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!
Frozen certainly became a phenomenon among Disney films. There’s romance, royalty, family strife, tested loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?!
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. 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.
Who would believe that Olaf, the sweet and goofy snowman would so beautifully sum up my caregiving experience at its core.
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 was 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.
While putting their needs first sometimes caused some melting, it was in the literal letting go of my dad and Ben 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! 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! But, caregivers, like Olaf, know the true meaning of love.
Easter seems a perfect time to honor my favorite bunny, Thumper, from Walt Disney Pictures Bambi. I’ve always loved Bambi, and have written about the song Love is a Song that Never Ends and how it resonated with me in caregiving and in grief. I recently watched “Bambi” again, and was touched by Thumper’s relationship with Bambi in a whole new way.
Thumper was the very adorable and lovable young forest gossip, and he certainly didn’t always say the right thing. He was the one to point out that Bambi was “kinda wobbly, isn’t he?” and “he doesn’t walk very good, does he?” This is not exactly the positive reinforcement someone wants when struggling and self-conscious! And while his mother had to remind him that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all,” Thumper was a child making an observation, albeit tactlessly, but his heart was in the right place. He was quite devoted to his new friend, the young prince Bambi.
Thumper and his siblings (also incredibly adorable little bunnies) play with Bambi but also watch out for him. They anticipate where he is going to struggle and they gather around to help him so they can play together. Thumper was Bambi’s motivation. I especially love this clip, in which Thumper assesses the situation on the ice and tries to position Bambi’s legs, advising Bambi to “walk both ends at the same time.” It doesn’t go so well and they both end up skidding and falling. It reminded me of the way I had to work with Ben to help him up and figure out the best way to get around. We each had to trust each other and there were times we were nervous and other times it was fun. There were times that I managed to keep him from falling and got him safely onto the bed or a chair. There were also the times that we both ended up on the ground, fortunately unharmed. And, like Thumper, we often found ourselves saying, “Gee whiz, what happened that time?” I always loved this scene in the film, but now I see it in a new light.
Thumper never gave up on Bambi or their friendship in the same way that as caregivers, we never give up on our loved ones. And, Thumper was so happy when Bambi did have an accomplishment like walking steadily. Though Bambi is first learning to navigate the world and Ben was adapting to new ways to do some tasks and dealing with losing the ability to do others, I could relate to Thumper’s positive attitude of problem solving and encouragement.
Also touching was that he never left Bambi behind in pursuit of his own fun. ALS is known to be an isolating disease, particularly because you lose the ability to communicate. Thumper was determined to have Bambi join him with their other forest friends. It is an important lesson for all caregivers, friends, relatives and others to find some way to remain engaged with our loved ones. Visits, cards, texts, emails, photos, videos and a simple presence can all help a person feel remembered and included in life. Ben and my dad always enjoyed hearing that people thought of them.
Bambi was so frightened, confused and sad to lose his mom. He did not know what the future and the world held in store. But, time went on and winter turned to spring, and Bambi grew up. He reunited with Thumper and Flower and the rest of his friends and all their families, and none of them forgot the friendship they shared. Thumper and Bambi- and a dose of Disney- remind us that love never dies and beautiful memories stay strong and sustain us as we move through life’s good and bad times.
(f you haven’t seen the film, or haven’t watched it in a while, treat yourself. It is a beautiful story.)
To everyone who celebrates it, I wish you a Happy, Peaceful and Healthy Easter!
Lyrics from the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney film, Pocahontas” Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Composer Alan Menken
These lyrics are from the song Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas. In the context of the film, the song relates to people learning to accept and open their minds to people of other cultures and races. I found myself thinking of the many people we may judge without really knowing them, their stories, and what it is like to be in their lives. I think about the way people responded to the way Ben chose to live and die with ALS. It is easy to have opinions, and it’s fine to have them. I have them, too. We were fortunate to have many people close to us who put aside their opinions to create a solid support network. But, there is a line that is crossed when opinions become harsh judgments that are made without full knowledge of a situation, and, more importantly, without an attempt to see a situation through a different lens and get a glimpse at what it is to “walk the footsteps” of another.
