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What Alice Knew About Caregiving, Grief and My Identity

I saw this quote with an image from the Walt Disney Productions animated film, as I’ve shown here. In fact, it is from the book by Lewis Carroll.

 

School started last week. Two days of just the teachers and administrators and two days with the students. Of course, no teacher sprints back to school, but when my dad and Ben were ill, I especially  dreaded that day. In those days, some teachers knew not to even ask me how my summer was. They knew not to ask me how my weekends were! I would sit and observe everyone sharing their fun summer stories and just hope that I didn’t get asked questions so I didn’t have to shrug and get those sympathetic or pitying looks.  After I lost Ben, when I started in a new school, where only a couple of people knew me, I could just give a generic reply to strangers rather than reveal how difficult summers were. I’m not a terribly superficial person, so it felt like I was not really being myself, yet I was grateful to shed the image of the caregiver running in circles to tend to her dying dad and husband, or the woman grieving her losses. Last week, when asked how my summer was, it was a strange feeling to be able to respond with complete honesty and enthusiasm that it was great. I was keenly aware of feeling good and yet awkward about that answer.

Summer remains a time that is shadowed by the sad memories of Ben’s departure. As this summer approached, I braced myself for those memories but still made plans that I would enjoy. I am pleased, relieved and even proud that I truly had a delightful summer. It feels like an accomplishment. Still, it comes with a bit of guilt and confusion.

I sometimes wonder if my ability to fully immerse myself in life and joy means that I am distancing myself from the loss of Ben. Is it a lack of respect for Ben? Does it appear that way to others? If being Ben’s caregiver and grieving widow have been the ways I have defined myself for such a long time, who am I without those most important aspects of myself? Who do I even want to be?

Although I felt relieved to be able to smile and say that I had a great summer, there was so much emotion and history behind that seemingly simple response. People who have known me through all the difficult years know that it is a big step to be able to experience joy again beyond just having some good times. I am so grateful and appreciative that they are happy for me. For those who don’t know me, it is just casual conversation among acquaintances. Part of me is happy to be a new Abby without that sad history. Part of me feels that those are such vital pieces of who I am that to be unaware of them is not to really know me. Also, it feels strangely disrespectful if Ben is not somehow a vibrant part of the new Abby. It’s hard for me that I’m no longer part of Abby and Ben. By saying I had a great summer, it feels that I am not acknowledging the pain that did exist and continues to haunt me. It dismisses my ongoing struggle to achieve a balance between living in the here and now and taking Ben, and essentially, my past, everywhere in my heart.

Alice was right. I can’t go back to the person I was before the caregiving days and grief. Those experiences did change and shape me. People will not necessarily know my experiences. If they get to know me, it’s likely they will because Ben, and our journey with ALS are vital parts of the person I have become. This blog, my volunteering and my goals to work with other caregivers evolved from those experiences. All these things keep me heading towards the future but also keep Ben with me as I venture forward.

Who am I? In some ways, am still floundering to define myself. I hope that in time I will become more comfortable with myself without so much self-assessment and self-criticism. I knew myself best as a caregiver and person in grief, and the transition to a life without those prominent roles has been difficult.  Of course, grief does not really go away, though it shifts. The Abby from before my days of caregiving and loss has always lived within me during those rough years, but I am just not exactly sure who I am at this point in time. Maybe this is simply who I am, realizing that as we go through life, it’s okay that people will enter and exit and not necessarily know my history. I have yet to be comfortable with who I am in the present and as I look to the future. Maybe I need a looking glass.

 

How Walt Disney Helped Me Understand Grief, Happiness and Optimism

Happy memories from Walt Disney World.

I have been hearing and reading so much about how we “have to” choose to be happy. Maybe it’s because last week was the fourth anniversary of the day that Ben left this world, but I have been thinking about the many pieces of advice I have received about dealing with grief. I have been thinking about my own happiness and attitude and how they continue to shift over time. Walt Disney has been an inspiration to me in so many ways. He said two things that make a lot of sense to me when it comes to grief and how we look at life. It seems to me that we tend to equate happiness and optimism, and while there may be a connection, we must draw a distinction between happiness and positivity or optimism.

