Remembering Donald’s birthday prompted me to yet again revisit all of our photographs from Walt Disney World. I have been feeling a little emotional these days. I think it is the nearing of the two year anniversary that Ben went into the emergency room and everything changed. Summer also signals the anniversary of the summer spent at the hospital and the summer that Ben succumbed to the ALS. It’s never been my favorite season- I hate the heat, but now there is the added set of memories. I definitely feel a certain level of anxiety, but as Dory taught me, I just keep swimming.
I find myself poring over the photographs with a smile on my face, and yes, also some tears. Donald was always so much fun at the meet and greets. And, being a Spanish teacher, I did especially love when he was at the Mexico pavilion at Epcot.
I share these photos because photos and memories have played such an important and positive part of my dealing with the rough times of watching Ben decline as his ALS progressed, and dealing with grief. It does not mean that I don’t get upset or lament the times we will never have. But, I also think about how lucky we were to share this love of Disney that always shed much needed pixie dust on our lives. Donald is part of those special memories that comfort me. So, with gratitude and joy, I say Happy Birthday to Donald Duck.
I’ve written about changes I made to my apartment after Ben passed away. The painting and recarpeting had to be done- the ALS battle scars were so huge. There are things I’ve displayed and put on the walls that remind me of him and of us and I love to be surrounded by these things and memories. But then there was his table, the ugly table he used as a desk that even he didn’t like. I thought it would be easy to replace it, and I picked a little dining table that I was excited about. But, when I started to think about not having his table anymore, it was very emotional for me. I decided to keep it and use it for baking, because Ben would love that. To read my post about what happened to that table, and things that matter, click here.
I have been looking for dining chairs since I got the new dining table. Imagine my delight when Ethan Allen launched its Disney line (click here to visit the site)! I fell in love with the Mickey Mouse dining chairs and had to order them. I thought about replacing Ben’s desk chair, because the foam on the arms is completely falling apart and it is not as sturdy as it used to be. That chair holds many memories, some good and some bad. I sit in it every day and remember how that chair functioned as Ben’s desk chair and, also, as his wheelchair, because it was narrower than a wheelchair and could get through the narrow doorway to the bedroom. I dragged the rolling chair to and from the bedroom every day. I transferred him from that chair a few times a day. We always worried that it would collapse, and thank goodness it never did. He sat in that chair all day. I fed him meals, shaved him and we watched tv and had our conversations while he was in that chair. I still find myself looking at the chair and talking to Ben when I need some kind of an answer or sign from him. The thought of not having the chair here made me cry. The chair is staying. The memories, good and bad, and the smiles and tears, are part of what our life was with ALS, and it all matters.
The chairs arrived on Saturday. They are beautiful. Ben would love them. But, right now I am coexisting with them. They don’t quite belong yet. It’s like the holiday ornaments I purchased when I went to London in October (click here for more about that.) I tried to create the tree exactly as Ben and I had it, with our ornaments in precisely the places where Ben liked them because he could see them from his desk. The new ones were jarring. Now, these chairs are jarring. It’s hard to enjoy them completely without Ben. I know in my heart that he would be happy for me. But, he’s not here to enjoy them with me, so it’s kind of bittersweet.
I know that I have to create new memories in my home. I still struggle with that. I hope that my friends will visit and enjoy the chairs and meals that I will prepare. And, as we look around the apartment, I do hope that they will also feel and celebrate Ben’s presence. As I find new ways to relate to Ben, I know and take comfort in that he will always remain a part of everything I do.
I always picture Ben like this, in his chair at his desk. The chair stays!
“You don’t lose hope, love. If you lose hope, you lose everything.” – Mrs Potts , Belle’s Magical World
ALS Awareness month comes to a close today, but patients, caregivers and loved ones of those with ALS continue to live with the physical and emotional effects of the disease. August will mark two years since Ben left this world, free from his struggle with the disease. I want to conclude this month by offering this wisdom from Mrs. Potts of Beauty and the Beast fame.
I have written often about Ben’s bravery and persistence. It has taken me a long time to come to understand that I was brave in a different way. And, I can honestly say that hope played a tremendous part in our lives. There was hope that things would get better and we would find innovative ways to help him eat, use his electronics, and maintain a good quality of life. There was hope that the next day would be less stressful. There was hope that each day would have some smiles and laughs. There was hope that I would remain patient. There was hope that Ben would accept that his needs were increasing. There was hope that he would have more time. There was hope that the disease would progress slowly. There was hope that he would transition peacefully.
Was it naïve to hope? Was it like my tossing coins in Cinderella’s Wishing Well? I don’t think so. To wish is to hope, and I have often written about wishes on this blog. Hope allowed me to reach for optimism. It allowed me to see the positive things, even if the big picture was not good. It allowed me to recognize and be relieved and content that one day was better than the prior one, not because the ALS was getting better or going away, but maybe because we were in better moods or successfully solved a problem. Hope allowed me to fantasize in a healthy way, remembering wonderful times and trying to recreate those and create new ones. It allowed me to be a creative thinker. It allowed me to smile, even through tears.
