but at the same time gave me a sense of relief that walking exactly the same path we took might have been too sad.

I met Monica, Abby (my namesake!) and Andi at the Magical Express bus area of the Orlando airport. I got there first and had time to think back to all the times that Ben and I eagerly awaited our buses and how, after his ALS progressed, he even enjoyed going up on the wheelchair lift, treating it like another Disney attraction. Once I was with them, I felt grounded in family. They let me recount all my memories, so they got a glimpse of our experiences, but we also had so many whimsical distractions that helped us to create new ones. I am so grateful for that.

The new memories began at a new hotel, the Polynesian Village, which was one I’d always been curious about. I have to admit that as I took the first selfie with all of us, pictured below, it felt surreal to be smiling. I was caught up in the excitement and wanting to be happy. I almost felt like I was watching myself, keenly aware of my reactions to everything. Being with people who love me and whom I love, and who wanted this to be a special trip, made it an overwhelmingly joyful experience, even when the memories were difficult.

We started at the Animal Kingdom, where I took videos of the musicians, as I know Ben would have done. I do love to look at things through his eyes. Once I saw my friends Doug and Russell from Up, I was back in the magic. Then, we saw Rafiki and Baloo. You can tell me they are actors all you want, but if you’re going to go to the Kingdom, you must buy into the whole experience. I just do it with great zest!

I quickly realized that I was going to remember my times with Ben with every step I took at Walt Disney World. At times it was jarring, but because I was able to talk about him, I was able to bring him with me into my new experiences.

I think that aside from the actual attractions, it was in the photographs that I felt tremendous emotion. Posing for the Parks’ photographers, I remembered my photos with Ben. I was so delighted to capture special moments with Monica, Abby and Andi. In some cases, where I have photos of myself with Ben, I needed to take a photo by myself. I needed to have that visual statement that I was by myself and things are so different now. However, the photos are also proof that I am okay and that I am, as Christopher Robin told Pooh, “braver than I believe” and “stronger than I seem.”

Halloween 2012.

Still loving the Halloween decorations all around the Magic Kingdom! So many wonderful memories!

I have written about times when Ben got emotional around Mickey and Minnie, or Buzz Lightyear. I remember how Goofy stayed at Ben’s side until he made him laugh, and how Mickey and Minnie hugged him so dearly when he was overcome with emotion. I still believe that although his ALS wasn’t cured, the Disney magic was at work giving us several opportunities to visit and enjoy Walt Disney World after his diagnosis. This time, I had to thank these characters for the joy and strength they gave to Ben and to me. Yes, I am well aware that they are different actors, and that they are actors. But, they are Mickey and Minnie and Buzz and they are symbolic in our relationship and his battle with ALS.

For our first evening, Andi had arranged for us to have dinner at Hollywood and Vine, a restaurant that Ben and I enjoyed because the buffet gave us lots of opportunities to find foods that he could easily chew. My big surprise was that it has become a Halloween character event, and when we arrived, Andi told me that Minnie was right inside! So were Mickey, Goofy, Donald and Daisy! I can’t describe how heartwarming it was that Andi arranged this surprise! For so many years, I had been the one to make all the arrangements and create the surprises for Ben. Monica’s arranging this trip was more than I could ever have imagined, and to be the recipient of these gifts made me feel so surrounded by love and so fortunate. Minnie Mouse seemed to have been very touched when I told her that at a certain point in the ALS progression Ben would only try to get out of his wheelchair for her and Mickey and she hugged me and signaled that I am strong and that she loves me. It didn’t take long before I was completely in tears. Minnie is one of my very favorite characters- she is like a kindred spirit to me- and to connect over my memories and my grief was very powerful. Thanking her was something I needed to do.

July 2014, Ben was overcome with emotion when he greeted Mickey and Minnie.

This time, I was overcome with emotion thanking Minnie for all the joy that she brought to us at a difficult time.

Joyful, funny, silly times! Disney magic sprinkled with pixie dust (and very special friends!)

 

I was dreadful at the Buzz Lightyear Space Rangers attraction. Ben would have teased me mercilessly! It was great fun to enjoy the attractions with actual children- well, teens. Ordinarily, when there were announcements about holding small children by the hand, Ben would grab my hand and laugh.  Afterwards, we went to meet Buzz for photos in exactly the place where Ben and I had met him. I showed him the very brief video of when he met Ben and made a fuss over his Buzz Halloween shirt/costume. Of course, Buzz indicated that he “remembered,” and I got choked up as I thanked him. I took my photo alone (though I am firmly convinced that Ben’s spirit accompanied me) and then got fun shots with my friends, my family.

