“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, 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.”
Pinocchio was released on February 7, 1940. I do love this story of the mischievous little puppet who just wants to be a real boy. For me, so much of the film is about the song lyrics. They took on a special meaning when I was a caregiver.
When times are hard during caregiving, whether it is in the role of caregiving itself or in watching your caree struggle, it is easy to wish, as Pinocchio did:
I’ve got no strings So I have fun I’m not tied up to anyone They’ve got strings But you can see There are no strings on me
There were times when I just wanted to stroll home instead of rushing to tend to Ben, or go to dinner with a friend, or watch tv without an interruption. For me, much stress came when Ben was feeling frustrated and took it out on me by being critical and difficult. Ben did not want to accept that he needed more care than I alone could provide. He did not want to admit that he was afraid to stay alone. I did not know how to approach him about the fact that he needed more care. I didn’t want to disappoint him and yet I was upset because his expectations were unrealistic. I was upset with myself for rarely standing up for myself. Frustration was perfectly understandable on both of our parts.
The truth was that I was attached not by actual strings, but by my heart. When I did have some time to myself, Ben was pretty much the only thing on my mind. If I went out, I constantly texted him to see if everything was ok, even when someone was with him. I knew he was most comfortable with me and I was most comfortable when I was there.
When he did finally agree to get a home health aide, we had our routines for when they would update me. I had my phone with me at all times waiting for his text telling me that he was awake and seated at his computer. Even when he was in the hospital, and I knew he had constant medical attention, I felt the need to be there. After all, he could not even move his hand to use a call button. The strings that attached us were heartstrings, and there was no breaking them.
I had a lot of support from friends, his medical care team and some family. Of course, they were concerned about Ben, but they were also concerned about me and that I was running myself ragged. I know the philosophy that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. But, it was impossible for me to prioritize myself knowing that Ben had ALS and it was progressing, and knowing that he could not help needing assistance. In the back of my mind, he was dying, so while he was here I had to do anything to help, advocate for and entertain him.
There are also certain realities that affected caregiving. Insurance does not cover home health aides. Since ALS is a disease that does not have a predictable progression, even when he admitted to needing help, he was afraid that he would completely deplete his savings. These are such stressful situations to deal with in the midst of dealing with the physical and emotional impact of the disease. It is tragic that better care and attention is not given to circumstances such as these and to supporting caregivers and carees. I could devote many blogs to that subject!
I had so many people tell me that I simply had to tell Ben that I could not care for him anymore, or he could not stay in the apartment anymore, or he had to begin to pay for care. People are very good at giving advice. And, in my experience, they really do mean well. Interestingly, they don’t always follow the advice they give. Some people who told me to take a hard line with Ben have been in caregiving situations where they were also towing the line without support and with unrealistic expectations from others. In grief, people have also told me what I “should do.” Again, they mean well. Some people think that blogging and pursuing opportunities to support other caregivers keeps me in the past. I disagree. I feel it is important, and even responsible, and it is also rewarding. It allows me to take my experiences that have shaped me and use them positively as I live. But, no one should really have to defend themselves. I say this here because, as caregivers, we all have to redefine our lives, and maybe my own experience will give other caregivers food for thought. The bottom line is that we all know in our hearts what we have to do because our consciences are our guides. We can request and get advice, but only we know ourselves and our circumstances. And, until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you cannot clearly judge them. I mean this about caregivers and carees.
Jiminy Cricket was so right when he said, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” I had to do what I felt was right for Ben. I hope that I’ve come out of the experience with a stronger ability to communicate my feelings, but I still would not have changed my actions. Although I always worried that I was not a good enough caregiver, particularly when Ben was in bad spirits and critical of me, I let my conscience be my guide. I look back and am grateful that, in the end, Ben was able to stay at home with me until he went into the hospital, and I was at his side until he left this world.
As I wrote in a previous post, I still believe in making wishes, and I love the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I wished that Ben would find peace and I do believe that wish has come true and that he is in a place where he can walk and talk and eat and play his musical instruments. I wish for a cure for ALS. I will continue to wish until it comes true because, as the song goes
When you wish upon a star Makes no difference who you are Anything your heart desires Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream No request is too extreme When you wish upon a star As dreamers do
Like a bolt out of the blue Fate steps in and sees you through When you wish upon a star Your dreams come true
All music and lyrics by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington
Ben and I with Peter Pan and Wendy Walt Disney World 2006 Pre-ALS days
Peter Pan was originally released on February 5, 1953. Ben and I loved the film. What adult has not chuckled at how they spent their childhoods waiting to grow up just to wish that they had stayed children? I am a firm believer in embracing my inner child. Ben also loved to tap his inner child. Walt Disney World is a place where it is a requirement! Maybe that’s why Ben and I loved it so much!