Hope was my pixie dust. Because I had hope, I was able to open my mind to finding ways to help Ben and to help myself. Hoping beyond hope that Ben would transition peacefully gave me the mindset to work towards making that happen. Love let me cope with the moments when hope was waning.
Hope also has helped me get through grief. It has allowed me to envision a positive future without Ben but with love. It allows me to seek opportunities to help others who are dealing with ALS.
I still have hope and I do make wishes. I hope that I always honor Ben’s memory in a way that he would appreciate. I hope that my blog and interactions with people affected by ALS will help and comfort them. I hope that I will find love again. I hope beyond measure that a cure will be found for this horrible disease.
In a way, hope is a gift, because it allows you to escape some harsh realities. I hope that all of my readers who are affected by ALS will find ways that inspire you to be hopeful and to see past the dark clouds to clear your mind, if only temporarily. There are reasons to be hopeful as we look at the research being done. There is also hope for comfort and the future as we look at the communities and forums of supportive and caring people that connect us because we share a deep bond of understanding and empathy.
Yes, ALS Awareness Month is ending. But, I hope that the determination never wanes to continue to raise awareness of ALS and the brave battles fought by people like my Ben.
I agree with Mrs. Potts. If you lose hope, you lose everything.
2011- A visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle to wish for a cure for ALS.
Today I wore Ben’s Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey to school. When Ben was diagnosed with the disease, he asked for it. He barely got to wear it, but I have adopted it and I feel proud and especially connected to Ben when I wear it. I usually wear it once during the school year, during ALS Awareness month. Last year I chose not to wear it to school because I was still very emotional (it had not yet been even a year) and I was concerned that if the kids asked me about it, I would cry. This year, I might still cry, but I am better about talking with the kids about Ben, and most know that I have a husband who died.
The kids expect to see me in a Disney t-shirt when I’m dressing casually or during our themed dress-up days. They are shocked but thrilled to see me in a sports jersey. They run and ask me if I am a Yankees fan. I smile and shrug. Of course, they look to see whose number and name I’m wearing. Immediately, I get the question, “Who is Gehrig?”
A couple of years ago, a student asked me why I wore this particular jersey. I said that my husband had the same disease Gehrig had. He asked about it and I asked if he ever heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge. He did, but he did not make the connection to a disease. I told him the Challenge was to raise money to find a cure for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, and, trying to make sense of it, he asked if it was a disease where people were cold all the time. It made me smile then and it still does. If only it were that simple! They are young, they do not need a lot of details. Some will ask many questions, some will Google it, and they will learn. And, that’s a good thing.
I’m proud to have the opportunity to raise awareness of ALS, though I surely wish that Ben had not had it. Our experience with ALS truly is never out of my mind. The students that I had while my dad and Ben were alive and ill learned about compassion when they saw me run out of school in tears in a panic because of an emergency, or listened to me explain on rare occasions that although I never use my cell phone in class, I was awaiting an important call from a doctor. And, when my phone rang, they were silent and I know that many felt my worry. Some were sympathetic and compassionate. Those are life skills you cannot gain from a text book. They are important. Some kids do not learn this at home.
Ben’s Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey is one way that I proudly raise awareness of ALS and all it encompasses. While I love to see the students’ glee from seeing the klutziest, Disney-est teacher in school wearing a sports jersey, I know that they are also learning about a man named Lou Gehrig who had a terrible disease that my husband had, too. They see how their teacher has a “real” life in which she cared for and lost her loved ones, experiences grief and continues to live and love and care for her students on our good and bad days. Life lessons.
Today, May 21, is the Don’t Talk-a-Thon for Project ALS research. I am participating and donating to the cause to honor people like Ben, who lost their ability to speak because of this cruel disease, and to contribute to efforts to fund critical ALS research.
It is devastating, and deeply personal, to elaborate on the impact of losing his speech, on him and on me and others who loved and treated him, but I feel very strongly that sharing these details helps to convey the physical and emotional effects of ALS and the urgent need to find a cure.
Ben was fortunate that his speech was very slowly affected. However, as the impairment grew, so did the ability to understand him. Since I communicated with him so much, I was better able to figure out what he was saying. However, phone conversations were extremely difficult. That added a lot of stress because Ben was alone when I went to work. When he finally agreed to having a medic alert device installed, there was a fear that if he activated the alarm, the response team would not understand or hear him through the speaker. Fortunately, the team also notified me if the alarm was activated, and I could run home.
Think of times that you have tried to explain yourself but your point was not understood. Frustrating, isn’t it? Imagine a day full of that. Imagine that constantly feeling, day in and day out. It’s not just the difficulty moving your mouth muscles and using your voice. It’s being understood, truly heard, feeling like you matter. ALS takes that away. Watching someone struggle and surrender, because they just don’t want to keep trying to express themselves, thereby losing their sense of self, is painful.
