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Veteran’s Day and What My Dad and Walt Disney Had In Common

Today is Veteran’s Day, and yesterday was the 243rd birthday of the United States Marine Corps. I’ve written about how the USMC was so important to my dad (click here for more). He was a patriot through and through. My dad was not a huge Disney fan, though he had a healthy respect for Mickey Mouse (he really had no choice in our house!) Truth be told, he and Walt Disney had something important in common: patriotism.

My dad was in the USMC during the Korean War but he had a tremendous fascination with World War II, during which he was a child. He and I were so close and spent a lot of time together, but when he was ill, I cooked and ran errands for him every weekend, and Ben and I found lots of documentaries about WWII for him to watch that Daddy liked to watch with me. I still miss the days of going to bookstores and finding the new World War II titles, calling him and reading the jacket descriptions to see if they piqued his interest and buying the ones that intrigued him, despite his protests of his (not really)  impending death and that he “won’t need them where I’m going.” Daddy and Ben actually enjoyed discussing the war when Ben was well and we visited him together. Sometimes, Ben would ask me a history question and we would call Daddy and get a very detailed history lesson by phone. My dad loved Ben knew all the important USMC and war event anniversary dates. Ben and Daddy bonded over their shared love of history, but they felt particularly close when they were both ill with terminal illnesses. The other thing they had in common was needing me as their caregiver.

Ben and I found this book at a used/rare bookstore in Nyack, NY. Without even knowing that, the rabbi at the VA hospice told me that my dad treasured and was so proud of it, which touched my heart.

In his last years, my dad was concerned about the young men serving in the military. He took such interest in the guys in our neighborhood who were returning after various deployments and were struggling to adjust to civilian life. I met some of these young men when I visited my dad and was amazed at how well my dad knew their stories. He genuinely cared about these “kids,” as he called them. He felt they were the disenfranchised, abandoned by the government and that the general public did not relate to them. Daddy found reasons to tip the kids, give them things he knew they needed, and probably most importantly, listen to them.

Ultimately, Daddy ended up at the VA hospital out in Northport, Long Island, in the palliative care/hospice unit. We were both grateful for the amazing care he received. It certainly is not the case at all VA Hospitals around the country. I was grateful to have had the experience of meeting many veterans in that palliative care unit, hearing their stories and feeling their dedication to this country. It fueled my own pride in this country and my devotion to the men and women who have fought and continue to fight to keep us safe. I proudly display his beloved model F7- the plane he flew and one of his USMC caps, and I keep his dress blues jacket safe and sound in my closet.

Not many F7 planes were made during the Korean War- he studied aviation and this was the plane he trained on- so it was hard for my dad to find a model of it and this was treasured.

My dad’s dress blues jacket. I loved to try it on when I was young. He didn’t keep his cap, but this was dear to him and it carries loving memories for me.

It pains me to think of how distraught my dad would be over what’s happening in the country now. Growing up, I dismissed his warnings that history was important because history repeats itself. I think about that so often now as I read the news. It scares me, and I fluctuate between wishing so much that I could talk to him about it and being relieved that he is not eating his heart out.

Regardless of our individual opinions on America, today is a day to honor the veterans who have served this country. Their patriotism runs deep beyond politics that often puts their lives on the line. Daddy always wore a USMC cap and he loved when people thanked him for his service. When he saw other veterans with caps, he thanked them for their service. They would sometimes chat and reminisce. I think they liked to revisit the times when they felt strong and active.

I once gave my dad a 2-disc DVD set called Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, which highlights Disney’s contribution to American military participation in World War II. My dad was amused by my ability to find this connection between my love for Disney and his love for WW2!  In 2014, shortly after my dad passed away, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War,  a fascinating coffee table book, was published. I bought the book because it reminded me of my dad and how much we embraced each other’s lives. John Baxter, the author, pointed out that during the war, Walt Disney’s studio primarily did military contract work- morale-boosting war dramas, troop entertainment and training films for the military and, unlike big companies like US Steel and the Ford Motor Company, Walt Disney insisted that the studio did not profit from this work. Walt Disney said, “Actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe.” I think my dad could relate to that comment.

I had to have Stitch as a Marine! The USMC would never be the same!

Today, and always, I honor my dad and all veterans on this day, with an extra special shout out to the USMC! Semper Fi! Thank you for your service! And, because he found his way to use his unique and brilliant talents to show his patriotism, thank you, Walt Disney!

Daddy at Mitchel Field and the Cradle of Aviation Museum out on Long Island. He loved to go there.

