ALS

On Slaying the Jabberwocky in Caregiving, Grief and Life

I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

“I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”- Alice Click To Tweet
I saw this quote with an image from the Walt Disney Productions animated film, as I’ve done here. In fact, it is from the book by Lewis Carroll. Still, it’s a great quote that I could relate to, particularly after my caregiving experiences. Intrigued by the quote, I re-watched the original 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland and the 2010 live action remake. Although I have to admit that they are not among my favorite Disney films, there is a lot of wisdom and insight, as well as some welcome sarcasm, that helped me reflect on the impact of caregiving on my relationship with myself and with others. It continues to resonate as I reshape my life and realize that all of those experiences have in some ways changed me.

“From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched and stuff in to a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and not of being Alice but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.” - Alice
“I’ve been accused of being Alice and not of being Alice but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.- Alice Click To Tweet
My dad’s cancer diagnosis and then Ben’s diagnosis of ALS plunged me down a rabbit hole, alone, devastated and confused. I wanted to be the little girl who was taken care of, but suddenly I had to deal with very adult realities and take care of my loved ones. The teams treating my dad and Ben gave me instructions and details that sometimes tugged at my own beliefs and my emotions. Especially difficult was taking on the role of parent with my own parent. Instead of being the child protected by my dad, I found myself fighting his negative attitude and working with doctors and nurses to make important decisions for his treatment plan while convincing him to comply with orders because he could have a good quality of life. While ordinarily soft-spoken and shy, I learned that I could be a fierce and resourceful advocate. I was insistent and relentless when it came to getting the most appropriate services for my dad and for Ben. There was a lot of information and I was given a lot of advice, and I frequently felt out of control. There were so many people- professionals and people close to me- telling me what I “had” to do and how I had to deal with things and, when I was spiraling downward, I very easily took direction. But, there were also times that I felt like I could take the reins and make my own decisions. At those times, I did what I felt was necessary, regardless of judgments and disagreements, second guessing myself all the way. That was not always easy for the people I had relied on who were used to directing me, especially those people who naturally like to take control and give direction (I do wish I was a little bit more like that!).

As difficult as it was for some people to see me making more of my own decisions and taking a stand, it was hard for me to change my own self-perception. It was also hard for me to say no to people, or to express my disagreement. I listened politely, even if I did not heed the advice, because I did not even have the inner strength to disagree. I guess I generally fall into the category of “people pleaser.” To be fair, I believe that people had our best interests at heart and I appreciated that. But, as I saw myself successfully handling more caregiving responsibilities, and my dad and Ben became more and more reliant upon me as I gained better understanding of their feelings, I felt my confidence growing, and with that came a growing resistance, accompanied by some discomfort, to automatically complying with what I was told I “had to” or “should” do.

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir, because I’m not myself.”- Alice

Tapping new sides of myself- stronger, more vocal, more responsible- definitely has come with growing pains. The “Abby” I was most familiar with was compassionate and caring, but also emotional, indecisive and insecure. Suddenly, I was able to see myself as braver and more assertive. Who was this person? I was always someone who second-guessed myself and relied on the opinions of my friends and family. I valued and depended on them and still value their thoughts. But, I also learned that I have to go with my gut sometimes and I can stand my ground. Learning to trust myself has not been an easy process for me, and it has not been easy for some of the people who became used to nudging me forward.

I still struggle with who “Abby” is, although starting at a new school last September gave me an opportunity to completely reinvent myself. Some of my struggle has been that I am no longer the person I most related to- a caregiver, and I did not want to introduce and define myself as being in grief, though it was what I felt most strongly within me.