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

Walt Disney, Walt Disney World

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

From the time that Ben left this world, I received the rallying cheers about the good news: I had my life back, it was time for me, it was time to move on, time to close the book and start a new chapter. Sometimes, I felt like people said these things to make themselves feel better, or because they felt uneasy with my grief. Some people were simply judgmental and felt that I had exceeded their idea of an appropriate time to feel grief. Superficial clichés are easy to spout when you just don’t want to invest in conversation. Yes, I knew that Ben would want me to be happy, but what I realized is that if I wasn’t acting happy, certain people were uncomfortable. They wanted to advise but not to listen, but I was not happy and did not want to act. I learned when to be very superficial and when I could truly be myself. I am very fortunate to have been surrounded by a lot of genuinely caring and loving friends/family. They have been there for me throughout my experiences in caregiving and grief, and while I’m sure it was difficult for them to listen to and see my pain and stagnation, they let me express myself, validated my feelings and gently shared their thoughts. Those who were more adamant about what they felt I “should” or “had to” do definitely felt more tension when I asserted myself and my right to feel the way I did. Many times, the best support I got was a compassionate ear, and at times, a shoulder. Sometimes, the best help you can offer is your presence. Telling someone who is grieving to simply choose to be happy and do things to make themselves happy is dismissive and tone deaf.

The notion of happiness is not easy in grief. I may have found a lot of happiness-or maybe more comfort- in the memories, but the sadness was also palpable. Sometimes there were brief moments of happiness that snuck into my overall feeling of devastation, but I still did not feel happy in my life. It was often suggested that I do things that made me happy, but I did not know how to begin to identify those things, and frankly, I did not want to feel happy. Sometimes the grief was overwhelming and paralyzing, and at those times it took too much energy to be optimistic or positive enough to look for happiness. A happy event was frequently followed by confusion, frustration and amplified sadness when I realized that it was nothing more than a fleeting distraction and I was still arriving home to be alone without Ben. I was not quite sure how to define happiness- for a time it was just a moment of not feeling the pain of grief. Having experienced the loss of my parents, grandma and other loved ones, I did, however, know that there would be shifts and I chose to be optimistic that happiness was attainable- at some future and unpredictable date.

As Joy learned in Inside Out, in life, happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive, and anger, disgust and fear also have their roles. When I have tried to process my caregiving days and the losses, the idea of happiness seemed way too elusive and simplistic an option and those happy moments that I experienced were only a superficial illusion. There was also a lot of anger at and disgust with ALS, some people around us, even Ben and myself, and that’s hard to think about, although I have gained some perspective with time. Fear has also been prevalent- first, it was the fear of impending loss and potential crises, then fear of the future and fear of being alone. I desperately wanted to be happy, despite not really knowing what would make that happen or how it would feel, but I also wanted to feel that I was reaching to be positive and optimistic.

For a long time, the idea of happiness came with a lot of guilt, because Ben could not share that happiness and so much opportunity was taken from him because his life was cut short. Was it appropriate to be feeling happy or enjoying my time? Did it mean that I didn’t miss Ben anymore? Did it mean that I was happy to have been absolved of my caregiving responsibilities? I judged myself as much as, or more than, I felt judged by others.

Grief comes with ebbs and flows, and good and bad days and moments. I have a lot more good days after four years, or five and a half if I count the loss of my dad. There is more light in my life now, and less guilt, and I know that the people who love and care for me are glad to see me taking positive steps and genuinely 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.

Walt Disney also said, “In bad times and in good, I have never lost my sense of zest for life.”  For me, that is the distinction between being positive or optimistic and being happy. 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, escaping for a while into a Disney frame of mind helps me to be positive. Trying to stay positive is my choice, but it doesn’t mean that I am always happy. I wonder if being optimistic in our nature, but for me, it’s always worth the effort to be optimistic. Still, I accept all the emotions and phases of grief and of life.

I think about 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. There was happiness and certainly sadness, fear and anger, but he always did try to be positive. It was an important lesson for me.