Halloween- Disney Magic and Memories

It’s here- Happy Halloween!

I dutifully counted down the days on my Halloween calendar figurine and here we are- today is Halloween. My fourth without Ben.  Being home with bronchitis is adding to my melancholy. I did find comfort and joy in using that figurine. It made me smile to think about how Ben loved it and it felt good to honor that tradition. Stuck inside, I won’t see kids dressed up or give my students candy, though that will happen when I return. I will look at our photos and videos, listen to my Walt Disney World Halloween music, and reminisce about how much fun we had at Walt Disney World on Halloween. Halloween was truly magical there- after all, Ben proposed to me on Halloween at Walt Disney World.  It was perfect!

I did bake Halloween cookies and make Halloween cards with a photo of Disney. As I’ve said before, baking and decorating cookies is like my therapy. I am able to relax and get lost in the whimsy. I tried hard to embrace my decorations (click here for that post), acknowledging that I was able to begin to embrace the Halloween spirit that, until this year, had left me along with Ben. Now, I’m more of a participant in the holiday, but I don’t feel the gleeful whimsy that I felt with him. I look at footage from Walt Disney World’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and although part of me would love to experience it again, I wonder if I will ever again be able to attend that celebration.

   

Without distractions at school, I’m surrounded by only memories, albeit good ones. Every year, I’ve made a calendar that is a collage of favorite photos from Walt Disney World. It was a very positive process to make these calendars. I made them for Ben when he was here, too, since he loved to be surrounded by our photos. As you can see, October is filled with Halloween memories. I rejoice in them because Halloween is a treasured part of our relationship. At the same time, I grieve for Halloweens and other events, and even non-events, that we won’t have. And, over the past several months, I’ve struggled with anger that he was cheated out of so much life.

The October collage on my calendar.

Understandably, the most poignant memories were during our visits after Ben’s ALS diagnosis.  I think about how Ben was embarrassed to meet Buzz Lightyear when he was in the scooter. Ben loved Buzz, but after ALS began to weaken him, he said he didn’t want to meet Buzz because Buzz was a strong super hero. I think he agreed to meet him more for me than for himself, though he thoroughly enjoyed watching Buzz interact with the kids on line and he had a child’s excitement. He was able to walk a bit with his cane at this point, and he wanted to stand with Buzz. We were never much for dressing up for the holiday, but Ben loved the Buzz shirt we found and I wore Minnie Halloween ears. Buzz made such a fuss over Ben’s shirt and he made Ben laugh, which made me so happy. Those are the important and beautiful memories. Ben truly did embrace life while facing death. Yes, some of that was denial, but much of it was inner strength and determination, and I believe it helped him to navigate life with ALS in a positive way.

I’m still proudest of our summertime Halloween- our last but most magical visit to Walt Disney World. Here’s a link to that post. I hope that it offers some inspiration to anyone struggling.

Ben did say that when the time came, he was going to be a grim grinning ghost at the Haunted Mansion. I hope he is and that he is having a ghostly good time.

I wish everyone a Happy, Not So Scary, and Healthy Halloween!

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, ALS, Walt Disney World, Disney

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party 2012

Milestones- Preferring the Very Merry Un-Birthday

Walt Disney World, Grief, ALS

At the Crystal Palace

(I wrote this late last night) Today, October 27, is my birthday. My fourth birthday without Ben. I still seem to measure time that way. It’s still emotional to think of celebrating events without him. I can’t seem to feel happy. I want to indulge in that childish delight about a birthday, but I can’t shake the sadness. I always struggle on milestone events with not having Ben or my mom, dad and grandma- the people I was closest to- with me. Yet, it’s not just that, or guilt about continuing to navigate life when they aren’t here and conveying in any way that they are even a little bit forgotten. I don’t feel comfortable celebrating myself and, although I am so grateful for good friends and birthday wishes, I am much more comfortable celebrating other people. Maybe that says something about my self-esteem as much as it does about grief, which is definitely something I need to think about.

I made plans with a good friend to go to the theater, which is always one of my favorite things to do, and I preferred to think about a show rather than my birthday. It was a nasty day with a nor’easter, which seemed fitting for my mood. We saw Oklahoma! At St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and although we were looking forward to exploring DUMBO, a neighborhood I had never visited, the storm limited our plan. I knew to expect that the show was a dark interpretation, which was sort of unusual for this musical, but also appropriate for my mood. Throughout the day, I got sweet texts and calls and posts on Facebook, which touched my heart. I really wanted to be happy, but trying to act happy actually made me sadder. Ironically, if it had not been my birthday, it would have been a perfectly great day. Maybe the March Hare was onto something when he talked about a very merry un-birthday. I find joy in so many things and from so many people. Those are my “un-birthday” gifts.

