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Happy Anniversary, Lilo and Stitch!

ALS, Walt Disney World, Lilo and Stitch

The very first time we met Stitch, October 2006!

Today is a very exciting day for Toy Story fans, with the release of Toy Story 4. I already have my tickets to see it tomorrow morning, and I have my tissues ready, but today is already an important day in Disney history. On this date in 2002, Lilo and Stich (Walt Disney Pictures) was released. I have loved Stitch since I saw that film. When Ben and I went to Walt Disney World and I had read that Stitch could be found at the Magic Kingdom, I was on a mission to find him. Ben was very patient!  In honor of the film and my buddy Stitch, here are some photos from our visits to Walt Disney World over the years. Ben liked taking pictures of me with Stitch because he was my good buddy and Ben got a kick out of that. I look at those photos and even though Ben was the photographer, in my mind and in my memories, he is so present in those moments and I can vividly see him laughing. I am so grateful for these memories.

Halloween with my buddy in 2010. Ben could still take photos at this point, which makes this picture especially sentimental.

I think the funniest memory I have is from our 2012 trip. Walt Disney World has many and great accessible restrooms, which made life much easier for Ben. I would get Ben situated and wait outside because he couldn’t walk to lock the door. Also, I could hear him if he needed assistance. One day, while I was waiting for Ben, Stitch walked by and I yelled hello to him. OK, yelled a lot, with much waving. Moments later, Ben called to me. As I helped him into his scooter, he couldn’t stop laughing, imitating my calling Stitch and saying that he started wondering how he was going to get himself out of the bathroom because he knew Stitch was one of my favorite friends and he thought I might abandon him! I did not! And, I’m not telling if I thought about it!

I love this little guy!

I hunted him down at the Animal Kingdom in 2007!

On our last visit in July 2014, Ben knew that one of the things I had always wanted to do was have breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel with Lilo and Stitch. I had not mentioned it because it was a long commute from our own hotel and I didn’t want to tire Ben. But, he wanted us to have that experience. I think Ben wanted to laugh at me gushing at Stitch, which, of course, I did! Stitch was his adorable self, as was Lilo. They were very attentive and considerate of Ben and his inability to get out of his seat. It was an incredible time that I will never forget, particularly wonderful because it was a brand new memory, as opposed to memories we were trying to recreate to almost try to turn back time to the days before ALS. I will never forget the magical connection that Ben and I felt when we were at Walt Disney World.

July 2014, Breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel.

Stitch gave Ben some extra love!

Happy Anniversary, Lilo and Stitch!

Mulan’s Anniversary: Reflections of Caregiving, Grief And Who I Am Inside

Reflection
Music by Matthew Wilder
Lyrics by David Zippel
Performed by Lea Salonga

Mulan (1998)  Walt Disney Feature Animation

Today is the anniversary of the release of Mulan. It was actually the first Disney film Ben and I saw together when we began dating. It is hard to believe it was 21 years ago. At that time, Ben was not quite the Disney fanatic that I was, but he wanted to impress me so we made frequent visits to the Disney Store and he took me to see this film on opening day in what became our tradition of opening day viewings of Disney and Pixar films. As it turned out, Ben loved this film and he was very happy to find Mulan ornaments for our Christmas tree. He particularly loved the song in this clip, Reflection. I can relate to it, although Mulan was struggling with her identity within her family and I am struggling more within myself.

Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am, though I’ve tried.
When will my reflection show who I am, inside?

grief,ALS,Disney,Christmas

Ben loved Mulan and Buzz Lightyear!

I’ve written a lot about feeling like I was, and still am, floundering, because when I lost my dad and Ben, I also lost my role as a caregiver. Caregiving consumed my life. I did what I was expected to do but also what I felt in my heart was the right thing to do. Despite the emotional and physical stress, it was the most important, meaningful and loving work I have ever done. The attentive and devoted caregiver was who I was inside and out. Caregiving also revealed to me a strength that I never would have believed I possess, and that my often emotional demeanor would never have conveyed. Once that role was removed, I lost myself and my reflection was blurred.

Because caregiving was so much of who I’ve come to be, it is difficult for me when I realize that people I meet now do not know the story of Ben and my dad. I am no longer known as Abby, Ben’s caregiver, or Abby who was so devoted to her dad and her husband. Being my dad’s caregiver and his whole world, and being the person at Ben’s side throughout his battle with ALS are aspects of how I see myself, even though those actual days are done. Presenting myself apart from Ben, as a person on my own, seems incomplete, and almost disrespectful. I have to keep reminding myself that Ben is still a part of everything that I do and we will always be connected. However, I have to find my own way now.