I do want to add that social workers and other mental health professionals were also available to Ben and to me. I was more willing than Ben to discuss my feelings, but when I did feel overwhelmed, I did see a therapist and speak to some of the people from Ben’s team, even after he was gone. It is always a good option if you are struggling with your emotions or need an objective listener.

Being positive allows me to follow this advice from Walt: “First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare.”

Am I happy now? Well, I’m happier. I am pleased and even proud of myself for creating a truly wonderful summer for myself, where I felt more joy and fulfillment than I have since I lost Ben. While the anniversary of Ben’s passing on August 26 was still a very difficult day, the sadness is something I accept and embrace because it is all part of my life experience. This summer, I realized that I have found ways to do things that bring me joy while keeping Ben close, in my heart, and that feels right and gives me balance. I think this gives me more moments of complete happiness rather than brief happy distractions from going through motions in my life. These moments are the ones that keep me optimistic and propel me forward and allow me to keep dreaming and believe that I can make my dreams come true. I know that happiness is not everything, particularly when it is fleeting and superficial- I am not that much of a Pollyanna. I do aim for contentment and trying to maintain an optimistic outlook that I will achieve it. I’m floundering and anxious about my next steps in life, and I am shaken when something triggers a setback in grief, but even when I’m getting caught in the undertow of emotions, I think positively like Dory and dare to just keep swimming.

My buddy is Cruz. Summer 2019- finding happiness!

 

Dear Ben, It’s Been Four Years

Dear Ben,

Today marks four years since you left this world. Four years have passed and it is still such a difficult day. I thought that I would go to Central Park to look for the turtles but I have learned not to make a firm plan for the day because I don’t know how I will feel.

I woke up in tears, but got dressed and walked to the park. It was nice that the weather was on the cooler side. I looked down from Belvedere Castle and only saw one little turtle, which was disappointing There were only a few turtles by the Bethesda Fountain, but when I saw them poke their little heads up, it was still a comfort. I don’t know if there was a message in the lack of turtles. Is it that they think I don’t need them? Were they not expecting me because of this anniversary date? What do you think, Ben? I’m sure you were there.

I did bring a lot of change to toss into the fountain. I still like to make wishes. I made wishes for myself and for people I love. I always make the same wishes. Maybe some people would be disheartened, but I still believe they will come true.

On my way home I stopped at the “Imagine” mosaic by Strawberry Fields. Of course, as I strolled, I listened to Beatles music and Disney theme park music just for you. It was a rare time that there was not a line of tourists waiting to take their pictures. All I could think was to imagine a world free from ALS, a world free of all disease, really.

Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, Central Park, NYC

I checked my watch all day remembering the exact moment that we all gathered around you, saw you separated from the vent, and that moment when you left. It was as you wished it, with love and music. We even said our vows. It’s so difficult to think of that day as the day we took our vows and also as the day we said good bye. I feel a combination of devastation and satisfaction that you had such peaceful farewell. It was a lot of work, but it gave me purpose and it touched my heart that everyone came together as they did, even people at the hospital who did not know us well but who quickly came to love you. Sometimes I wonder and worry if you are at peace with all of it. I hope you are.

I came home and sat with Tinker Bell. She didn’t know you, my dad or Disney. She doesn’t understand my sadness. She just watched me, seeming to know that I wasn’t myself. She’s a sweet girl but we don’t share that history. Maybe that’s a good thing. We are creating our own new history and memories. Still, it’s a lonely feeling. Rest assured that I show her your pictures on the throw and we both say good night to you each night.

I decided to watch Disney’s Tinker Bell’s Pixie Hollow Games today. It always made me chuckle to come home and find you watching it. No, you weren’t really so macho before you met me! I loved you for it!

When I plugged in a thumb drive to watch the film, the first video that came up was a video I made to accompany the song One Dance, which has much significance for me at this time of year. I miss being able to dance with you and I remember how that song was the shot of reality that we would never dance, you would never come home, and you really were soon going to leave. I had a good cry and then watched the Tinker Bell movie. It did make me smile to see my Tinker Bell cat sit in front of the television and watch Tinker Bell the fairy. I couldn’t get her picture because she kept watching me as I moved. I know that you think I’m like Boo chasing Sully when it comes to our cats!

