Cinderella

For my Mom

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

Today, January 13, 2018, marks 26 years since my mom, Sandra, or Sandy, left this earth. There is not a day that I don’t think of her. I talk about her often, and so much so that some people do not realize she’s gone, or for how long she’s been gone. I don’t know if that is good, or “healthy,” but she is so much a part of me.

This is never a great day. To the people who say that I should not be so affected after 26 years, I say that we all handle things differently. Dates are important to me. I choose to take these anniversary dates to remember my loved ones. I don’t anticipate how I will feel, I don’t punish myself, I don’t feel obligated to act any particular way. But, every year on this day, I do tend to wake up with the vivid memory of how my dad called me and said he thought my mom had died and the ambulance was on the way. His follow-up call confirmed it.

This year, again, I did wake up to those memories of the phone calls from my dad telling me that my mom died. There were tears. However, today I chose to celebrate a special memory. My mom met me in London during a summer that I spent studying there. We went to the theater every night. One of the shows we saw was Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” We loved it. I saw that there was a screening today of National Theater Live’s performance of this show. It seemed like a perfect way to remember my mom.

The thoughts of losing and missing my mom did hover over the day. It didn’t help that I found this production particularly dark and depressing, even for Sondheim. But, I also thought of fun memories of our times together, in London and in general.  Part of me can’t help but lament the time that we lost and that my mom never met Ben. But, I never lose sight of how lucky I was to have my mom. She was a truly selfless, beautiful and very adorable person and mom. In this clip, Cinderella’s father advises her that they must always cherish their home because her mom was the heart of it and they must honor her. This scene touched my heart. I cherish my memories to keep my mom’s spirit alive and honor her.  Of course, my love of Mickey Mouse and all things Disney always make me think of her, but I hope that in some small way I have followed her example. I do know that she is always with me.

Copyright © Disney’s Cinderella, 2015

In my mom’s memory, I’d like to share some details about my mom and some of the important ways in which she influenced me, even in my caregiving days. This is a reprint of the post I published last year on this day:

My mom died of a sudden, massive heart attack at the age of 59. She was way too young. The day before she died we were playing outside with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie.  There are no hospital memories, or memories of seeing her ill. I’m grateful that my last memories of her are of her laughing. However, there was no opportunity to say goodbye. She was just gone.

My mom and I were very close, or, as everyone said, attached at the hip. My dad always said that he loved to listen to us giggle. She was a child at heart and I get that spirit from her. She loved Mickey Mouse and Paddington Bear and she loved children. Children loved her, too. She was a teacher at our local early childhood school and she loved when kids would greet her when we were out shopping. People laughed that we spoke on the phone many times every single day. We went to the theater and ballet together. Our excursions to NYC from Long Island for the holiday windows and the after-Christmas sales were epic, strategically choreographed events. We had so much fun. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died. I loved her and she loved me, unconditionally.

When I was a caregiver, juggling responsibilities for Ben and my dad, I realized how hard my mom worked, at a time when there was no real acknowledgment of the role of caregivers. My mom was at her core a natural, nurturing caregiver. She took care of my dad, brother, our dogs and me, as well as my grandma, who lived with us, but was also responsible for looking after my great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, and even my cousins. She even knew the treats that my friends liked and made sure to have them on hand at all times.  She took care of everyone in myriad ways. My mom was the most selfless person I have ever known.

My mom visited my great-aunt, Tanta Rosie, with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie, almost every day.

I realize that in many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after my grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with my grandma and my dad and helping them tend to various chores. I also loved and kept in close touch with my great-aunts and great-uncles.  I went home every weekend to help in any way I could, and sometimes that was simply keeping everyone company and making them laugh. For a change of pace, I often brought home treats from Zabars or other NYC places. My grandma did not want to be cheered, and I understood that. I don’t think that anyone fully comprehends the loss of a child unless they experience it. My aunt, my mom’s older sister, also visited every weekend. But, after a sudden death, everyone floundered and tried to pick up pieces while still in shock and feeling profound sadness at the loss of the key person in our family. As in any family, the dynamics led to tensions that were, at times, explosive. I found that, just like I believe my mom would have done, I spent my time with them being a cheerleader and my private time at home collapsing in grief. Sometimes I came home, sat on the sofa and cried, and at other times I dropped my bags and took myself to a movie just to escape.