I showed Buzz the video of him with Ben. Of course he remembered!

 

 

Just Buzz and me, but I know Ben was with us.

New memories: Abby x 2 to the left, and Andi and Monica to the right of Buzz.

Being at the Magic Kingdom is truly my happy place and being able to dance and share the magic with loved ones adds a whole new layer of joy to my treasure trove of memories. I felt Ben beside me on each of our rides through It’s a Small World- yes, there were a few! Ben always joked that after he left this earth, that he would do two things: 1. Haunt me if I ever met another man; and 2. Be a grim grinning ghost at the Haunted Mansion! I fully expected that he would join us on the doom buggy, and I found that a comfort. Outside the mansion, we paid our respects to Ben, and to Disney, and even to Tiffany, my first cat who truly loved all of our Disney plush toys.

I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that Ben is a grim grinning ghost now. Not sure how Andi felt about that!

I was a little nervous about attending Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party because it was one of our most treasured events. It made me so happy that they loved the Boo To You parade because Ben loved it so much that he often listened to the music and whenever he was annoyed, he would scoff, “boo to you!” I choked up as it begun and I couldn’t help but turn to Monica and say that it just isn’t fair that Ben wasn’t there to enjoy it. ALS isn’t fair. It’s never fair when terminal illness cuts short a person’s life. The Halloween party offered a few parallel experiences, including photos with Pooh and his buddies all dressed up for Halloween. I so clearly remembered posing for that photo with Ben in his scooter. I will forever admire his positive attitude throughout his battle with ALS. He would have loved the photograph below with the animation of the ghosts.

We loved to stand here, on Main Street, and look at all the Halloween decorations.

 

Although I relived some of the old memories, I had so many laughs and fun times, creating so many new memories. I do miss having kids of my own, so to share a lovely relationship with my friends’ children is very important to me and something I value tremendously.  It was special fun to stay at the park with Andi until midnight, where we were able to go on the Little Mermaid attraction two times in a row! Just to see the attractions and wander the parks through the eyes of the kids is something I could not have done without Monica’s arranging this magical trip.

ALS, Walt Disney World, Pooh, Rabbit,Caregiving

Halloween 2012 at Walt Disney World. We never met Rabbit (there was probably too much frolicking), but had fun with his 100 Acre Woods buddies.

Ben would not be at all surprised that this Eeyore came home with me.

I do find great peace, comfort and love in seeing signs of Ben’s presence and this trip was filled with messages that he was accompanying me. The first sign came at the Halloween party. I had been a bit disappointed that we were not going to meet Sully, because he was one of Ben’s favorite buddies and he was the first buddy we told when we got engaged at Walt Disney World one Halloween. Sully hangs out at Hollywood Studios. As we looked at the party map, I noticed that Sully was going to be at the dance party. Sure enough, I got to dance with him! Boo was also there and Ben always said I was like Boo because I followed my cats around so much, always wanting to pick them up. Disney loved it, but Tiffany hated to be held and Tinker Bell is not thrilled with it, either. In my mind, Ben had something to do with their being at the Magic Kingdom!

Halloween 2012. Ben was still able to get out of his wheelchair to greet his best buddy, Sully!

This time, Sully magically showed up at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party!