I think about the wonderful birthdays I had with Ben. I loved that he always wanted me to feel special on my birthday, and he often planned little surprises for me. That was more about the romance than about the birthday. Now, I feel awkward making or being a part of the planning of my birthday plans. For so long, I defined myself by the way I cared for my dad and Ben. I planned surprises for Ben and took opportunities to celebrate him and us whenever I could find them. I need to learn to feel the confidence and comfort in taking care of and acknowledging myself.

Once again, after a good cry, I comforted myself with the memories of birthdays with Ben. I’ve shared these in prior posts, but please indulge my sharing some of my favorite Walt Disney World birthday memories with Ben:

The time I asked Mickey how old I looked and he held his hand up and I asked if he thought I looked 5. He shook his head and held his hand up again and I asked if he meant 50. This went on for a while until he held up one finger at a time and I realized that he only had 4 fingers. He looked up at the ceiling and held his hand to his forehead and when I looked over at Ben, he and the PhotoPass photographer were laughing hysterically. Ben couldn’t believe that I didn’t know my Disney buddies had 4 fingers and he said the photographer was laughing so hard that she couldn’t take a picture. From that point on, Ben and I only “high four-ed” each other.

Mickey has Four Fingers!

The birthday holiday we took there when Ben proposed to me. The actual proposal was on Halloween because he knew I would love that. I did.

Mickey congratulated us on our engagement!

Birthday hugs from Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet at the Crystal Palace, because I had to have birthday lunch with my friends from the 100 Acre Woods. I was as gleeful as a 5-year-old when the waiters sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Ben surprised me with a cake once and Pooh kissed my hand. I’ve kept all the confetti and the birthday cards.

Walt Disney, Walt Disney World, ALS, Caregiver, Grief

The little girl at the Akershus Restaurant whom I noticed was intently watching Ben and me as we struggled a bit to get him into a chair and then as I cut his food and helped him to eat. When she saw the waiter bring me a little cake with a candle and sing happy birthday to me, she came over and wished me a happy birthday and gave me a hug. Kids have such intuition, and her mom and I both had tears in our eyes.

Dancing with Stitch and Goofy at the Halloween party while Ben sat in his scooter, laughed at me (with love) and videotaped it. As if anyone who knows me would be shocked!!

Getting extra candy when we went trick-or-treating at Mickey’s Halloween Party because I announced that it was my birthday, probably more excitedly than most of the little kids. Between Ben in the electric wheelchair and my birthday, we did very well collecting candy!

Having so much fun tasting the foods at the various pavilions during the Food & Wine Festival. Even though he needed help with food, and he couldn’t eat everything he wanted, Ben loved to be at Epcot and he didn’t let himself lament what he couldn’t do or eat.  His attitude was incredible.

And then there were the magical birthday surprises that were not spent at Walt Disney World. There was a time that my birthday fell on parent teacher conference night. Ben and I had decided that we would celebrate over the weekend instead and it was no big deal. He picked me up at school, as he always did after evening events, and when we got to my apartment, I was delightfully surprised to see that he had decorated with balloons, flowers, a cake and some of my Disney toys all around the decorations. He had done all of this after work and before meeting me. That was Ben-always romantic.

I am grateful to always have those very sweet memories, and so many more. I grieve for the birthdays I won’t have with Ben, and also for the birthdays he won’t have. But, I’ve often felt his presence and I know that he is with me, as are my mom, dad and grandma. People say that Ben would want me to be happy and to celebrate. I’m sure that’s true, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe it will feel better on a very merry un-birthday!

At the Walt Disney World Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle- Making a wish!

Disney’s “The Jungle Book”: Baloo, Bagheera and Lessons in Caregiving and Fighting the Shere Khans

Disney’s Animal Kingdom- 2001. Ben was psyched to meet Baloo!

Disney’s The Jungle Book celebrated the anniversary of its 1967 release just this past week on Thursday, October 18. Of course, I had to re-watch this classic tale of Mowgli, a man-cub who is raised in the jungle, nurtured by some animals and hated by Shere Khan, the tiger who hates man and is determined to kill Mowgli. It is also a sweet tale of Mowgli’s relationship with Bagheera, the wise panther who teaches and watches over him, and Baloo, the big goofy bear who is a great and caring friend. I always smile when I watch this film, because Ben loved Baloo and fancied himself a big,cuddly bear- a description with which I must agree! During my viewing this time, I thought about how much The Jungle Book has to say about a caregiving relationship and how Ben and I confronted ALS.