As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and our time together. So much who I am and what I do reminds me of her. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit from her. You won’t be surprised that Disney played an important part in our relationship, too. One of my favorite memories is when she called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” Another is watching and giggling through “The Little Mermaid,” especially because my grandma was straight-faced and completely baffled by our amusement.

I proudly say like mother, like daughter!

I am not ashamed to say that I still miss my mom terribly. It remains a wound that is easy to open. When watching movies, I often cry at the mere mention of mother daughter love or the passing of a mother, and Ben intuitively handed me tissues in these instances before he even saw tears. Of course, that made me laugh through my tears, and that was a good thing. Ben never knew my mom, but he knew how important she was to me and it touched my heart that he always marked in his calendar her birthday and this anniversary and he would plan something Disney-related, like our date to “Beauty and the Beast” (click here for that post).

I enjoyed the movie “Brave” and feistiness of Merida as she searched to find herself. Fortunately, I never had big issues with my mom. But the scene in this excerpt made me cry because it says it all. Even after 26 years, I just want her back. I have struggled, I have adjusted, and I have had to accept her death. Now, I take comfort in knowing that she’s always been with me and always will live in my heart. On this day and always, I love you, Mommy.

So This is Love… The World According to Cinderella

Cinderella, Disney, ALS, Grief, Caregiving

Walt Disney World
July, 2014

 

“Cinderella” is celebrating a birthday today. The film was released on this date in 1950. She was my favorite princess when I was a child. She remains dear to my heart because there is more to Cinderella than what meets the eye. She had feistiness and determination, and also a loyalty to her father’s memory that let her tolerate the poor treatment by her stepmother and stepsisters and maintain her dignity. Cinderella knew the power of dreams, and in the end, all of those qualities got her the love of the prince of her dreams and a position of respect and power!

Cinderella knew at her core that, despite treating her horribly, “They can’t order me to stop dreaming.” There’s a good life lesson. I know that people sometimes think I’m unrealistic because of my Disney love and its connection to wishing and dreaming. On the contrary, as the caregiver for my dad and for Ben, I was hit with harsh realities on a daily basis. Dreaming and wishing were my escape. They encouraged me to find creative ways to solve problems. And, they allowed me to envision a future where my dad and Ben had peace and comfort. Now, as I work through grief, dreams help me to redefine myself and reshape my life. No one can tell me that dreams are not valuable and important.

It’s pretty cool to make dreams come true, too. Ben wanted so much to go to Walt Disney World as often as possible. That last trip we took, in July 2014, was a dream come true for him. It was a challenge, and I wished a lot for things to go smoothly. They went fantastically! We even had a Walt Disney World Halloween in July! Now THAT’s pixie dust and Disney magic at their finest!

Ben and I with Cinderella
Walt Disney World
July 2014

Maybe you didn’t literally talk to your Fairy Godmother, but I imagine that a lot of readers have had a similar conversation with someone, or with themselves, and questioned their faith that they could handle things or that things would be ok.

Cinderella,Disney,ALS,Grief,Caregiving

Cinderella, 1950
Walt Disney Productions

During caregiving days, when my dad and/or Ben was struggling, knowing that in the end I was going to lose them, it was easy to lose hope and optimism. In those times, I had to thank goodness for the insight and “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. For me, the dreams and the wishes got me through very difficult and sad days of terminal illness and caregiving and feeling that nothing I did really mattered. There were no cures, no one was going to get better, and things were becoming more difficult. But, I could dream, and those dreams helped me keep the faith.

There is a song in the film, “So This is Love.” The song is sweet and romantic, and love is beautiful. In the rough times, it is easy to lose sight of those feelings. The thing is, when we are watching someone struggle with illness or we are struggling with caregiving responsibilities, we accept these challenges, and embrace them, because this is love. It’s that simple. And, that complicated.

At the heart of the film is the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep.
In dreams you will lose your heartaches.
Whatever you wish for, you keep.
Have faith in your dreams, and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling through.
No matter how your heart is grieving,
If you keep on believing,
The dreams that you wish will come true.

I’ve always been a dreamer. I believe that my wish came true that my dad and Ben are both at peace, even though grief is hard for me. I’ve written before that I will wish for and dream about cures for ALS, and also for cancer and the many other horrible diseases. Sometimes it seems futile, but I remember that Fairy Godmother said, “Even miracles take a little time.”