I finally crawled into bed and put on one of your absolute favorites, Monsters, Inc., surrounded by your plush Sully toys and the Monsters, Inc. throw. There is a scene where Sully is looking at the one piece he kept from Boo’s door that completed the door and made it possible for him to go back and see her. That scene never fails to make me cry. If only there was that one piece that would allow me to open a door and see you again. Maybe scientists will soon find that piece that will solve the puzzle of ALS and put people back together.

Once again, I have been watching the videos I made and looking at our many photos. There are so many wonderful memories. Even the photos where the ALS progression was obvious are still filled with the joy on your face. We were very lucky to have each other, even in the lousy times.

I still love this video that I made for the first anniversary of this day. It still captures the love and good memories.

I want you to know that you are always with me in my heart. You are with me in my new adventures and I know that you send me messages.

I love you to infinity and beyond and I miss you every day. I hope you’ve been walking, running, eating and playing your music. It would be one of my dreams come true.

Love,

Abby

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Mickey Mouse, It's a Small World

2011- It’s a Small World allows a wheelchair to board the boat, and since that was so easy (and, ok, there are not long lines) we road it frequently! YAY!

Grief And The Things That Turn Me “Inside Out”

Sometimes, the hardest times are the ones when I remember the joy at the same time that I feel the sharp devastation and anger about loss. These are the times that turn me Inside Out. That’s what I have been experiencing this weekend. It’s exhausting.

Tomorrow will mark four years since Ben left this world. It’s almost as if I gear up all summer for this day. For the most part, I am proud, relieved and joyful that this has been a very good summer. In fact, it’s been the best I have had since he left. I was better able to balance being myself- my new self- with keeping Ben in my heart wherever I went. I know and accept that I can’t keep sadness in a corner, as Joy tried to do. The sadness and the joy were all part of our relationship, so they have to remain in my memory to keep them real.

I’ve noted it before, but there are triggers of setbacks. I don’t usually get angry at myself for crying. Anyone who knows me knows that I often default to crying. In Inside Out, Sadness says “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”

This has been a weekend of tears and of letting myself feel the weight of grief, loneliness, alone-ness, anger, frustration, compassion and empathy. I spend a lot of time assessing myself and how well I am navigating my life. Maybe I need this time to slow down and let myself miss Ben and lament what our life could have been and what ALS took from us and is continuing to take from so many other individuals and families.

On Friday, I traveled up to the Berkshires to spend the day wandering around the town of Stockbridge prior to volunteer work on Saturday. I arranged to stay at the luxurious Red Lion Inn. It had been many years since I sat on the famous porch enjoying a glass of wine and I looked forward to being there. I entered my room and immediately thought of how Ben would have loved it. We loved to go to the quaint towns of Vermont, and the Inn and this room were reminiscent of our visits there. As I walked through the little library that led to the elevator, I thought of how Ben would have looked at the wall of books and commented that I would love a room like that, and I would have to agree. I took pictures as I know he would have done. In my room and throughout the building there are many beautiful antique desks. My aunt Ellie loved those desks, and she was the first person to take me to the Berkshires, so thoughts of her were also in my mind. She is the remaining relative to whom I was the closest, but with her Alzheimers disease, although I believe that I remain somewhere in her mind, in most ways, the aunt I knew and loved is gone.

The first shop I visited was Williams & Sons Country Store. Ben and I loved to go to country stores. I love the look and feel of them. We always found fun things at the Vermont Country Store, where we spent hours! It didn’t feel the same being without Ben. Nothing does, of course, but traveling to a place so much like places we would travel to felt so very sad. I wanted him to see the retro Cracker Jacks boxes, wanted to buy them just because he would have loved them. I did buy a little tiny turtle with a bobbing head. It reminded me of him and I knew he would have loved it, too.