When Ben was first diagnosed, suggestions were offered by his ALS team, who had followed many people on the sad and excruciating journey of this disease. There were opinions from our friends and family. I had my own thoughts. But, Ben had to choose his own path. No one could really know exactly how he felt about facing the loss of his abilities and, in essence, his freedom, as he faced death. I lived with him every single day and talked to him about these things, trying to walk his footsteps, and I still could not truly envision what it was like to be him. Still, there was a lot of “what you should do” and “what you have to do” from people who had much to say, yet did not ask Ben (or me) questions that would have given them insight into his experience and allowed them to acknowledge and comfort him, rather than simply judge and direct him.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Ben told me that he would understand if I wanted to leave him, if I could not handle what was happening to him and if I wanted to have a different life. From his perspective, he loved me and wanted the best for me, at the same time that he feared and wanted to prepare for the possibility that I might leave him. Indeed, some people told me that I should leave him. To walk in my shoes would mean that you perceived my overwhelming fear, anger and sadness but knew that I would never leave this man whom I loved and who needed me. And, to walk in my shoes would mean that you would realize that even when he was harsh and unkind, I would either defend it because of his illness, or believe him and think that I must not be a very good caregiver, or feel helpless because he was a dying man and I was devoted to him.
There were many times throughout Ben’s illness that I would have liked to tell people – strangers and those close to us – to try to walk in our footsteps. At Walt Disney World, when Ben did not have visible signs of disability in the early stages of ALS, some guests treated him as if he was simply lazy by using a scooter, and were clearly annoyed when loading the scooter delayed a bus and when it took up seating space. Instead of being defensive and angry, we were anxious and unnecessarily apologetic for the delays. That said, there were many people who also offered assistance if they saw me helping him to stand or transfer from the wheelchair, and they were kind and good humored with Ben. Try walking in the footsteps of someone who does not have the freedom to easily step on and off a bus and has to awkwardly and anxiously enter and secure a wheelchair while being watched impatiently by other riders. Imagine knowing that this is only the first of the abilities that you will lose and that this may be the last time you will ever be able to travel. We never know the big picture behind what we are seeing, so it is important to suspend snap judgments. Ironically, though there are often controversies regarding visitors to Walt Disney World who illegitimately request disability passes to get to the front of the lines, Ben never wanted special treatment or to take advantage of having a special pass for the attractions. I must also add that the Disney cast members on the grounds and transportation were always fantastic.
There were many instances in which people bypassed Ben and only addressed me. When his speech became impaired, he joked that if they heard him speak they assumed he was somehow mentally challenged, and, although it did bother us, I was glad that he had a good sense of humor. However, I was quick to involve Ben in conversations, because I wanted people to know that he was fully capable of communicating and understanding, even if he needed my help. Then, some people realized that they could engage with Ben. Think about how it must feel to be ignored when you are vibrant, able and wanting to be a part of a world that is becoming increasingly distant. Just acknowledging someone’s presence with just a smile can lift a person’s spirits. It certainly lifted mine to see him respected and happy. Compassion goes a long way.
Seeing things through another’s perspective is not always easy, especially when you are dealing with someone who has a terminal illness, like ALS. Among my biggest frustrations was that some of the people with the strongest opinions, arguments and accusations were also the people who were not actively or consistently involved in Ben’s care. They promised to visit and did not. They did not try to gain a clear picture of his medical and emotional situation and dilemmas or ask how they could help, but they were vocal with their criticism, even if completely unfounded. Instead of walking in his footsteps, they stepped on his feet and tripped me up with the unnecessary drama they created. It is imperative to be honest with yourself about the role you have had in someone’s care and life, and to recognize when to put aside your own needs and agendas, in order to watch and listen, and to “learn things you never knew you never knew.” With that insight and knowledge, you are more able to play a meaningful part in someone else’s journey.