Bagheera has all the qualities of a good caregiver: patience, the ability to listen and reason, understanding of Mowgli as a man-cub within the jungle environment, willingness to let Mowgli test himself, reliability, intelligence, common sense and loyalty. Who could ask for more in a caregiver? Baloo is a great buddy, and he and Mowgli have a deep friendship and love, but Baloo also needs the guidance of Bagheera. When Baloo resists the reality that Mowgli needs to return to the “man village” and be around people like himself, Bagheera needs to remind Baloo that although he loves his little buddy and thinks of him as a son, he has to see the big picture in caring for Mowgli and that he has to think about what was best for Mowgli and not just for himself. Those are tough choices and I remember them well. Caring for Ben meant never losing sight of what our priorities were. Like Baloo, there were many times when I felt Ben deserved to indulge in any of his whims because I did not know how long he would have that luxury. And, we knew that time was not on his side. Taking him to Walt Disney World for one last visit was a very joyful indulgence. There were also the gut wrenching realities. I remember that after Ben repeatedly said that he wanted to go home from the hospital, I just wanted to honor his wishes and I asked his doctor if it would be possible to bring him home. His doctor, who proved to be my Bagheera, provided the wisdom and the reasoning, and then I had to have those heartbreaking conversations with Ben. There were stressful times when, just like Baloo and Mowgli, we argued and sulked. But, the caring in caregiving never went away and neither did the love.

I suppose that ALS was our Shere Khan. The wolves who raised Mowgli from the time Bagheera found him knew that they could not stand up to Shere Khan. They did not stop loving Mowgli, but they knew that he could not continue to live with them or Shere Khan likely would have killed all of them. Caregiving also comes with these difficult decisions. Sometimes it’s a matter of caregiving becoming so difficult that it poses physical and emotional risks to a caregiver. In Ben’s case, had he not chosen to go to hospice and separate from the vent, he would have had to go to a facility because he could not have lived in our apartment with a tracheostomy, needing 24/7 nursing care. This was not an option we liked but it was one we had to accept. I could relate to the battle in which Shere Khan seriously wounds Baloo- the fight to protect and care for Ben did take a toll on me in many ways, but love and devotion kept me at his side. Just like Shere Khan, ALS was a deadly force, but, unfortunately, in our true story, it was one that we could not outwit or defeat.

I don’t know that I would run to Baloo for help in a crisis, though he might be great comic relief! But, Baloo was protective of Mowgli and he has a good message. As caregivers, we don’t often get to “forget about your worries and your strife” and life seems much more complicated than “the bare necessities.” And yet, it is so important to take the time to cherish and remember the simple and wonderful aspects of our relationships and life prior to caregiving. Try to focus on those things when the stress becomes severe and you start to forget who you were before you were in a caregiving relationship.

As for me, I think I was a combination of Bagheera and Baloo- a dedicated, thoughtful caregiver, acquiring skills and perspective during on the job training, with a sense of humor and incredible klutziness. Importantly, Ben always felt safe and secure with me. How about you? What do you consider the important skills of caregiving? Are you more Bagheera or Baloo?

What The White Rabbit Did Not Know About Grief and Time

It’s been a week that I’ve had my old and new Halloween decorations up in my apartment (click here for last week’s post). I was most apprehensive about the Halloween countdown calendar figurine that I gave Ben, and I was prepared to return it to its box if it was too emotional to display it. Ironically, I find great comfort and connection to Ben when I dutifully change the number of days remaining till Halloween.  I can see Ben’s smile and I feel like I am doing this for and with him, taking pride in the knowledge that it is a gift that he absolutely loved and that brought him joy at a very unjoyful time.

I’ve been thinking about how is was the first time in the three years since I lost Ben that I was ready to have any Halloween decorations. I cannot explain why, at this point in time, the countdown calendar figurine gives me a sense of connection to Ben in a good way and yet, other things continue to upset or unnerve me, conjuring the memories of the pain of loss. I’m still not ready for some of the items in our collection and I don’t know if I will ever be ready for the things that I brought to decorate Ben’s hospice room. Only time will tell. But, should there be a time limit at which point I should without a doubt be able to cope with all of this?