 

“That’s the trouble with me: I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”- Alice
“That’s the trouble with me: I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”- Alice Click To Tweet
As Ben’s ALS progressed, and things became much more difficult than Ben was willing to admit, I was frustrated and overwhelmed, and also resentful. I was struggling with those feelings because Ben was dying and I felt that if he wanted to live in denial, then I had to live there with him. I gave myself all sorts of advice, having internal dialogues about insisting on more paid help, requiring Ben to prepare legal documents to make other important arrangements, and making scheduling changes that might have made daily life more tolerable. I had a lot of good ideas! But, I rarely followed my own advice. At times, I got angry at myself and felt helpless and defeated. I’m sure that it frustrated people who cared about me to see me drowning as I had a good sense of what needed to be done but lacked the emotional ability, or, to be honest, the actual capacity, to make it happen. I have thought about that a lot, and, to this day, although I know that a lot was not right about the situation, I know that Ben felt cared for, protected, and loved. Sadly, I achieved that by often ignoring my own good advice.

“It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.” - Alice

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished that something in my life would make sense. Juggling caregiving for my dad and Ben would have been comical if it was not so serious. There were middle of the night calls from my dad when he was deciding if he should go to the emergency room. If he went, I would ensure that Ben would be okay and arrange back-up if he needed help, and then I would meet my dad at the hospital. From the hospital, there was an endless string of calls and texts to report on my dad and to check on Ben. There were the ridiculous restrictions of what insurance would cover, when clearly ALS is a terminal disease that renders a person needing much care. The insurance issues were there with my dad, too, as I tried to navigate his entitlements without a lot of consistent assistance from the medical teams. There were my klutzy attempts to address the needs of Ben and my dad, which they denied were increasing, while trying not to upset or discourage them. There were the routines we painstakingly created that had to be immediately scrapped because Ben exhibited a new symptom of ALS that rendered the plan useless. We just wanted something to make sense. That never really happened, but we embraced it as our new normal, with a sense of humor when possible.

“Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”- Alice

I do love the whimsy and fantasy of Disney. But, if you follow this blog, you see that there is a lot of inspiration and insight in the films, and it helps me. Although I find comfort in thinking about wishing wells and fairies with pixie dust, my life and decisions are quite grounded in a reality that was, for several years, anything but rainbows and magic. As a caregiver, and then in grief, it has been so important for me to surround myself with the things that gave me comfort and let me at least mentally escape. I could get lost in fantasies in the same way that Alice dreamed about creating a world of her own. For Ben and me, Walt Disney World was that special world of our own. Disney films, toys and memories still give me that much needed opportunity to fantasize, but also help me to sort through ugly experiences that come with caregiving and loss. It is so important for caregivers to identify and retreat into the things that provide comfort, insight and perspective, even if it is a momentary escape from the comfort of your sofa. I continue to find inspiration and insights as I look for a new happy ending and search for a new prince.

“I do love the whimsy and fantasy of Disney… although I find comfort in …wishing wells and fairies with pixie dust, my life and decisions are quite grounded in a reality that was… anything but rainbows and magic. Click To Tweet

Here are two great phrases uttered by the March Hare that I wish I had said often, and I pass along to other caregivers, with the hope that it will help you to avoid unnecessary and sometimes downright outrageous conversations with well-intentioned people who are not involved or informed but have a lot of bad advice that they are eager to spout.

“I have an excellent idea, let’s change the subject”- March Hare

If you don't think, you shouldn't talk, March Hare

OK, you might want to say that more tactfully, but think it just like this and at least you’ll have a chuckle in your head!

As I emerge from grief, I don’t always recognize myself or know exactly who I am or who I want to be. I feel like I’ve changed. But, I can finally say with some pride that, despite my tears, I faced and handled some very difficult situations with and on behalf of Ben and my dad as they took their journeys from this world. I also challenged myself and learned that I can be strong and brave, I just do it with a lot of tears! There were times of conflict with family and friends, but I honored the wishes of my dad and Ben, and I did what I believed was best and was most consistent with their wishes.

I know that my loved ones have always wanted the best for me and that means the world to me. But I also realize that as much as I have gratefully relied on others to guide me when I run in circles, I have to move forward at my own pace, shaping and fulfilling my own dreams on my own terms. I have to determine where I want my life to go. And, I am fortunate that I am surrounded by people who are cheering me on. I do have some inner struggles, and, in a few cases, relationships that I do care about have been strained and tested, and that has not been easy. But, as the White Queen said to Alice, “You cannot live your life to please others. The choice must be yours, because when you step out to face that creature, you will step out alone.” This was also true for Ben and my dad as they faced death, and it is true for all of us.