I continued my stroll and spoke to lovely shopkeepers. I treated myself to some new clothing and fun jewelry. Retail therapy is always helpful to me, but I could not really shake that feeling of not belonging. I did have a glass of wine on the porch, but I felt like the only person by myself. I don’t always feel that way. Throughout my life I have traveled by myself, so I am often comfortable on my own. I think it was especially hard because Ben would have enjoyed it so much and it would have been a perfect getaway for us.

I was happy to meet Norman, the feline ambassador of the Red Lion Inn. He was very tolerant of my need to follow and pet him. I could hear Ben reminding me that I was like Boo in Monsters, Inc., who was always following Sully calling, “Kitty, kitty!” There was not a thing I did that didn’t make me think of and miss Ben. I think my last straw with myself was going to the pub where there was live music. I thought I would enjoy it, but it was something I really couldn’t do without Ben, so I left quickly. I found Norman, said goodnight, and went to my room to prepare for my volunteer work. This was filled with more reminders of Ben, since I was working with Hope Loves Company, a wonderful organization that serves children who have a family member with ALS.

Hope Loves Company runs 3-day camps in various locations across the country for families whose lives are affected by ALS. It’s a special opportunity for the whole family to get away and participate in an array of fun activities including boating, swimming, sports and crafts. Since all of the campers have ALS in common, they share an understanding of the experience that need not even be spoken. It’s a beautiful thing. During the spring, I had volunteered to do a scrapbooking workshop in New Jersey, and found it so rewarding that I asked to repeat the workshops at the camp in Camp Emerson in Hinsdale, MA. I am grateful that Hope Loves Company embraces my desire to volunteer and welcomed the idea of a scrapbooking project. Scrapbooking is a valuable tool for the children. Some bring photos from home and we also print out photos taken during camp. It is a way to capture and share memories. Older children can write more of a narrative if they wish. I went a little crazy shopping for all kinds of stickers, and it’s fun to see the kids select their favorites. It’s great to watch them interact with their parents as they look at photos together. I brought supplies for embossing, which lured even the coolest older kids. They had fun, were intrigued, and continued to bond with each other, which is such an important aspect of the camp. Maybe scrapbooking will be something that they will pursue. Maybe they will think about the activity as they look for another outlet for their self-expression.

Some of the scrapbooking stickers. Hope Loves Company camp at Camp Emerson, Hinsdale, MA

I enjoy meeting the families at the camp. For some, I suppose I am the sad reminder that, at least for now, ALS always wins the battle. But, I hope that they also see that I am here, I reshaped my life and I want to be supportive and do something positive to help in the battle against this disease.

The bus ride back to New York gave me five long hours to think about how much my life changed as a result of ALS. It certainly altered the course of my relationship with Ben. Although I had already been my dad’s caregiver, being Ben’s caregiver was a different experience. I don’t want to wash my hands of ALS. I want to support people who are impacted by the disease. It gave me joy to know that people in the Berkshires who recognized me from the NJ camp valued that I traveled to be with them and do a project with the children. Caregivers need to feel that kind of love and caring. For me, volunteering is a way to channel the negative experience into positive, into a way to help others. It’s something that I want to do with my life. I am thrilled that my blog helps others, but I want to expand that to more hands-on experiences, and the workshops allow me to do that. I guess that although the timing was difficult, and it turned me Inside Out, the volunteer work being on this particular weekend is a perfect tribute to tomorrow’s anniversary of Ben’s departure. I find comfort in knowing and affirming that our life, our relationship and our experience with ALS will be a part of my life and goals as I move forward.

These are excerpts from my own scrapbook, which I show to the kids so they can see my own experience with ALS and some ideas for scrapbooking.

             

A favorite page- Ben’s proposal at Walt Disney World!

Finding Nemo, Dory and Myself at The Georgia Aquarium

I got a smooch from Imaq!

I spent the last couple of days at the Georgia Aquarium, participating in some animal encounters. Yes, I found Nemo, and I found Dory, but I also think of Georgia Aquarium as a place where I found myself.