In Ben’s fifth year with the disease, he made the choice to proceed with plans to get a feeding tube but those plans were interrupted by an urgent respiratory crisis that landed us in the emergency room. Then, admitted to the hospital with a biPAP mask and being fed intravenously, he had to decide for sure if he wanted a feeding tube and a tracheostomy. It took him more than two weeks to make that decision. I held his hand, I tried to answer his questions and to get a sense of what he was feeling, but I could not tell him what to do. I was worried about what his quality of life would be in a skilled nursing facility, which was where he would have to go with a tracheostomy. However, talking to him helped me to understand that Ben was focused on living and the things that he would be able to do. I could not begin to imagine all he was experiencing, but talking to him helped me to see his viewpoint and gain insight into his thoughts. I embraced his beliefs and supported him.
Ben did decide to get the feeding tube and tracheostomy, but things did not go smoothly in the hospital. He quickly developed an infection and then pneumonia. He was miserable. After a few weeks, he made the decision to go to the hospice unit of the hospital and to be removed from the ventilator, which was his life support.
Life and death decisions can be debated based on a range of convictions, from emotional to clinical to religious. Ben navigated his journey with ALS in a way that was right for him. I respected that and I admired his bravery. I had to see his situation through his eyes, and although I did agree with him, I understood that agreement with him was not the issue. I was there for him. Whether you are a caregiver, friend, family member or even a patient, it is so important to try to walk someone else’s footsteps. Maybe I did not handle being a caregiver the way some people thought I should and maybe I did. Maybe Ben did not navigate his life with ALS the way some people thought he should, and maybe he did. Keeping an open mind, even if we do not agree, helps us to “paint with all the colors of the wind” and support each other with a more positive, meaningful, loving and helpful connection.
I was excited to see the live action Beauty and the Beast on its opening weekend. Beauty and the Beast was a special film for Ben and me, so I knew it would be emotional to see it without him. I tried to see it through our eyes, as if he was sitting next to me. Sometimes that made it easier, sometimes it made it harder. When I love an animated film, as I do Beauty and the Beast, I worry that the live action will disappoint. It did not. Beauty and the Beast was absolutely spectacular, with excellent casting. I was captivated. And, at the end, I could feel Ben smiling. I, of course, was a puddle of tears!
In the beginning of the film, Belle’s father, Maurice, sings a lovely little song with these lyrics:
How does a moment last forever? How can a story never die? It is love we must hold onto Never easy, but we try Sometimes our happiness is captured Somehow, a time and place stand still Love lives on inside our hearts and always will
Here is the music clip:
Beauty and the Beast (2017) Walt Disney Pictures Pictured: Kevin Kline (Maurice) and Emma Watson (Belle)
These lyrics touched my heart, so simple and yet so profound. I know that Ben would have handed me tissues knowing the tears would flow. But this is the magic of Disney. At the heart of the whimsy and fantasy lie our deepest emotions.
I believe that these lyrics beautifully capture the thoughts of caregivers and those grieving the loss of a loved one. In caregiving, I grieved the loss of the life we had. I grieved what ALS took away from Ben and from us. I grieved the relationship we had as it shifted to that of caregiver and patient. We clung to memories and those brought a mix of pain and joy. And, we both lived with the knowledge that Ben was going to “leave,” as he referred to dying.
In grief, I have relied on the memories and the love that we felt. The heartache is there, but as the song says, “it is love we must hold onto.” I write so often of the importance of the memories that keep Ben in my heart. Love and our stories will always keep him there, along with my parents and other loved ones.
Early in our relationship, Ben gave me this frame with his own picture inside.
I immediately got the soundtrack to the film, which I also heartily recommend. And, although it makes me cry, I keep listening to this song and the longer version, performed by Celine Dion. Just like “One Dance,” this song struck a chord (pun intended) within me! Sometimes I am caught off-guard by overwhelming emotion and at other times I just need to immerse myself in the grief and have a good cry.
Music and lyrics were so important to Ben. I believe that he would appreciate how the lyrics of this song spoke to and moved me, and how they confirm that he will always live on in the song that was our love and life.
As for the comparison to the original, animated version of the film, I love them both. When I came home after seeing the new version, I immediately watched the Blu-Ray of the animated version. It remains dear to my heart. I don’t think they detract from each other in any way. In my opinion, they are both wonderful. I will enjoy watching them both on Blu-Ray!
I told Beast that he was much more handsome in person!