In the live action Alice in Wonderland, Alice must slay the Jabberwocky to defeat the evil Red Queen. As caregivers, we have our own Jabberwocky to defeat, as we tackle trying circumstances and help our carees battle the demoralizing and painful effects of illness. Though we cannot defeat death, we are fierce in our battle to slay many obstacles and provide as good a quality of life as possible for the carees whom we love. Then, grief becomes our Jabberwocky, and we slay it as we learn to co-exist with it and not let it defeat us as we emerge and continue to live in ways that honor the loves we had and lost, and that do justice to ourselves.

 

Wisdom From Olaf About Caregiving and Love

Olaf had to come home with me!

I recently attended Frozen, the new Disney musical on Broadway. Frozen certainly became a phenomenon among Disney films. The Broadway version does not disappoint. It is magical, wonderful and beautiful to watch, with clever surprises along the way. I would love to have seen it with Ben. I have loved going to the theater since I was a child, but Ben had never been to a Broadway show until he met me. He came to love shows and when I went through his things after he left this world, I was truly touched to see that he kept all of the Playbills and ticket stubs from the many shows we saw together. It has taken me a while to truly love going to the theater again, because I went through feelings of guilt for claiming the freedom to participate in things like theater, which I could not enjoy when I was caregiving, and I simply missed going with Ben. But, now I again find great comfort, delight and inspiration from going to the theater. I do notice that I often look at productions through Ben’s eyes. I imagine what he would think, what I would say to him, what inside jokes would be triggered. It’s what I need to do, at least for now.

Frozen has romance, royalty, family strife, tested loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?!  Seeing the show triggered that when I saw the film, it struck several chords for me as a caregiver, and I am using images from the film in this post.

Of course, Let it Go has become an anthem for finding all kinds of strength. I know that it is healthier, and I feel better, when I can let go of anger, of bad memories, and of resentment. When I was caregiving and in grief there was a lot of that, for many reasons. I must admit that letting go, in general, is not always easy for me. I have found, however, that it is better to put my energy towards gaining perspective that allows me to let go of the things that are over and done, that I did not create and that I cannot change.

For me, it is Olaf, the sweet and goofy snowman who so beautifully summed up my caregiving experience at its core, when he pointed out to Anna that, “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

"Love is putting someone else's needs before yours," Olaf,Frozen,ALS

“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”- Olaf, Frozen

We all know that we have to take care of ourselves. We have also heard that if we don’t take care of ourselves we will not be able to take care of someone else.  After all, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we might become ill and will then be incapable of caring for someone else. I cannot tell you how many times I was told the airplane analogy of putting on your own mask first, so you could then help someone else. And yet, as caregivers, we do not always take care of ourselves. In fact, we rarely take care of ourselves.  Hearing that advice became irritating because I knew that I should take better care of myself, but I also knew that I couldn’t. Why? Crises occurred, I was exhausted, there was not enough time, and the list goes on. Ultimately, love meant putting the needs of my dad and Ben first.

When my dad and Ben were ill and needed help, their needs were immediate. They had terminal illnesses. If my dad needed to go to the Emergency Room or if Ben needed to shift his position in bed or needed to use the commode, it didn’t matter that I needed sleep to be able to function at work or if my back hurt. I would find a way to catch up on sleep. I would go to physical therapy or take a pain reliever. Their needs could not be postponed.

I’ve written about the stresses and emotions of caregiving. I’ve explained that my loved ones were very concerned about me because I was running in circles, particularly when I was simultaneously caring for my dad and for Ben. It was my routine, my normal, and I just went with it. I do remember that during the time I took family leave, I enjoyed my time on the train, on the way to and from the hospice, because for those 5 hours every day, I was by myself, even though it was with phone in hand to manage any issues that arose during my commute.  Enjoying my thermos of tea on the train while listening to music became my way of taking care of myself.