Last summer, I went to the Georgia Aquarium for the first time. I originally learned about it from National Geographic magazine, which was a favorite of my dad’s and mine. I still have some of his very old copies and some of my National Geographic School Bulletin kids issues- my parents always got a subscription for me. When I learned that Georgia Aquarium offered an otter encounter, I had my plan! I wrote about that experience last year (click here for that post). It was and it remains a place where I strongly feel Ben’s absence and presence. ALS took so much from Ben, including the opportunity to enjoy places. It took many things from me, too, including the ability to share experiences with him. I remember that last year at the Aquarium was the first time I felt real anger that he could not have lived to enjoy it. I still feel that anger and sadness, but I also feel him and look for signs that he is with me. Going to the Georgia Aquarium is something positive to do at this time of year, since summer is a difficult for me, filled with memories of Ben’s last summer, spent in the hospital, and the anniversary of his departure from this world.

I cannot rave and gush enough about the Aquarium. It is a truly spectacular facility. The research it conducts and is engaged in, along with the care it provides for its residents, is supremely impressive. I easily spent two full days there and I could have returned for more. I could watch the sea and river otters for hours and I don’t know how long I spent absolutely mesmerized by the beluga whales. I saw the dolphin show twice because it is fabulous and the dolphins and their human trainers are astounding! Standing in the Ocean Voyager tunnel while huge whale sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and a host of other magnificent fish swim overhead and around me is daunting and yet awe-inspiring! It’s even fun to touch the purple sea stars! I loved watching the divers wave to the children from the huge tank, where they are surrounded by the whale sharks- the kids’ reactions are priceless! There was a little boy of no more than four years old and wearing a whale shark t-shirt who told me all about whale sharks as he waited so excitedly to see one for the first time and his parents laughed as they explained that they planned the visit just for him to see the whale sharks. For these children, whether they pursue a career dealing with sea life, form a commitment to protect and be kind to the planet and its inhabitants, or enjoy the wonder around them, there is no doubt that the Aquarium will leave an unforgettable and positive impression.

I found that this year, I had a very hard time with the penguins. I did not spend much time watching them. For Ben and me, penguins were very much “our” animal. We collected all kinds of penguin things. At one time, I had planned a visit to a local aquarium where they were kindly going to accommodate Ben’s wheelchair in a special encounter area. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it and never had another opportunity to visit.  Last summer, I did two wonderful penguin encounters at the Georgia Aquarium, but I struggled with guilt that Ben never had the chance to actually meet a penguin. Penguins are truly delightful creatures, and I was surprised to learn that they are kind of referred to as having temperaments like cats- if they don’t warm to their trainer, they will not do what’s asked of them! As adorable as they are, and as fun as my memories are, I find that I cannot enjoy them as much as I did when I was with Ben. It hurts to watch them. This strikes me as odd, because there are so many things that I do for Ben, in his memory, because I know he would love them and I feel like I enjoy them through his eyes. The dolphin shows are that way for me. I feel Ben’s excitement and I think I cry at the shows because I am overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. I feel like the turtles send a little hello from Ben. Maybe the fact that we collected penguins, particularly when they were couples, makes penguins different. I suppose I should have learned by now that grief is unpredictable in this way.

My passion (or maybe obsession) with otters is my own. And, my desire to interact with animals is something that has always been my own. Ben always found it endearing and a bit fascinating that I had such a deep connection with my pets and that I had boundless love for animals. My dad and I shared that love for animals. The Georgia Aquarium holds a kind of magic for me because it enables me to meet and interact with some of the animals I adore. I don’t think I ever realized how much that means to me down to my core. Of course, it’s fun to meet and greet the animals, but it is a deeply emotional experience for me and one where I feel like I have really found myself. I love to learn about the animals, but I learn even more just watching the staff interact with them and talk about their distinct personalities and preferences. There is so much love, respect and passion there, and it fills my heart to get a glimpse of that and to be a part of it in encounter programs, and even by talking to the staff and volunteers in the halls of the Aquarium. Although I traveled there by myself, I rarely felt lonely or alone- I was so surrounded by love and the spiritual presence of Ben and my dad. My love of the Georgia Aquarium has strengthened my personal dedication to support the efforts of this facility to raise awareness and understanding of, and to protect, sea animals and their environment.