Epcot will always be a special place because of how much Ben loved the freedom of riding his scooter and electric wheelchair through the World Showcase without having many attractions on which to transfer. I felt that it was perfect timing to be there on the very last night of the Illuminations fireworks show because that was a very moving experience for us. I listen to that soundtrack almost every morning- it’s beautiful. The kids went back to the hotel and Monica went with me to pay a special tribute to Ben and Disney at the UK pavilion, where Ben loved to listen to the live bands. The band wasn’t playing, but Mary Poppins was there. Later, Monica joined the kids to head to the Magic Kingdom but I spent the afternoon wandering Epcot and waiting for the final Illuminations. I visited the Boardwalk, which was our favorite hotel and where Ben loved to look out over the water. Some of the stores have changed, but I treated myself to a splurge of ice cream, as we always did, sat with my thoughts and had a little chat with Ben. I like to believe that Ben will now forever be able to watch those waters. I took a ride on the new Skyliner cars, which, sadly, are now having some problems, but which were quite fun. I took all of the photos and videos that I know Ben would have been taking, particularly when the Boardwalk Inn came into view. I met Joy from Inside Out, which was interesting because Sadness was supposed to be there but she wasn’t. I asked if she was too sad to drag herself to Epcot that day. I told Joy that I was having a day of joy and sadness, but her movie shows us that life is just like that, so it’s all good. She asked about the Tinker Bell ornament on my Magic Band and I told her that I have a cat, Tinker Bell. Joy signaled to the photographer to ask if I had pictures of Tinker Bell on my phone because she loves cats and Riley, in whose brain she lives, had a cat. So, there I was, the proud mama looking for photos of my baby girl to show to Joy! I returned to the UK pavilion just as the band arrived. I had just done a quiet little tribute to Ben and Disney when suddenly the band played the Beatles Twist and Shout and then their version of Happy Birthday. Those were the signs I needed to know that Ben was definitely with me. Twist and Shout was the first song that we ever danced to and Happy Birthday is the song that Ben called me to play every year when we were dating and then set up on his computer each year, even when he couldn’t be at his desk in the morning. We always went to Walt Disney World in October, for Halloween and my birthday, so I felt like he sent me that song. Some people don’t believe in signs, but I do, and these signs let me know that I was doing the right thing with this trip and with these tributes.

Below, a song I needed to hear from the band in the England pavilion that Ben loved so much. It definitely was a message from him!

I did purchase special light-up Farewell to Illuminations Mickey ears and I got my picture taken with the Spaceship Earth in the background. It’s always a bit lonely to do that, but it was a statement for me of how things are different now. As I waited for the photographer, a man I didn’t know came up and put his arm around me. The photographer asked if we were together and we laughed and said no, and as he moved on, he said, “but I didn’t hear you complaining!” I laughed and said he might have been my prince charming! I looked at the photographer, who was laughing hard, and said it’s all about the Disney magic. I’m hopeful that someday my (new) prince will come, despite Ben’s warning that he’ll haunt me! Maybe that guy was a sign that he’s on his way.

On our last morning, we had breakfast with Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto at the hotel. It is a lovely breakfast in a beautiful setting with Cinderella’s Castle in the background. It is a dear memory for me because although it was a schlep in his electric wheelchair from the Boardwalk Inn, Ben wanted to go because he knew how much I loved Stitch and that I had always wanted to go there. I snapped photos of Ben’s beloved Mickey shaped waffles, as he always did, and I think they tasted even better because he was such a vibrant part of the memories.

After a fun time with our Disney buddies, we headed to the Magic Kingdom. It was bittersweet to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight, because they were the first that we had to leave behind because he could not transfer onto them. These were the only times I felt some pangs of guilt for my delight. I can’t find a way to reason it away, and although I was glad I went on them, if for no other reason than being proud of myself for confronting the grief, I was too keenly aware of the negative feelings attached to them and although they didn’t upset me, they don’t hold the same joy for me.

On our last day, we had an opportunity to meet Tinker Bell. I showed her pictures of my little Tinker Bell, whose little white paws she loved because she said they reminded her of the dandelions on her shoes! She asked if Tinker Bell is sassy like she is. It seemed a perfect way to end the trip, bringing all of my wonderful memories and this extraordinary gift of the present, to my current baby and hopefully, more dreams come true.

Tinker Bell loves her new little Sully, which I brought her to remind her of Ben.

This trip was an incredibly powerful experience of friendship, generosity and love. Winnie the Pooh said, “Good friends will help you until you’re unstuck.” I’m fortunate to have friends who have stayed by my side as I have come closer and closer to being unstuck. A very profound thank you to Monica, Abby and Andi for letting me see that, although bittersweet and even sad at times, I could return to Walt Disney World to embark on new, happy and laughter-filled adventures while feeling bolstered and surrounded by the love of Ben’s spirit and the presence of friends who are family. I will, once again, listen to Walt Disney’s words of wisdom and hold tight the nostalgia while moving forward and opening new doors.

 

Halloween 2011

On my own, but surrounded by a lot of love and guided by Walt and Mickey!