They say time heals all wounds. When it comes to grief, I think time helps you adjust to and learn to coexist with the grief. The White Rabbit in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland says, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” I have felt like that as I have dealt with grief, except that I never knew what date to set or if, in fact, any such date exists. There is always the sense of measuring how long it will take to get past the pain. When loss was very new and raw, I simply wanted just to get to a point where grief became easier. When I wasn’t wondering when I would feel better, or if I should be feeling better than I did at any given time, other people were placing a time stamp on my grief. There are always the people who remind you that it’s time to “move on,” which is one of my least favorite expressions. Those dates have been based on their own experiences and opinions, and sometimes even on their own comfort level with my grief. The thing is, everyone handles grief differently and in their own timeframe.

I have always asked myself if I’ve been handling grief well. I ask myself if I should still have such a hard time celebrating Halloween without Ben. Time has allowed me to joyfully embrace some memories but not others. Should it be different? Have I missed a deadline for grief to subside? I really don’t know. On a day to day basis, although I have bad moments and bad days- especially on milestone dates- I feel like I am functioning just fine. I have always been a person who cries easily, so I cannot measure grief by tears. Still, I constantly question and assess myself. To me, the fact that I made the decision to welcome Halloween this year is a good sign of progress. It seems okay to me that some things are easier than others. I test myself, as I did with Ben’s Halloween countdown figurine and, sure enough, it is actually making me happy. If I’d decided that I was not yet prepared to display any Halloween things, would that have been okay, too? Should I be rushing or worrying that I’m late to coming to terms with my new life and new normal?

How long should grief last? How can we say? Grief began the day Ben was diagnosed with ALS. We grieved our life as we knew it, we grieved the future that we wouldn’t have, we grieved each ability that Ben lost as a result of the disease. After he left this world, I grieved his loss, and I grieved the loss of purpose that I had as his caregiver. This weekend, I was reminded that for at least a year after Ben died, each time I did venture out into the world to socialize, I cried on my way home. I remember that on one of my first outings, I cried on my way to the subway, because in addition to missing Ben, I also realized that being alone and returning home by myself had to be my new normal. It also scared me that no one would even know if I arrived home.  It took me more than a year to begin to establish routines. I tiptoed into life, testing the waters to see what felt comfortable, worrying that I was not progressing quickly enough. On Friday night, after attending a Broadway play, I walked to the subway and thought about how I have become more comfortable with my new normal. I don’t experience the same pains and anxiety to return home alone. I don’t love it, and I do hope that one day I will find love again, but I embrace the good and bad days and moments simply as part of life.

I see a lot of comments on support groups from people whose family and friends make them feel like they either haven’t grieved long enough or they’ve grieved for too long. As I see it, there is no such thing as an appropriate time to grieve. That said, I did seek therapy and join grief support groups after the loss of my mom and of Ben, because I felt like I needed support with getting back to living. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to seek help if you feel that you need support to function in a manner that you think is appropriate and that gets you from day to day. It was helpful to me to talk to others who were in a similar circumstance, though it did at times fuel our insecurities to compare our experiences coping with grief.

People have asked me if I often still think of Ben. Yes, I think of him every single day, and I often talk to him and about him. It feels right to me. Some people feel that I shouldn’t still be thinking of him so frequently because it’s dwelling on the past and it keeps me from “moving on.” Frankly, I am not moving on and leaving Ben behind. I am moving forward, continuing to live but having been shaped by my love for and experience caring for Ben. Some widows and widowers share my experience and others say they don’t think about their spouses as much anymore. I’ve heard people make negative comments about those who have lost spouses and have found new love within several months. I am not aware of any formula or correct answer to any of these situations. There should be no judgment, and if there is, please keep it to yourself.

I have not wanted to return to Walt Disney World without Ben, although I do miss it. I still cannot imagine attending the Halloween festivities without him because that was truly our time, even marked by his proposal one Halloween. But, I don’t rule out a return. In fact, I do feel a tug of wanting to go and to feel the connection to Ben at a time other than Halloween. I guess I’m not like the White Rabbit. I’m not setting any dates or deadlines on how I deal with grief and its integration into my life. I have not set a deadline for myself and I will not accept a deadline set by anyone else. There are times that I feel that I’m not where I should be, and at other times I feel like I cannot rush myself, following my emotions and experiencing life on my own terms, and although I’m not always steady on my feet, I’m stepping forward every day. In my opinion, White Rabbits around me can turn off the alarm and relax , because when it comes to coping with grief there is no finish line, because it never completely passes. What’s more important than deadlines that I might have missed is that, in my own time and in my own way, I am more welcoming of the creation of new memories.

Halloween 2012