Now, when I look at myself, I see much of the former, more eccentric and whimsical Abby, though I was changed by seeing my dad and Ben face death and by having the responsibility of caregiving. I still do struggle with compartmentalizing my caregiving experiences and losses. The truth is that I embraced my caregiving qualities as positive parts of myself.  It is an accomplishment to feel proud of myself, and caregiving did that for me, though it took a long time after the fact for me to realize it.  My struggle has been finding a balance of being true to Ben and my dad, and true to myself, while living in the present.  I want the Abby I am now to reflect all of those experiences without remaining immersed in only memories.

I have managed to integrate my caregiving into volunteer work, which is great. I did a small program with my local ALS chapter for children who are affected by ALS in their families. It was great because my background is in arts education and I care deeply about children. I also made a connection and volunteered for an organization called Hope Loves Company, which serves children who are affected by ALS in their families. I attended one of their family camps and did a scrapbooking workshop, which the kids (and I!) enjoyed. I know the importance of memories and I hope that creating a scrapbook leaves a lasting idea of ways to express their experiences and feelings. I look forward to continuing to volunteer. I am thrilled to see that my blog has built some new connections and provided support to caregivers and, in some cases, to people with ALS. I will continue to explore ways to reach out to this community and to the community of young caregivers. In this new phase of my life, my “new” and maybe somewhat “improved” self is exploring the possibilities for self-exploration and reinvention that will hopefully allow me to make a difference in the lives of others and maintain my tie to Ben, my dad and caregiving. I would love to know that they are proud of me and happy that they are continuing to inspire me. I know that inside myself, I hold all of my love and experiences.

All of our experiences help us grow and evolve. I will always see the people I’ve cared for, loved and lost in my reflection and I am proud and comforted that this will always keep their spirits alive and close. I hope that what others see in me honors them and our love and does justice to all of us.

 

Happy Anniversary “The Incredibles 2”: Tapping Our Super Powers in Caregiving and Grief

July 2014 at Walt Disney World

Today marks the one year anniversary of the release of Disney’s The Incredibles 2. The Incredibles hold a particular place in my heart because Mr. Incredible was one of Ben’s top three Disney buddies, along with Buzz Lightyear and Sully.

Because of this, and since it was our tradition, it was especially important to me to see the film on opening day. I remember that I had my little cry in the theater as the film began. Where I usually feel Ben’s presence at these films, at this film I profoundly felt his absence. I was angry that he did not have the chance to see this movie. Grief had brought a lot of emotions, but until this point, I can’t say that I had felt anger, despite often feeling frustrated that he was cheated of so much of life. I went on to feel more anger later in the summer when I visited the Georgia Aquarium, another place that Ben would have loved. There are certainly more profound life moments that Ben is missing and will miss that I should probably be more angry about, but sometimes the little moments make a tremendous impact.

In the past year, there have been more Disney films. Each one comes with sadness and acknowledgement of Ben’s physical absence but spiritual presence. However, I have also seen some growth in my perspective and experience with grief. I have noticed that I no longer debate with myself whether I can and should enjoy myself. The experiences are a time to focus thoughts on Ben and good memories. This seems to, on some level, alleviate the deep sadness and loneliness. It’s respectful of him and maintains the Disney bond that was such a strong part of our relationship.

This blog is a clear reflection of the way I look to each Disney film for enlightenment, and hopefully a quote that will carry me forward or give me perspective. I like to be able to share these thoughts with other caregivers with the intention that they will validate, inspire or comfort. The Incredibles 2 did not disappoint. The film actually has a lot of messages about inclusion, diversity, fighting for justice, family and love. I do remember the audible expressions of agreement when Dicker said, “Politicians don’t understand people who do good things. That makes them nervous.“

Interestingly, the quote that resonated with me was very appropriate for caregivers, and for an opening weekend that included Father’s Day. Edna Moda told Mr. Incredible, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. Done properly.”  I was so fortunate to have had two devoted and loving parents. As a public school teacher, over the years I have seen many children who are not parented properly, in fact, they are barely parented at all.  Good parenting is indeed a heroic, selfless act of love. The same came be said for good caregiving.