I don’t think that I realized at the time that I did not really have an opportunity to deeply feel the grief of losing my dad. I was taking care of Ben, who was also struggling with this loss because he loved my dad.  Also, the death of my dad was a scary and sobering reality check for Ben, who lived in denial of that eventuality. For me, it was one step in the sad forecast of my lonely future. I couldn’t grieve with Ben because I did not want to upset him, but I also could not grieve on my own, because there was too much to do and I was working full-time. At times, I did feel like I was melting down, but I did not see any options, and I was so immersed in handling my caregiving tasks and full-time teaching that I just kept plodding along, with a few pity parties and venting to friends and family in conversations or emails and texts. Sometimes that was a distraction from the grief, but it also meant that the grief simmered within me.

I have to explain that although there were times when putting my own needs aside was the obvious and the only solution, it also caused frustration, sadness and anger. I felt depressed and lonely and frightened, and Ben and I were not always patient with each other, which led to resentments on both of our sides. Unfortunately, although I recognized that I was near a breaking point, I could not convince myself to shift my priorities in a way that changed my routines and accommodated my needs.  I write this because saying that love is putting someone else’s needs first does not mean it is always done easily, graciously or without inner conflict. Everyone’s feelings matter, but they have to be prioritized.  Even in retrospect, despite what reason may have indicated, my heart knows that it was the right and only thing to do.

"Some people are worth melting for," Olaf, Frozen,ALS

“Some people are worth melting for.”- Olaf

Olaf was so right when he said that, “Some people are worth melting for.” While putting my dad’s and Ben’s needs first sometimes caused some melting, it was in the literal letting go of them that I truly melted. But, love meant supporting their wishes.

I did not like to see my dad in a hospice, although he got such wonderful, compassionate care. I melted as I saw him slipping away, but letting him go as he wanted, and very peacefully, was more important than my desire to keep him with me on this earth.

Love meant dealing with the fact that Ben would have gone to a facility if he had chosen to stay on life support. With a tracheostomy and feeding tube, Ben would have needed 24/7 nursing care that could not be accomplished at home. It was a bleak option, but his needs were the priority and as much as it devastated me to think of him in a facility, and it devastated him to accept that he would not be able to be at home with me, we both had to come to terms with that reality. I worried about his being alone while I was at work. I worried that the staff would not be as attentive as I had been. I did not share those worries with him, but I melted when I thought about it.

When Ben decided to go off life support, I melted because I did not want to lose him. I stood by his decision to go off life support because only he could decide how to live and die with ALS. It was a conflict for me because although I was not prepared to lose him, I was relieved that he would no longer suffer with the disease. I was at his side the day he left, we said our vows, and he was surrounded by loved ones and music. It was worth my melting for him to feel loved and comforted as he left this world on his own terms.

I loved my dad and Ben with all my heart. Losing them, particularly so close in time (a year and a half), was very difficult. But, it was worth melting to have shared the love that we did and to let them go and find peace on their terms.

I would like to state the obvious and suggest to caregivers who are reading this that you take care of yourselves and put yourselves first. But, we all know that won’t always happen. Maybe sometimes. Try. Plan. Fantasize! Taking care of yourself does not have to be big events. Take moments for yourself, even if it is a mental escape, or a nap, or a quiet cup of coffee or tea on your way to an appointment!  The thing is that, as caregivers, just like Olaf, you know and are experiencing and demonstrating the true meaning of love.

Walt Disney World,Frozen,ALS,Caregiving

Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios (July 2014)

Heartwarming Thoughts When I’m Feeling “Frozen”

"Love is putting someone else's needs before yours," Olaf,Frozen,ALS

“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”- Olaf, Frozen

 

How could I not think about Frozen on a day like today? It’s a wonderful film with romance, royalty, family strife, tested  loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?! I’ve written before about what Olaf knew about love and melting (click here to read that post), but a day like today once again brings Olaf’s lessons to mind. The sweet and goofy snowman continues to sum up my caregiving experience at its core.

On this freezing cold day in New York City, amidst several freezing cold days here, I could not help but reflect on days spent trying to help Ben to keep warm.  As I am writing this, I am sitting in Ben’s huge old sweat pants from Walt Disney World, along with his Mickey Mouse thermal shirt and Walt Disney World Christmas sweater. My apartment is unusually chilly- normally it feels like a sauna, so I’m happier like this. And,I like to wear Ben’s clothes. They feel cozy and like he is wrapping himself around me, and that warms my heart. Unfortunately, it was not easy to keep Ben warm.

Before ALS, Ben and I both liked the cold. Other than Walt Disney World, Vermont was our favorite getaway, especially in winter. Once ALS progressed, the cold posed challenges and problems for Ben. It was harder for him to move when he was cold. I think it may also have affected his respiratory comfort, though his significant decline in that area began in the warmer weather.

Our apartment is very drafty and Ben could not tolerate the cold. I bought big plastic insulation tarps and put them over our windows. They did help but it looked terrible and they came loose frequently, sometimes requiring middle of the night fixes.  We did what we had to do. We became accustomed to living crisis to crisis in an apartment that was a disaster.

"Some people are worth melting for," Olaf, Frozen,ALS

“Some people are worth melting for.”- Olaf

Most blankets felt heavy on Ben as his strength diminished, and piling on sweaters made movement even more difficult than it had already become due to the ALS. We found a couple of quilts that were the size of a throw, which made it easier for him to manage. We could not sleep under the same blanket because any tugging or shifting made him uncomfortable. A blanket may seem like a very minor accommodation, but it symbolized relationship changes that took an emotional toll. Suddenly, the life we enjoyed began to  change and foretell a sad future, and the way we related to each other changed in very profound ways as we shifted from being husband and wife to patient and caregiver.

I am resourceful and a born shopper, so I was always delighted to find solutions, even if they were temporary. Ben was very skeptical of the little space heater that I brought home one day. I plugged it in as he said it wouldn’t help. It did! He loved that space heater!

I made a blanket of some of our favorite photos from Walt Disney World, and a microfiber towel as well. For the days that Ben did not get to his computer, or felt chilly, he was always surrounded by the photos that he loved so much.

Photo collage blanket.

Photo collage towel.

Dressing for cold weather, even within our apartment, also required creativity. Ben loved insulated puffer vests because they kept him warm without bulk and heaviness, and also  gave him some freedom of motion in his arms. He liked sweatshirts that were zippered hoodies because they were easier to put on and to remove, even though he needed assistance to do so. He did find adaptive zipper pulls that he liked. These gave him some independence and that was important for his frame of mind.

Fleece sweaters were often a great option because they were lightweight. Waffle/thermal shirts were cozy for him and allowed for easy layering. He was amused by the camouflage shirts I found for him because they reminded us of how much my dad, the Marine, loved his camouflage! Even as the temperatures dropped, Ben still wore his favorite regular tshirts underneath his warmer clothes. He loved his tshirts. They keep me warm now in the tshirt quilt that I made from them.

Caregiving,Grief,ALS,Memories

A segment of the t-shirt quilt. So much nicer to wrap up in memories rather than leave t-shirts in a drawer.

It was definitely a challenge for both of us to be comfortable in the same space. I was warm or Ben was cold, but Ben needed to be warm. Physically, the apartment was a mess, with supplies accumulating, space shrinking, and furniture moving according to his needs. At one point, my dresser had to be moved to accommodate his chair, and it blocked the closet. For several months, I either wore what was in the drawers or whatever my hand could reach in the closet. Now, I look back and laugh at the chaos that was our life. Then, we lived crisis to crisis, and despite our frequent ability to see the hilarity in the situations, it sometimes left us feeling helpless and hopeless.

Today, wearing Ben’s clothes and knowing how miserable he would be in the chill, I am feeling a little melancholy. It feels like a long time ago that these were my caregiving responsibilities, and it also feels like just yesterday. I miss him. I cannot deny the inconveniences and the emotional pain we both experienced. Ultimately, Ben’s needs unquestionably came first, and a little melting was a small price to pay. It’s taken me all this time to rebuild the snowlady that I am. I realize that I did find great satisfaction in being able to help Ben and I take pride in the love we shared and the trust he had in me. My heart is warmed to know that now he is free of the constraints of ALS.

Walt Disney World,Frozen,ALS,Caregiving

Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios (July 2014)

Ohana Means Family

At this time of year, family comes strongly into focus and reminds me of how my family has shrunk and changed. Although I love the film, Lilo and Stitch and its messages about family, love, acceptance and grief, I have always been troubled by its very famous quote, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind-or forgotten.” Unfortunately, to a large degree, this has not been my experience and that makes me sad. For various reasons, and sometimes on the grounds of religion, there has been conflict in my family, and caregiving for my grandmother amplified our issues after my mom died. I learned the difficult lesson that, with rare exception, aside from my dad, I could not depend on the love of my family to provide the support that was needed. Family let Ben down, too, and usually, it was not something that I could prevent, though I could support him through it. As I have said before, I am eternally grateful for friends who are my family. Caregiving and loss showed Ben and me the people we could genuinely count on and helped us to redefine the notion of family.

When Ben was diagnosed with ALS, of course there was no question that I would be his caregiver. His family was certainly upset by the diagnosis, and there were many promises made of visiting and helping him. For the most part, those promises did not materialize into actual visits or even regular expressions of concern about how he was doing. He reached out to people and then they usually responded, with what became to him empty proclamations of love and caring, and they rarely took the initiative to reach out to him. It hurt him and frankly, angered and shocked me. Ben was always witness to my devotion to my dad–he listened to our countless daily phone calls, watched me cook and shop for him, visit him on weekends, accompany him to his doctor visits, make follow-up calls to doctors and companies treating his cancer, just as I did for Ben. That was not happening for Ben with his family, with rare exception. There was, however, a lot of drama that was unnecessary, ridiculous, and selfish.

I am grateful that while Ben was in the hospital, one of his daughters frequently visited him. She was with him at the end. She and I had a lot of time to talk in those weeks. Now, we are close, and I am grateful to have her, and, also, a direct connection to him, in my life. There were also a few nice surprises along the way, of a few of his family members that expressed genuine caring and concern. We shared a love of Ben and respect for each other that continues today.

In my experience, it has been the people who are least involved who have the most opinions and make the most judgments. I will admit that it was, at times, difficult to put aside the drama and just focus on Ben’s needs. Family came to the hospital and talked to him about his going home, getting his hopes up without asking any questions or having realistic information, but with plenty of judgment, especially of me. A friend of his visited and tried to dissuade him from separating from the vent on religious grounds after giving me a hard time about the issue. While visits can be a good time for a caregiver to take a break, I could not leave people alone with him because communication itself was challenging and discussions were often inappropriate and inaccurate. Mostly, they were not a comfort to him.

If you are a primary caregiver, if family is not supportive, of course it is hard not to dwell on it. As someone who is emotional, I won’t suggest that you ignore your feelings. So, what can you do? As long as you keep family informed, express needs and set boundaries for what and when you will dispense updates, you will have some level of control of, and grasp of, your caregiving responsibilities and scenario. Family members will have to live with their decisions and you will be able to plan accordingly. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be disappointed or saddened, but you will have a keener understanding of your circumstances and interpersonal relations. This is likely to allow you to detach a little bit as family visits happen, or don’t, drawing attention to the positive aspects of visits (or not) on your caree.

For your own self-expression and reflection, things you might consider are: keeping a journal, seeing a therapist, venting to friends, attending a support group or, if it is difficult to arrange to leave home, there are online and phone support groups. But, please don’t lose focus on the important, loving and invaluable work that you are doing for your caree.  As I have sorted through the many memories surrounding Ben’s care, I have learned to let go of anger and resentment and I recall incidents more as a matter of fact and sequence than with emotional attachment to the people who let us down. I can look back and feel grateful to have been able to show Ben so much love, though I also wish with all my heart that we never had to go through the experience.

If you are a family member of a caree, please be honest with yourself about the relationship that you have had with this person and the caregiver. Be realistic about what you can and are willing to do. If you want to help, ask questions about how you can help and also before judging. Remember that this is not about anyone but the caree, and that the primary caregiver does have the greatest perspective, knowledge and responsibility to the caree.