 

Have Courage and be Kind

 

This piece originally appeared at TheCaregiverSpace.org

ALS,Caregiving,Grief,Disney,Cinderella

Photo: Cinderella (2015)
Walt Disney Pictures

 

“Have courage and be kind” is one of those wonderfully memorable movie quotes to live by that is so simple yet so profound.  In the 2015 action version of the Disney film, Cinderella receives this advice from her dying mother.

My husband, Ben, was truly courageous in how he handled his ALS throughout his six-year battle. He pushed himself to keep doing things like walking, using his computer and eating until he absolutely could not do them anymore. It helped him emotionally and, I believe, physically, too. I was his hands at times, and his mouth when his speech became impaired. He maintained a good sense of humor, especially when I got creative with the food processor to make meals for him when chewing and swallowing were difficult.

People also called me courageous and it never resonated with me. I didn’t have to deal with that disease and dying.  But, I’m finally realizing that as caregivers, we are, indeed, courageous in dealing with the many changes in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, and in helping them deal with these changes. We compassionately provide care. We provide comfort and cheer when they seem out of reach and hard to feel. We have conversations that are so difficult about things we wished we would never have had to consider. In my case, I had to face a future that would not include Ben. But, so importantly, we need to be kind in the midst of these very stressful and emotional situations. It may seem obvious, but it isn’t always easy.

From our own perspectives, Ben and I were both overwhelmed by the amount of help he required, the way his world was shrinking and how our lives were changing forever. Our relationship was shifting from husband and wife to patient and caregiver, and that did not come easily. We didn’t always handle it graciously. Our feelings got hurt, our patience was tried, our moods sometimes were sad and depressed. There were times when I wondered what happened to my kind and loving Ben. To be fair, I’m sure he felt the same way about me. Sometimes we would try to talk it through, and sometimes it was just too difficult. Something would bring us to a loving center–and it was usually something simple, yet kind–a smile, a thank you, or when he couldn’t speak any longer, a long blink, which was our sign for a kiss.

I still have to remind myself that ALS affected Ben in so many ways and that underneath the difficult behavior was my real Ben and his real Abby. The rough times often made me question whether I was a good enough caregiver, and that has stayed with me. I got angry that he did not express appreciation for and was very critical of my caregiving at times, but then got angry at myself for thinking that my feelings were important relative to his needs.  Then, I questioned if I deserved any appreciation because maybe I was not doing a great job. I have been reminded frequently to be kinder to myself. Maybe my courage is now found in facing the memories with love but also with honesty.

In addition to the dynamics of our relationship, there were the times we had to deal with various professionals regarding his care. These were not necessarily medical professionals. They were often administrators who advised on health insurance and financial paperwork, or a variety of social and other services. There were so many questions, such confusion, and overriding fear about his future. We both had to courageously persist to ensure good care and financially sound advice. Some people were kind and helpful, and others were not. My dad taught me long ago that you get more with honey than with vinegar, and kindness did come in handy, even in keeping me calmer, though it did not necessarily lead to better information. That was a constant struggle. But, when things are not going very well, and you are tired and scared, and you feel like you repeated yourself too many times and are not getting any useful help, being kind does take a lot of effort!

Maybe it seems odd to say that at times I had to remind myself to be kind. After all, I like to think of myself, as I think many people do, as a kind woman. But, when you’re not at your best, physically and/or emotionally, kindness is not always the first quality that comes to the surface. I do know that with Ben and me, when we stopped to remember the love, especially when we were frustrated to tears, the kindness did invariably come through in the caring. And, it made things better.

Cinderella’s mom gave her very good advice!  I call that kind of inspiration pixie dust for caregivers (and for everyone else, too).  Ben and I loved all things Disney, and as a caregiver and in grief, I found much comfort in quotes like this one. And, by the way, I thought this was a beautiful remake of the animated version.

Caregivers Need Some Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

Cinderella (1950) Walt Disney Productions

Cinderella (1950)
Walt Disney Productions

 

I think most of us have gone through periods when we wish we had a fairy godmother. Come on, admit it!  It’s possible that it was more frequent for me when I was a caregiver and Disney was my escape, but whimsy and dreaming are key to who I am. There have indeed been people in my life who have stepped in and brought some pixie dust or “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” into my life, and sometimes they have come from unexpected places. But, when I have a setback in my emotions, as is happening now, I just wish I could summon Cinderella’s fairy godmother to cast a spell and make it all better.