As a caregiver, I often questioned my abilities, especially when I was struggling with exhaustion, sadness and patience with Ben when he was stubborn and demanding. But, like any other caregiver, I put my emotions and feelings aside, or, at least on hold, and trudged on because the immediate needs of caregiving are not negotiable. Phone calls abruptly ended, activities were thrown to the side, chores ignored (well, I can’t say I minded that very much) as I attempted to create order amidst chaos, calm when he was panicked, and peace amidst the devastation of watching Ben deteriorate and suffer, physically and/or emotionally. Like all caregivers, I also ran interference among medical professionals and other related staff, as well as family and friends. I provided spirit boosts and levity and also administered difficult doses of reality, as tactfully as possible.

It certainly wasn’t my goal as a caregiver to be heroic and I don’t think that caregivers generally perceive themselves as heroes. We probably spend more time following Dory’s advice to “just keep swimming.” As a crybaby, I’ve never seen myself as heroic- at any point in my life- which is why, I think, I was puzzled when people told me that I was brave. Ben was brave, I was along for the ride, trying to be helpful and, a good deal of the time, not sure if I was much of a success. My insecurities made me feel much less than a superhero. However, I can attest that I definitely earned the Wonder Woman t-shirt Ben got me after I managed to grab him and keep him from falling off the bed!

In the film we are introduced to new super hero, Voyd, who asks Mrs. Incredible/Elastigirl, “How do you balance the superhero stuff with the life stuff?” Indeed, that’s a very important consideration for caregivers. For me, I constantly struggled with balancing the responsibilities of caregiving against a full-time job, daily life chores, relationships with friends and family, the emotional strain of losing the life Ben and I had, and knowing that ultimately, I was going to lose Ben. In retrospect, I think the balancing act IS the superhero stuff.

Young Dash tells his dad, Mr. Incredible, that he wants to fight bad guys because “It defines me.” I can say that caregiving defined me for several years and I found that it is a significant part of who I am and how I see myself. I have written about how I floundered when I was no longer a caregiver, until I found myself again through blogging, volunteering and trying to support other caregivers. Although I would rather not have discovered this through the illness and loss of my dad and Ben, I feel like I have identified caregiving as my super power. Unfortunately, I was not able to defeat cancer or ALS, but my dad and Ben always felt cared and advocated for and loved, and that is incredibly powerful. I did not see it while I was actively caregiving, but time and distance have provided valuable perspective.

Mr. Incredible at Walt Disney World’s parade, 2014.

Mr. Incredible summed up well the life of a caregiver when he said: “How do I do it? By rolling with the punches, baby!” I can picture Ben smiling and nodding, because, in actuality, both he and I rolled with the punches. I am still in awe of how well he rolled with the severe punches dealt to him by ALS. I guess we were both super heroes, albeit without the cute costumes.

I highly recommend The Incredibles 2. It’s quite fun and fantastic and offers unexpected words of wisdom for caregivers and everyone else. Post your thoughts! I look forward to reading them.

ALS, Caregiving, The Incredibles, Disney, Pixar, Caregiving, Grief

Ben as Mr. Incredible- Part of a birthday collage that I made for Ben. When it came to battling ALS, Ben was indeed a super hero!

On My Aunt Eleanor’s Birthday- Where Do The Memories Go?

Aunt Eleanor with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie. Ellie was never a huge dog lover until she met Dulcie.

Today is my aunt Eleanor’s 91st birthday. I visited her in the nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s disease that has progressed to the point where, for the most part, she does not speak coherently, though she does seem to understand much of what is said to her. Her eyes do light up a bit when she sees me, and she smiles sometimes when I talk to her. I believe that her memories of me are floating somewhere in her mind, or I let myself believe that to cope with my profound sadness. A perfect moment was when I handed her the Mickey Mouse birthday card and asked if she remembered him- she smiled. Disney magic! Pixie dust!

We were so close and she has influenced much of who I am. I look like her and have many of her mannerisms. Ellie was the person who took me to the theater and ballet and inspired my love of the arts and of travel. Ellie took me to book signings when I was young, and I was always thrilled to meet famous and wildly talented people. Now, attending book signings is one of my favorite activities. For a long time, after her Alzheimer’s advanced and she could no longer accompany me, I got books signed for her.  We looked at the books together, which she enjoyed despite the changes in her memory, and I enjoyed because it let me step back in time and relate to her in a way that transcended the Alzheimer’s. I remember how excited I was to bring her a children’s book written by Wendy Wasserstein. It was about a girl whose aunt takes her to her first musical. When I handed Wendy the book to sign, I told her that my aunt Ellie was like her book’s Aunt Pamela. She smiled and inscribed the book, “To Eleanor, who IS Aunt Pamela.”  I am tremendously proud of my collection of signed books and CDs, and proud to honor the relationship that I have maintained with my aunt.