That’s cutie Brighton next to me.

My buddy is Cruz.

I know that Ben would absolutely love doing the encounters, though he did not swim so I don’t think he would have opted for the beluga whale encounter. For me, however, being at the Aquarium and participating in the interactions is almost a spiritual experience. It is calming and almost meditative, yet energizing, to watch the animals and to learn about them. Feeding and practicing various behaviors with them is pure delight. I find myself wondering how and if I could work with animals after I retire from teaching.

I do look for signs that Ben is watching me. Maybe they are coincidences, but I choose to believe that they are signs, or maybe pixie dust! I got a couple during this visit. I arranged two sea otter encounters, because one just wasn’t enough, and during the first, I asked about Mara and Gibson, the two pups about whom I had been reading and watching videos since they were rescued and given forever homes by the Georgia Aquarium. Seeing them was going to be a highlight of my visit. I was told how to spot them in the habitat, and I was eagerly anticipating seeing them. During my second sea otter encounter, while we were being told about sea otters, a little otter saw one of the trainers with food and she serenaded us with what I will call a symphony to try to get some food. The trainer smirked and tried to hide, but the otter was not fooled. I suspected that it was one of the pups and I asked if it was Mara or Gibson- it was Mara. I got goosebumps! Not only did I get to see the pups, but we were able to feed them. I was so excited I almost cried. They are as adorable as I had imagined. And, louder! Magic was on my side that they were ready to participate in the encounters. Or, was it Ben? Maybe both!

The beluga whale interaction was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. It was literally out of my comfort zone to wear a bathing suit and wet suit. It was also daunting to get into the water, since the interaction took place in what was actually the very top of the belugas’ habitat- that is very deep water with five beluga whales and three harbor seals. I know how to swim, but I was still scared of falling off the rim (think Nemo and Dory and the drop-off). Once face to face with the belugas, I was completely in love. That huge “smiling” head popped up unexpectedly and simultaneously startled and delighted me. Kissing and being kissed by Imaq, the Aquarium’s largest beluga (around 3000 pounds and 14’ long), was the opportunity of a lifetime, as was having (and losing!) a splash party with Maple. The rest of the world fell away for me as I watched, worked and played with these big belugas. I have never felt like that before.

There are staff photographers at all the encounter programs. As I reviewed my photos from the beluga interaction, I was not at all surprised to see in almost every single photo my huge smile and laughter. What really caught my eye was one photograph in particular, in which I have a certain smile with my tongue through my teeth and my shoulders hunched. It was an expression that Ben loved and always imitated because he said it showed my utter delight. Yes, the photographer took tons of photos, but the fact that she captured this one on film is, to me, a sign from Ben that he knew this was where I was meant to be and most myself, and that he was happy for and present with me. I am going to print this photo.

This was an expression that Ben loved and always immitated. That it was captured on film is, for me, a sign from Ben.

My dad would have loved this experience, and he would have been proud of me for not letting my fear keep me from following my curiosity and participating in the program. I am generally a nervous person. I’m sure my dad was watching me and I’m grateful that I can feel his presence in these moments. When I was young, he took me to the Coney Island Aquarium, and although I was so excited, I was also terrified of the whales swimming head first towards the glass as if they could break through. I was also repulsed by the octopus, because I expected it to look like the cute cartoon characters I had seen. I will always remember my dad’s laughter at my reactions to the animals, as well as the love we shared for animals.

I must also mention the Sea Lion encounter, because it was absolutely wonderful. Our group leader and the team were inspiring to watch because of the rapport they have with the sea lions and, as I have noted, the love they have for them. I look at the photos and see my joy. It was the joy that I always found when I looked at photos of Ben during our visits to Walt Disney World. It’s pure and deep. It transcended his physical appearance.

I feel very lucky and grateful for these opportunities. They are part of my treasure trove of new memories and symbolic of how I am moving forward but carrying my loved ones in my heart as I journey ahead. It is also a wonderful feeling to discover ways that I can find peace and find myself. Going to the Georgia Aquarium is likely going to be an annual adventure that, in my own way, I will share with Ben and my dad.