This past week brought all the tension that most teachers feel as summer winds down and we get ready to get back to the grind. It also brought back the sadness of last year’s bad memories. After spending the entire summer in the hospital, Ben died just a little more than a week before I had to return to school and I was completely unprepared to face the turmoil that teaching in the public school system brings (which could be a whole blog of its own!).  The school year began and I went through motions and did my job in a sort of a fog, but I was not coping well in my personal time, and I spent much time crying or staring into space.

This summer I finally had time to relax and invest time in myself and work through some of my grief.  I’ve been proud of my slowly growing ability to enjoy and participate in life, though my memories of Ben and my dad remain a big part of everything I do.  Given all of this, I wasn’t prepared for the crash of sadness and loneliness in recent days.  I can’t seem to stop thinking about where I was at this time last year and I’ve been losing the battle to fight those memories. It’s the ups and downs of grief that are impossible to predict and exhausting to reconcile within myself.  I recognize that it’s progress to be more aware of and engaged in the world around me. As I’ve written in prior posts, I do see more glimmers of optimism and desire to move forward. But the waves of sadness and bad memories hit hard. I get angry at myself for giving into the depression.  I’ve been through grief enough times to know that this will pass, but will likely happen again because I cannot anticipate the triggers. But, at these times I wish I had a fairy godmother to wave her wand and make everything peaceful and happy.  I surely wish a “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” would make the school year go smoothly, but I’m not sure that even the Disney-est of fairy godmothers could tackle that! Wish me luck!

“Time Passed and Pain Turned to Memory.” True?

The narrator says this in reference to Cinderella's grief over the loss of her mother. Cinderella © Disney 2015

The narrator says this in reference to Cinderella’s grief over the loss of her mother.
Cinderella © Disney 2015

Only a few days ago I posted a video slide show of favorite memories of Ben. One year is a significant marker of time for me and I was very uptight as I anticipated the sadness that I did indeed feel when the day arrived. I don’t know what I expected to happen after I hit that marker, but I woke up the next day feeling so sad. I still feel down. Time has passed but pain has not turned to memory. Both are still quite strong. So, this quote from the 2015 Disney “Cinderella,” which was so powerful to me when I heard it and still remains with me, gave me pause and I had to think about it.

I relish the happy memories and cannot shake the pain of the devastating ones. If pain turns to memory, does pain go away?  Is memory really complete if it does not include the pain and the joy? Is it all a matter of time?  I would think that having lost my mom, my dad and my grandma- that I would be prepared for the flow of emotions that come with grief. I still feel pain at their loss, though I admit the sharp pangs have changed. But, I think that being the daily caregiver for Ben, and seeing the excruciating challenges of ALS, left an indelible mark on who I am as a person and how I see the world. I am stronger and more resourceful than I ever thought I could be, and yet, I am as much of a crybaby as I ever was. I’ve always placed a high value on being compassionate, even if I don’t know that I showed it all the time. Ben and I also were shown a lot of compassion, and it hasn’t always come from places I expected. Through this experience maybe I have a more open mind and heart. But my heart has also been somewhat broken by the cruel nature of the disease and the turmoil it caused. Maybe time will temper all of these dramatic feelings but I feel like as time passes, pain is entwined in memory but it doesn’t turn into memory.

I’m not sure of what my expectations should be of myself and how I handle my grief after a year. Should I consider the expectations people have of me and how I handle my grief from this point forward? Should their expectations influence me?  If so, even if I don’t feel very different all the time, should I act like the pain has just evolved into memory? Should I speak less about Ben? Should I let people see that I still have really sad moments? Should I stop looking back?

I can say that although the bad times are still ingrained in my mind, and I do get depressed, I also do feel a change within myself. I still feel the pain of losing Ben, but I can view that pain as part of sixteen years of so many memories with him, only the last six of which involve his life with ALS and mine as his caregiver. I feel a gradual shift from continuing to live within the pain of suffering and loss, to embracing the wide range of memories, and the feelings they bring, but also trying to define my new “present.” While I am struggling with frequent episodes of drifting back to sadness and dwelling on my memories- good and bad, I have also begun to at least see a “forward.” I have to fight the idea that moving forward is disrespecting Ben’s memory and our relationship. That is an uncomfortable feeling that I have to learn to accept and navigate. Pain, sadness, joy, anger- a bevy of feelings and emotions- are all part of cherished memories and I do have faith that over time they will continue to shape me and lead me towards a bright future.