I tried to maintain our favorite activities and took her to the theater even as her Alzheimer’s progressed. I once took her to a Yiddish theater production where they gave our pickles at intermission. It seems that she immediately forgot the play, but she told people she had pickles. I felt like that was still a good memory for her, and I was glad that in the moment, she enjoyed sitting through the show. After spending another day at the theater with her, I took her home, and when I got home there was a panicked phone message from her asking if we were supposed to see each other that day. She had completely forgotten the day. I could only reason with myself that at least while we were at the theater she enjoyed watching the play. I stopped taking her when she seemed to not have as much fun because she was easily confused and disoriented. It would have been selfish to keep trying to keep things the same when things had changed and I had to accept it.

Ellie was the remaining relative to whom I was closest and with whom I spent a lot of time. Although she is still physically here, our relationship is not the same. It hurts to see her and her largely diminished quality of life, though I try to be comforted by the moments that I make her laugh. It feels somehow disrespectful, but I see that in many ways I am grieving her loss.

She was a Spanish teacher and although my career has been varied, I have been walking in her footsteps for the past fifteen years. Today, I can’t help but think of the beautiful song Remember Me from Disney’s Coco. She would have loved it. I’ve put the song clip and lyrics here. The film dealt so beautifully with aging and loss, conveying that our loved ones are always in our hearts. With that in mind, I will spend this evening trying not to dwell on the Ellie I saw today and instead think of all of the wonderful memories that we shared. I hope that somewhere in her mind during her visit, she had a happy birthday and that she felt loved.


The lyrics from the song “Remember Me” were very emotional.

Remember Me
Lyrics from Coco
Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Performed by Miguel, featuring Natalia Lafourcade

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
Remember me

Where Do I Go From Here? What Would Pocahontas Do?

Where Do I Go From Here?
Written by Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman
Performed by Judy Kuhn as Pocahontas

The earth is cold
The fields are bare
The branches fold against the wind that’s everywhere

The birds move on
So they survive
When snow so deep
The bears all sleep to keep themselves alive

They do what they must for now
And trust in their plan
If I trust in mine, somehow I might find who I am

But where do I go from here?
So many voices ringing in my ear
Which is the voice that I was meant to hear?
How will I know?
Where do I go from here?

My world has changed and so have I
I’ve learned to choose
And even learned to say goodbye

The path ahead’s so hard to see
It winds and bends but where it ends
Depends on only me

In my heart I don’t feel part of so much I’ve known
Now it seems it’s time to start
A new life on my own

But where do I go from here?
So many voices ringing in my ear
Which is the voice that I was meant to hear?
How will I know?
Where do I go from here?

May was a bit rough for me. May is ALS Awareness Month. Milestone dates and occasions are always significant. Even though it is not a milestone in Ben’s personal journey with ALS, it is an important time for me. I want and need to participate in the month to raise awareness of ALS, but I never feel like I really make a difference. I’ve been questioning so much about where I am and where I should be in my life. I feel like the sharpest pangs of grief have begun to subside and I have wanted to think that things have been steadily improving. And they have been improving in many ways. Unfortunately, the questions haven’t really ended, they are just different. Now, I question what I should be doing in terms of moving forward, in terms of my relationship with ALS, in terms of grief. Where do I go from here?

There is so much that resonates in this song. Since Ben “left,” as he referred to dying, I have grappled with where to go with my life. I stopped questioning how I survive after I lost my mom, which was my first major loss and was especially earth-shattering because we were so close and it was sudden. The first year, I went through motions. Just like animals Pocahontas described how the bears instinctively know what they have to do from season to season, I just kept going through motions, sometimes instinctively, sometimes lead by others, but never really thinking. Now, it is nearly four years since I lost Ben, and although I have gotten back on track and know that I have much to be grateful for, the setbacks  really throw me and I am frequently anxious about my plan for the future and I rely on a wealth of wonderful memories to sustain me. When it comes to the future, there are people who are fine to say that they put things “in God’s hands.” I have never been one of those people, despite being a person who does have faith.