It was when Ben had a respiratory crisis that we were both truly frightened by his inability to speak to me. He said very quietly that he was having trouble breathing, which he sometimes said out of anxiety. However, this was the first time that he was having extreme difficulty speaking, so we could not talk it through, and I had to ask him to blink if he wanted me to call 911. This event landed him in the Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Medical School. He was given a Bipap mask and I tried to read his lips.
Suddenly, teams of doctors approached me, talking about moving ahead with a feeding tube and tracheostomy. These were things Ben had always said he wanted. Just the week before this crisis, Ben had spoken to his doctor about making arrangements for the feeding tube, so this was not a shock. However, seeing him with a Bipap mask on a ventilator, and knowing that the tracheostomy was imminent, was terrifying. Once in the hospital, Ben began to rethink his choice and wanted to have the time to make a firm decision.
Doctors talked to me about the need to devise a plan for communicating with him. We had not really considered these options because until this point, a tracheostomy was something to happen down the line. I called my local ALS chapter for advice and was told about communication boards where I could point to letters and commonly used words to help Ben express himself. I brought in paper and markers and made a chart with all the letters of the alphabet. I tried pointing to the letters so Ben could spell out words one by one. It was tedious, frustrating, and tragically sad. Ben hated it. He spelled out a little and then shook his head and stopped trying. Who could blame him? He wanted me to read his lips, but with the Bipap mask, his mouth was obscured. Also, his mouth muscles were not always cooperating, so reading his lips was not always possible.
His doctor suggested a new strategy of asking if each word started at the beginning of the alphabet, A-M, or the end of the alphabet, N-Z. Based on this, we literally recited the alphabet until he nodded that we hit the right letter. Imagine spelling an entire sentence like this, and then having an entire conversation like this. Sometimes Ben got frustrated that I said the alphabet too slowly, he understandably lacked the patience to spell the words out. Ben did prefer that we try to read his lips, and we tried. Since I was with him so much, it was somewhat easier for me to figure out what he was saying, but it was not always possible. There was very little small talk. A long blink was his way of sending me a kiss.
In the hospital, there was also no ability to call or text him. And, there was no ability for him to call for help in the hospital. People wondered why I spent 16 hour days in the hospital, and stayed over at his request, but it worried me as much as it did Ben that he could not call for help. His hands did not allow him to press the call button and the variations of the call button also did not work. The nursing staffs really were generally great and they did stop by frequently, but I know that I will never fully be able to understand the depth of Ben’s fear and feeling of helplessness. They were very patient with my phone calls and requests. But, when I was present, there were some people who addressed me as if he was not there, despite the fact that he understood everything. I had to redirect the conversations to include him. Sometimes, I’m sure it had to do with needing to do things quickly, but it took a toll on Ben. He felt invisible. Ben was at least fortunate to be able to nod or shake his head as they tried to determine his needs. Many with ALS are not.
Basic conversation was challenging enough, with Ben having to spell out the simplest of requests, like blankets or asking me to play a specific playlist on his iPad. But, Ben was also making very serious decisions about how he wanted to proceed in life and death with ALS. I will never forget the meetings with his medical team where they discussed his options: life with a tracheostomy and ventilator at a facility or hospice.
Ultimately, Ben spelled out this message for his medical team.
I took a photo of it and texted it to his daughter, who shared it with the rest of her family. I felt that rather than my conveying a message, she should know her dad’s exact words. I don’t really know why I kept such a horrible message, but I simply had to.
Once he decided to go to the palliative care/hospice unit of the hospital, we had to choose the day that he would separate from the ventilator. I remember him spelling out for me, “When is a good day to die?” It broke my heart to write that and to have to grapple with that. Try to imagine what it must have been like for Ben to tediously spell that out. I still can’t. You can’t either. I’ve said it before and I will always stay in awe of his bravery.
In his last days, I did try to read his lips as much as possible. On the morning of the day that he left us, he asked to say our vows, and he mouthed them and his, “I do.” It is heartbreaking to think of it, and yet, it gave him joy, and it does give me joy to know that he had a beautiful last day filled with love and music.
I share this with you because learning about the actual experiences of people with ALS and their loved ones is, in my opinion, the most heartfelt and accurate way to begin to explain the tremendous cruelty of ALS and the very specific ways in which it affects patients and their loved ones.
Ben was fortunate to have had his voice for five of the nearly six years that he battled ALS, even though it was impaired. His physical voice gave him an emotional strength. When he lost the ability to be heard, he felt invisible and terribly vulnerable. Many people with ALS lose their voices very quickly and live with that feeling for several years. The Don’t Talk-A-Thon asks people to take a vow not to use their voice for at least an hour. Just an hour. Think of the trivial things that we often say over the course of an hour. Think of the many silly texts we send over the course of an hour. Those are luxuries for someone with ALS. But, those little things convey who we are and envelope our personalities. ALS robs speech but we cannot allow it to rob dignity. As caregivers, family members and friends of people with ALS, our patience, creativity and compassion helps people with ALS have a voice and feel significant.
By supporting ALS research, we can be the voice for people with ALS, and contribute to efforts to find a cure.
If you would like to learn more, participate in, and/or contribute to the Project ALS Don’t Talk-a-Thon, please click here: