caregiver

One Dance

This beautiful song by Chris Martin, and performed by Jodi Benson, never made the final cut of “The Little Mermaid.” I discovered it on “The Essential Collection of Disney Love Songs” and it also appears on other Disney albums. Unlike many other Disney memories that I share on this blog, this song was not one that held a specific meaning for Ben and me, and it did not represent a special time in our lives or relationship. It was not even associated with our time spent at Walt Disney World. But, it is the song whose lyrics spoke to me at a critical time when Ben was in the hospital. Given Ben’s profound love of music, I believe that he would appreciate that it was the lyrics to a song that proved to be so powerful to me.

As the title of the song might imply, Ben and I loved to dance. Nothing fancy, but we would put on music in the apartment and just dance. And, when we worked together at The Little Orchestra Society, we always danced at the organization’s events. It was romantic, silly, fun- it was us.

Before he ever went to a doctor, much less was diagnosed with ALS, Ben started having trouble with his legs. It took him a long time to admit to me that he had fallen down the steps in the subway and on the street, though he had told me that he was perplexed that I could do my Zumba routines better than he could- coordination and grace are not my strongest suits!

The first and last pictures on this slide show were taken at the Bar Mitzvah of my good friends’ son. Ben’s legs were bothering him but he wanted to dance. We were having so much fun at this happy event. As it turned out, this was the last time we danced together. Who could have guessed? I am so grateful to have this photo!

As it became more difficult for Ben to stand on his own, music and dancing still played a part in our lives. While he could still walk several steps, sometimes I would just help him up and we would hug and sway to the music. It felt like dancing, and like old times, and that felt good.

I remember that during our first visit to Walt Disney World after his diagnosis, I was helping him to stand up from a rather low sofa in our hotel room. I counted to 3, but then, remembering the song “1,2,3” by Gloria Estefan, I added the song lyrics, “4, come on baby say you love me!” From that point on, we rarely just counted to 3 and he often laughed as I reached “3,” waiting for me to add the rest. As the ALS progressed, Ben was less and less mobile, but our counting and that song continued to make us laugh. Transferring a person is not easy, and it can be stressful because there is always a risk of falling, or dropping, so it was good to have these little moments of levity.

Our lives changed drastically, but because it happened over a period of almost six years, maybe some changes felt more subtle. ALS slowly took away Ben’s ability to use his legs, his arms, his hands, his voice. He couldn’t eat foods unless they were pureed. He had difficulty breathing. But, he was still Ben and he had determination (at times, stubbornness) and a good sense of humor. He was also clever and he loved gadgets and technology. For example, he used an app and an on-screen keyboard to use his computer and to send texts through his computer when he could no longer handle the phone. He figured out how to organize some of his things so he could make them accessible. These are just a few of the things that were part of living with ALS. We adapted as best we could.

Ben adjusted to the things he could and could not do as the ALS progressed and I adjusted to new tasks to help him. When I think of Ben’s very serious challenges, it may seem silly to lament an inability to dance. But, dancing was one of the things that was so special, so intimate, so us. In the chaos of the disease, I can’t say that I thought to analyze how much the changes in our lives were affecting us beyond our daily routines. I can’t say that either of us even had, or took, the time to dissect the dynamics. We just kept going. But, losing something like dancing made more painful the shift in our relationship from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. Impromptu moments like dancing to a favorite song were replaced with the more immediate tasks of caregiving. To mention missing things like dancing meant the possibility of upsetting Ben, and making myself sadder, because things were not going to get better and we could not change that fact. Sharing a memory was wonderful, but expressing sadness about our losses was not.

Eventually, yet in a pretty rapid and intense decline, Ben began to have more and more difficulty breathing and eating. His feet were also swelling very badly. He opted to get a feeding tube. However, just before the arrangements were made, Ben ended up in the Emergency Room and he got a feeding tube and a tracheostomy. It felt like it happened in a whirlwind and yet it felt like time stopped. So many decisions to make, and so many adjustments. Suddenly, we could not even communicate in the same way. It was frightening and devastating, but he was so incredibly brave and calm. It was clear that he was not going to be able to come home because he would need 24-hour nursing care, and, intellectually, I understood that. But, I believe that my mind was spinning too much to think about what it really meant. Ben was frustrated and upset about not coming home, and that broke my heart. I was worried about him not being home and my not being able to be with him constantly, but I was also dealing with logistics and his medical teams, and simply being present for him as we determined next steps.

I spent every day and several nights with him during the nearly two months that he spent in the hospital. I usually got home very late at night and sometimes relaxed with music, using Ben’s computer for his playlists, which I found comforting. One evening, I remember sitting at his desk when “One Dance” played. I thought about the fun times that Ben and I had dancing in the apartment and I realized just how much I missed those moments. I had done pretty well with recreating memories, especially when we returned to Walt Disney World for our last visit. But, in that instant of hearing the lyrics to the song, the realization came crashing down on me that we would never dance again, and he would never be home again, and he really was going to die. Maybe you’re thinking that he had ALS, so, of course, he was going to die. Yes, I did know that, but that does not mean I truly accepted it or the fact that the time was nearing. But somehow, hearing those lyrics was a jolt of reality that I had not yet faced.  On that quiet night, listening to this song, I finally accepted and reacted to what I had not until that moment let myself fully believe–that Ben would soon leave this earth and nothing would ever be the same.

There are stars that fill the night, can you see them? 
There are two, or three or gee, a million more 
And I see you in their light 
Oh, me? A dance? All right. 
Just to move and glide with you across the floor 

I would change who I am 
Leave the sea for the sand 
Just to stand with you 
I would leap at the chance 
For a glimpse of a glance 
Of one dance with you 

I still listen to the song even though it always makes me cry. In fact, sometimes I play it when I need a good cry, because, yes, there are those times. I have become unapologetic about embracing sadness, because, frankly, there will always be the tears over the loss of Ben, and how much he and we lost. At this point in time, however, I think it’s a matter of my finding the balance between grief and life. It’s not an easy balance to find, but I do feel a steady shift in my perspective that’s allowed me to bring more joy back into my life while I keep Ben in my heart.

It makes perfect sense that the clearer memories are the more recent ones, during Ben’s ALS, when the physical and emotional issues and tension were center stage. Those issues were not unique to us or even to ALS. They certainly are not the memories I want to define us. However, they are important in their own way, because they represent a strength of heart, love and compassion that saw us through such terrible experiences.

I also want to let myself get transported back to those dances and special times that made us who we were together. The memories I cherish, and that belong only to Ben and me, are simple joys like dancing and, of course, anything related to Disney! I will always miss those times, and I will always know that I am fortunate to have had them. I am pretty sure that I also always will believe in happy endings, pixie dust and Disney magic, too.

One dance, just you and me 
Beneath the moon, beside the sea 
One dance and it’s happily ever after 

Superheroes of Caregiving and Grief: Gratitude and Perspective

Ben and I at Walt Disney World, July 2014

Ben and I at Walt Disney World, July 2014

A little more than a year has passed since Ben left this world, and it’s almost 3 years since I lost my dad. Grief is filled with ebbs and flows of emotion, and I do, at times, unapologetically allow myself to give into the loneliness and memories of the ugliness of cancer and ALS, the messiness- emotional and physical- of caregiving, as well as the profound sadness over my losses. The sadness is magnified around a holiday like Thanksgiving, which reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. Thoughts also resurface of Thanksgivings spent in the hospital with my dad or at home with Ben, when he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. And yet, although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, I did have things for which to be thankful. I still do.

“The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for,” said Walt Disney. In theory, I agree with Walt (OK, so no surprise there!) But, when I was watching my loved ones deal with ALS and cancer, and I was struggling with caregiving, and then grief, although I was appreciative of people and things, I can’t say that the state of gratitude was where I lived, or even where I wanted to be. It took too much effort. Ben lived in a state of denial about the progression of the disease, and I lived in a state of anxiety, more relieved than grateful for any day without crises. To me, saying I was in a state of gratitude would have implied a sense of peace and contentedness that I did not have. As time has passed, however, I’ve learned that “being in a state of gratitude” did not mean to naively ignore or diminish the impact of the bad experiences, or to try to “push Sadness into a corner,” like Joy from “Inside Out” (click here for that post.) To be in a state of gratitude gives me the very important power of perspective. There were times that I could not get beyond the chaos and sadness, and that was and is fine and genuine, but I can also shift my perspective to focus on the many aspects of these experiences that were filled with love, compassion and caring, and those do compel gratitude and invite more of these thoughts. That’s also genuine, and it’s a good and humbling feeling.

My dad and I

My dad and I

I feel very fortunate to be able to share some things I’ve discovered in my state, or perspective, of gratitude.

At the top of my gratitude list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving was the most heartbreaking and challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save my dad or Ben, and I wish we did not have to take these journeys, but I am so thankful that they knew that I was completely devoted to them, and that I would love them, care for them and provide a sense of security to them until they left this world. It didn’t always feel like it, but it was a gift to be able to feel and express that depth of love in such tragic circumstances. And, I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.

I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion and encouragement, while I was caregiving and then, in grief. Their spirit extended to Ben as well. In Ben’s situation, when family didn’t step in -and there were definitely disappointments and dramas- we  could always count on friends. I consider it a precious gift to have these wonderful people in my life and to know that I am loved and that Ben remains in their hearts.

I am grateful that in June I was offered an opportunity to present at the annual memorial service of Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Visiting Doctors Program a public tribute to Ben and to the people from that program and the hospital who were so fantastic to him, and to me. ALS is a rare disease, and although it is difficult for me to speak publicly, I feel it is important to take any occasion to share Ben’s experience and, hopefully, contribute in some way to an overall understanding of what it is to live with ALS and why there must be tireless efforts to find a cure. If you’d like to read my tribute, click here.

I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors.  Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and it touches my heart to know that readers find comfort in my words. I’ve gotten back into my craft work with miniatures and into Pets en Voyage, the pet souvenir business Ben and my dad helped me develop and launch. I’ve also created displays of photos and memorabilia around my home, and looking at these things always makes me smile, if sometimes through tears.

I am grateful to Walt Disney for giving us all things Disney. I am simply in awe of his imagination and vision. I am grateful to Disney for amusement, consolation, comfort, life lessons, belief that dreams come true, perspective and incredible memories. And, because I am so grateful, I even named my cat Disney. I am thankful for her every single day for the love, cuddles and laughs that she gives me and for the love she showed to Ben, especially when she visited him in the hospice.

photo-7

I am grateful to be resourceful, and to have sought out support groups and resources that have guided, encouraged and motivated me, and let me know that I am not alone in my feelings.

Walt Disney also said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

I’m grateful that for the first time in a long time, I am cautiously optimistic about starting down a new path to see where it leads as I reshape my life, though there are and there will be setbacks. My memories, and desire to respect Ben and my dad and make them proud, will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. This would also be a good place to add that I am grateful to have my mom’s child-like wonder and spirit, with an inner child that cannot be contained. It allows me to continue to wish upon stars for dreams to come true. I just keep reminding myself of what I learned from Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay.

Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. I hope that if you are reading this, and you’re struggling with gratitude and the holidays, that you will be true to your feelings but also consider a perspective that allows you to see and be grateful for love, compassion and good memories to carry you forward. And, take a bit of time (I do realize that time to yourself can be a luxury) to think, write, draw or in some other way acknowledge yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

With all good wishes,

Abby

11 Awesome Insights From Dory and Friends About Caregiving (and Life)

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Though she may have “short term remembery loss,” Dory is one wise little Blue Tang! She put into perspective for me a lot about caregiving and life. It’s not all about “just keep swimming!” but you can read about how that quote inspired me by clicking here.

  1. Some of the best help and support you receive will come from unexpected sources.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,GriefDory felt alone because she thought she would never find her mom and dad and have a family. She finally realized that Nemo and Marlin were also her family.  My friends are my family, too and they provided help and support for which I will always be grateful. So did some of the professionals who took care of Ben, and I will forever love and be grateful to them as well. Becky and Gerald may have seemed like they were not up to the task of helping Dory and her friends, but they also came through in big ways. Don’t automatically judge or dismiss people, especially if they genuinely want to help, because they may be the very people who will listen, assist and offer really good ideas and information. Teamwork happens in many ways. All kinds of people stepped in surprised us in wonderful ways throughout Ben’s illness, and they continue to do so. They have compensated for the people who disappointed us, because, of course, there’s that, too.  Knowing that Ben was in the hearts of many always touched me, and it still does. Never underestimate the power of compassion and always be open to delightful surprises.

2. Be careful of the undertow.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Caregiving is overwhelming for so many reasons. Aside from the demands of the job, there is an emotional toll of helping someone you love deal with any disability or illness and watching them struggle. The “undertow” can take a caregiver and/or a caree to a place of extreme sadness, depression, loneliness and helplessness.  It’s important to stay connected to the outside world, through your own network of friends and relatives, outside agencies, and social media support groups. Make lists of things and/or people that provide comfort, cheer, or assistance when the undertow starts pulling you down.

3. “I’m OK with crazy”- Hank

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Illnesses are unpredictable and caregiving needs are unpredictable. Our moods are also unpredictable, particularly when we are stressed, exhausted and our Tangled emotions are turning us inside out (what can I say? Disney references work for me!) You have to be ok with crazy when many things are happening at the same time that you have many conflicting emotions. And, you have to be ok with crazy when attempting to handle crises. I remember thinking that crazy was my new normal. Perspective helps! So does humor.

4. Not everything is easy to do, but there is always another way.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Creativity, resourcefulness and a good sense of humor can help to determine new approaches and perspectives on how to deal with issues. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5. “News flash! Nobody’s fine!” – Hank

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

In the most planned and organized day, there will be crises. They can be physical issues but they can also be emotional fallout. Caregivers and carees are not always at their best, though we would like to be. It seems to me that our default answer to “how is everything? “ is “fine” and I’ve found that most people kind of want that answer because they don’t know how to handle anything else.  It’s ok to admit that things aren’t fine. That admission should not invite any judgment. And, it doesn’t mean that things won’t be fine again, even in a matter of moments. Remember, Dory taught us that we’re ok with crazy!

6. An octopus may have 3 hearts, but it doesn’t mean it’s nice.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Yes, it’s a fun fact, but it also lends perspective to our expectations of people around us. Ben and I were very fortunate to have lovely people around us, but we also learned that not everybody has a big heart, and having three probably would not have helped them either. Also, professionals are there to help, but, like all humans, there are more and less helpful and invested people. We were surprised in good and not so good ways.

7. Let someone know you love, care about and value them.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Marlin often gotten frustrated with Dory, but he realized that in her innocence, she was fearless and she got him to do “crazy things” like jump jellyfish and outsmart sharks to help find Nemo. His approach to problem solving became asking himself what Dory would do.

In the film, Marlin apologizes to Dory for not having told her how much she did for him. That’s not a regret anyone wants to have. Take any opportunity to share kind and loving moments and memories.  The frustrations and resentments will ebb and flow, but the appreciation and love we have for each other should always flow.

8. “What is so great about plans?”- Dory

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

We certainly need to have plans in place, and even back-up plans, but when you’re dealing with illnesses and caregivers, you’re also dealing with human beings and unpredictable factors.  For example, I prepared to go to work every day, but there were days that I had to stay home at the last minute for a variety of reasons. I remember that on some of those days, my feeling Ben’s very loving appreciation and his feeling my unwavering devotion, made for beautiful days. You know you have to be prepared for anything, but expect the unexpected in good ways, too.

9. You can do whatever you put your mind to.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Dory may have suffered from “short-term remembery loss,” but she dove in and figured out what she needed to do to find her parents. She enlisted her friends to help her and remained determined. She didn’t give much thought to consequences, which did create some problems for her along the way. But, she forged ahead. Caregiving can be very overwhelming at times, in terms of the actual tasks and in thinking about the future. But, I always come back to Christopher Robin’s wise advice to Winnie-the-Pooh: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

10. Never underestimate the power of a cuddle party!

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

A little bit of whimsy, sweetness, and cuteness can lighten any moment. For Ben and me, that came in the form of generally anything Disney. My huge collection of Disney toys to cuddle didn’t hurt either! They comfort me now in grief, too.

11. Sigourney Weaver rocks! You need someone like her on your side!

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Whether standing up to aliens or lending her voice to stand up for our marine life, she is a star! Sometimes I felt like that person for Ben, and at other times I felt completely inept. But I’m going to always keep reaching to be a rock star (well, maybe more of a Broadway show tunes or Disney star!)

All photos: Finding Dory, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, 2016

Chicken Little Has a Big Message!

ALS, Caregiving,Disney,Grief

Chicken Little (2005)
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

On this day, November 4, in 2005, Walt Disney Pictures released “Chicken Little.”  I think it’s a cute movie that also has good messages about acceptance, believing in yourself and never giving up in fighting for what you believe in.

This quote felt like a caregiver’s cheer. As a caregiver, there were so many times that I felt that the sky was falling around me.  There was, of course, Ben’s actual physical deterioration as his ALS progressed. My increasing caregiving responsibilities were stressful, as was watching Ben struggle, knowing that it wasn’t going to get better but trying to deny it. The emotional toll that took on him was devastating to witness. My giving up was not an option, because Ben needed my help! And, if he wasn’t giving up, even as ALS took away his ability to walk, use his hands, swallow and ultimately, talk, then neither was I!

To be honest, the idea that “every day is a new day” could often be scary. Every day posed the possibility of a new problem. At the same time, every day did present an opportunity for things to be okay, or stable. We hoped for that and there were many good days.  Good days could be times when we had a lot of laughs, or Ben was comfortable, or I was able to transfer him easily and without pain (to either of us), or I made a tasty pureed meal in the food processor. Good days were days without frustration, resentment and sadness. Good days were days that we both felt that I was in control of all that needed to be done.

What did I do when I felt like the sky was falling? Sometimes I gave in to the emotions and cried and that did somehow leave me feeling better and calmer. At other times, I needed to take little “mind breaks.” Computer games and surfing the web often proved to be a good distraction. Watching movies, especially Disney ones, also allowed me to escape while still being present. Writing, whether in my journal, or in my book of Disney inspirations, also helped me to focus and sometimes to work out my feelings. I do find that a nice cup of tea also helps me to slow down and regroup.Emails and texts to my friends helped ease loneliness and reassured me that I had a network of support. I couldn’t go out very often, so keeping up with friends in this way allowed me to feel connected to the world. Sometimes I just sat on the sofa with Disney, my cat, while Ben watched TV in the other room. I needed space and there isn’t much in our tiny NYC apartment. And, if Ben was comfortably settled, a bubble bath was a really great retreat.

In grief, I find that this quote also resonates.  The pain and loneliness can be awful and the idea of shaping a new life can seem impossible, but I never give up and indeed, after a little more than a year, I feel like I’ve cautiously stepped back into life. I certainly have my setbacks, but I know that every day is a new day, and some are better than others. I try to acknowledge every baby step I take as I heal. Indeed, it was a leap forward to go to London and celebrate my birthday last month. It has been a hugely comforting realization that Ben and all of my memories- the carefree, loving ones as well as the ALS and caregiving ones- will always be a part of me.  The future is still daunting, and the present is still lonely and sad, but I have more pleasant days and feel more optimistic now.

I suggest to other caregivers that it’s very important to identify things that make you feel better when it seems that the sky is falling. A network of support is also crucial.  Make a list now, before an emotional crisis, of people and places that you can turn to. Maybe some of my ideas will help you. I wish I knew about the Twitter chat support groups while Ben was still here. I find them useful now, too. If there are things that help you, please share them in the comments. For now, listen to the little chicken’s message!

Keep The Faith

The Rescuers (1977) 
Walt Disney Productions

Faith. It’s just so important. Whatever it means to you- religious or otherwise-it doesn’t matter.  As Rufus explained to Penny in this scene of Walt Disney Production’s The Rescuers, faith is not something tangible, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s that feeling that things will be ok. We all need, and want, to feel that, and sometimes it takes a real effort.

When Ben and my dad were ill, I had faith that they were getting good care and that they knew what was best for themselves. Every day I had faith that we could get through even a challenging day. On some days that took a lot of energy and it took my Disney-est thoughts to keep the faith.

I had to have faith in myself, that I was a good caregiver and could patiently provide the comfort, compassion and care that they needed throughout their illnesses without falling apart. Faith in myself was something I had a hard time with. I still do. I look back and I do believe that I handled things as well as I could, with love and compassion. As I recall and write about my caregiving experience and the situations I had to tackle, I feel my faith in myself growing stronger. I hope that all caregivers take the opportunity to write, talk, creatively express yourselves, and think about all you do and all that is expected of you in this role. Let this bolster your faith in yourselves, the people you care for, and the support networks around you.

Now, I have faith that Ben is in a place where he can breathe, walk, run, eat, talk and play the keyboard and guitar as much as he wants.  I have faith that he is hanging out with my dad and they are watching over me. And, on most days, I have faith that I will forge a new life while always honoring and respecting their memory.