I wrote this post because the holidays are a time that can be so stressful for caregivers and carees, and high tensions can yield high drama. At these times, it is so important to have a clear understanding of the people in your life who are reliable and truly devoted. This does not necessarily mean cutting people off from your life, but rather knowing who will be there to have your back and the back of your caree. Lip service is irrelevant when it comes to a crisis. Ben and I learned that we could not rely on his family. Fortunately, we did have friends who stepped in and helped without needing to be asked. They were not family. Yet, they were. Know who your “ohana” really is because they will not leave you behind. That is something to celebrate.

On Disney’s “Coco” and The Power of Our Memories


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

Today I went to see the new Disney movie, Coco, which opened on Wednesday for Thanksgiving weekend. It highlights Day of the Dead, which is a favorite unit of my Spanish language classes, who are often surprised to learn that it is not just “Mexican Halloween.” We make calaveras, the decorative skulls, and we talk about the concept of how the spirits of loved ones who have passed away are believed to come back to visit their families on that holiday. Their spirits live on as long as they are remembered by the living who loved them. I always tell my students that although I don’t really celebrate Day of the Dead, I am moved by the idea that the spirits of my parents and Ben would come back to me every year, but that I often feel that they are watching over me.

July 2014.
Trying on sombreros at the Mexican pavilion never got old with us!

2006, before Ben’s ALS diagnosis

I have always looked forward to the new Disney and Pixar films. I was definitely intrigued by this movie because of the theme. When Ben and I went to Walt Disney World, I did love the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, where the artisans could be seen making beautiful Day of the Dead crafts and spirit animals. As I took my seat in the theater, I thought about how one of Ben’s and my favorite traditions was going to the Thanksgiving Disney movie release on opening day, or opening weekend. As his ALS progressed, that became more difficult, until it became impossible. Today, I missed him terribly and felt very lonely and alone. Some things- particularly Disney things- will never be the same without Ben.

Coco was absolutely beautiful, but very emotional, given my own losses. For one thing, the character Coco is young Miguel’s great-grandma, who is delighted by her great-grandson, although her memory of him and of everyone, is fading. But, Coco is loved and respected, cared for by the whole family. I was happy to see Disney tackle the issues of respect for the elderly and memory loss in a sensitive, touching way.  But, it was also poignant, since it echoes my own experience with my great-aunt, with whom I was so close, but who now seems to know that I am familiar, but does not know who I am. Since she does smile and get animated when I visit her, I comfort myself with the belief that memories of me are somewhere in her mind. I cannot have the same relationship with her, but I continue to visit her and take comfort in making her laugh and smile without dwelling on that she does not know my name, or that I am her niece, the daughter of her sister, whom she also does not remember.

Also integral to the plot is the profound love of and connection to music that Miguel feels to his core. Ben would have strongly related to that. Playing music and recalling lyrics that resonated with him were key to who Ben was. I took comfort in knowing that Ben would have enjoyed Coco‘s emphasis on the vitality of music.

Since my birthday and Halloween, I’ve been struggling with missing Ben so much. This was our favorite time of year and there are constant reminders of him that make me feel very alone.  Although it unnerved me and had me in tears at various points, Coco was a powerful, and, actually, a positive reminder that Ben, my mom and dad, my grandma and all of the other people I’ve loved so deeply but lost, are always with me in my heart. I was fortunate to be able to tell my dad, my grandma and Ben that I would never forget or stop loving them. Remembering them keeps them close to me always and, very significantly, it keeps their spirits alive.  Sometimes that’s not enough, like today, when I wanted to be sitting next to Ben and holding his hand, knowing that as soon as he would have seen Coco he would have handed me a tissue and I would have started laughing through my tears because he knew exactly what tugged at my heartstrings.

In typical Disney fashion, it is a movie that can be enjoyed by children of all ages. It is vibrant and colorful and fun, yet it also carries important messages for all of us about life, aging, love and loss. Ben would have loved, as I did, that there was even some Spanish language in it!

Donald Duck hangs out in the Mexican pavilion at Epcot but I don’t know how much Spanish he spoke!