I have done a good job of reclaiming the things I always loved to do. I have resumed active theater-going, socializing and I even travel a bit. Still, there is an anxiety. I feel like I don’t have a strategy for my life. There’s a lot of worry and emotional analysis. There is also judgment. I have had to deal with the judgment of others, to my face or behind my back, but I also judge myself. Am I balancing past, present and future? How do I effectively help others? How do I best help people with ALS and their caregivers? Does that keep me in the past? How do I maintain my connection to the past and to Ben’s journey with ALS while forming a new life and hopefully finding love again? Will I find love again or will I be alone? As much as I would like to find a new relationship and have that kind of love, I don’t seem to have found a good strategy for getting there. Each night, I look at my photo of Ben that is my laptop background, I say good night to him, and wonder if I will ever find someone who “gets” me the way that he did. He doesn’t have to be a Disney prince, either. No matter how good I feel about the strides I’ve made, and no matter how many happy days I have, there is an uneasiness that keeps me from feeling contentment.

While some people think I should put more distance from the past and focus more intently on my vision for the future, being by Ben’s side as he bravely battled ALS changed me. Just as my dad’s cancer began to progress and Ben was diagnosed with ALS, I was launching a pet souvenir business, Pets en Voyage. I slowly put it aside because I couldn’t juggle full-time work, full-time caregiving and building a business. The business was a dream come true for me, and one Ben and my dad, the consummate dog lover, were so excited about. I always said that I would come back to it, but whenever I begin to revisit it, I find it a painful reminder of those days of illness and chaos. I am not letting go of it, but cannot seem to fully embrace it again, either. Not yet.

I was profoundly influenced by my role as a caregiver, and when I lost my dad and Ben, and I lost that role, I did lose a big part of myself. I feel most comfortable when I find ways to tap into that side of myself. This blog has been one way to sort out my experiences and spread the word about caregiving and ALS. I have been touched by the connections I have made and comments I have had from cALS (Caregivers of people with ALS) and pALS (people with ALS) in response to my posts. I was inspired by earn my Certification as a Caregiving Consultant but have not yet figured out how to use it more effectively, though I participate in various online ALS and grief support groups to lend an ear, share my experiences and persistent questions, and offer ideas to those currently struggling with caregiving.

When I was a caregiver, my role was clear: the goal was to keep Ben comfortable and get him the help he needed. There might have been twists and turns, and a lot of curve balls, but I had to come up with plans, and then back-up plans! Now, I’m just not sure of where to go and what to do for myself. What I know, and what I learned as a caregiver, is that I am a born teacher and caregiver. I also saw that I could be a strong advocate for my dad and Ben, but I did not seem to know how to use those skills for myself.

As a teacher and someone who spent more than 30 years in the field of arts and education, I love kids and could not help thinking about how difficult it must be for children to watch a parent or other family member navigate ALS and take on caregiving responsibilities. I have felt that my background could be useful to children who are affected by ALS in their families. A while back, I was able to collaborate with my local ALS chapter to conduct a small workshop for kids who had a parent with ALS. We did crafts, ate pizza and ice cream and talked. Click here to read  my post about that experience.

Earlier this month, I had the supreme privilege of working with Hope Loves Company, an organization dedicated to supporting children whose families have been affected by ALS (click here to visit their web site). Hope Loves Company runs camps for children and their families- it’s a special opportunity to get away, participate in all kinds of activities, from hiking to fishing to music and crafts. Also, it is an opportunity to be surrounded by other people who share, understand and can commiserate about the experience of ALS and its impact on our lives. I was a facilitator of a workshop where the children made scrapbooks- some brought photos from home and we also printed photos from their activities during camp. I believe that going through photos can be a very valuable process- it’s a time to relive memories and remember our important relationships- and I was happy to hear the stories that the children shared with me. It was fun and meaningful, and it felt like I was exactly where I should be. I look forward to continuing my volunteer work with this wonderful organization.

It feels good to me to work children in this way. I want and need to follow a path that lets me discover ways to reach out to young people affected by this disease, but also to young caregivers in general. I’m just not sure exactly where to go or how to get there.

Now it seems it’s time to start
A new life on my own

But where do I go from here?
So many voices ringing in my ear
Which is the voice that I was meant to hear?
How will I know?
Where do I go from here?

I have lots of ideas, but I’m a worrier by nature, so I tend to identify the obstacles before I see a clear path. While it’s probably not terribly realistic that I will resolve everything during my summer vacation from teaching, it’s my plan to address ways to expand my work and relationship to ALS. Summer is always strange because it marks another year that Ben spent in the hospital and then left the world, so it’s good to have a focus. It’s especially meaningful to make that focus something that relates to him. Yes, I keep the dating thing on my mind, too, but that kind of strategizing seems to be more daunting to me.

I do welcome ideas and brainstorming, so please feel free to comment or email if there is a project you’d like to consider or implement.