The phrase “think happy thoughts” took on a whole new meaning when Ben was struggling with ALS and I was struggling with caregiving. ALS is known to be a very isolating disease. I’m sure that even when he was not literally alone, Ben felt isolated. I felt so helpless when Ben hurt because sometimes, it was so hard to speak to explain himself and be understood, that he just shook his head and stopped trying. Also, with every day came the dread of what ability he would lose. Sometimes he simply had a bad day and other times there was an obvious change in his health. There were days when I was able to care for him without any problems, but then there were the days when it was exhausting and overwhelming, and if I was having back issues, it was physically painful. We cannot walk in the shoes of our loved ones, we can only love them. Love is a lot. Thinking happy thoughts is a lot, too, because, along with love, it lets us remember who we were and what was important before illness changed things.
For us, happy thoughts almost always included memories of our visits to Walt Disney World. Ben spent so much time every day looking at the videos and photos from our visits to Walt Disney World. We loved to listen to the music from the parks, too. He went on their vacation planning web site to plan fantasy trips. I liked to see him planning because I felt it kept his head in living and focusing on what he could do. I truly believe that helped him manage the disease pretty well for about four years.
On those very difficult days when eating was a challenge, or there was a fall, or some other accident, or even just a lack of energy to transfer or be transferred, we had to remember, “All you need is faith, trust and a little pixie dust!” So much happens with illnesses and caregiving that is unpredictable and beyond our control. For me to maintain a certain state of calm that allowed me to be a problem solver, I needed to have faith and trust that things would ultimately be okay. The pixie dust was the whimsy that always let my inner child thrive in the midst of very grown-up, complex circumstances. Sometimes it was just a loving moment between Ben and me that would make us laugh. Sometimes it came from friends, sometimes it came from caring strangers, and sometimes it came from both of us taking a moment to remember the good and loving times. And, with faith, trust and pixie dust, we even made it back to Walt Disney World four times during his illness.
I named my blog Pixie Dust For Caregivers because quotes like this, as well as many Disney characters, films, lyrics and attractions from the Parks were the pixie dust that gave me perspective, inspiration, and comfort during the caregiving years and now, as I work through grief. They helped Ben, too. At times, they simply gave us much needed entertainment.
We did love the Peter Pan attraction at Walt Disney World. We loved to soar over Neverland on the pirate ship. Unfortunately, it is not accessible and has to be boarded while it is in motion. Ben had trouble with balance and walking early on, so it was the first ride we had to give up. Still, we never lost our love for Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
After a respiratory crisis, Ben landed in the hospital, and life with a tracheostomy and feeding tube was not going well, including infections and pneumonia. After six weeks, Ben chose to go to the hospital’s palliative care unit.
It was painful beyond words to know that Ben was miserable. Tragically, ALS was not going away. He was not going to get better. But, to know that he had only days left in this world was devastating. At the same time, there was a certain relief that he would be free from the physical and emotional pain and constraints of the disease that rendered him unable to breathe on his own, speak, eat, walk, use the computer or play his instruments- things he loved. A line in the song “You Can Fly,” is, “Think of all the joy you’ll find when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye.” I wanted Ben to have peace and to feel comfort he had not felt in the nearly six years he bravely battled ALS.
Peter Pan said, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” I don’t know that I would call ALS an adventure, but it was a journey. A very difficult journey that Ben navigated with much bravery. Now, I put faith, trust and pixie dust in the belief that Ben has “bid his cares goodbye” and he is in a peaceful place where he can walk and run and eat and talk and sing and use his hands to use the computer and play his instruments. That gives me peace.
Quote from Mary Poppins Disney and Cameron Mackintosh Musical Based on the Film
Maybe I am still in new year, new thinking mode, but this quote resonates with me in a special way. I feel that I have opened a door and stepped out of intense grief. Caregiving for my dad and Ben, especially when I was juggling care for both of them- literally going between Long Island and my home in Manhattan- was exhausting, challenging and devastating, but it was also the most loving, meaningful and rewarding experience in my life. After it was over, I floundered. Grief has been hard, and it has been grief times two. I’ve spent this time with many lows, then highs followed by extreme lows, and now I finally find more balance. I am always careful when I say this, because I never want to convey that I’m “over it” or I’ve “moved on.” But, I think I’m learning to coexist better with grief. And I’ve been opening some new doors.
After Ben “left” as he called it, I was so often told that it is now time for me. Well, that was fine, but I was not exactly sure how to fill that time. I missed my dad and I missed Ben and I even missed the caregiving. If you’re immersed in caregiving and its ugly parts, it may be difficult to see how I missed caregiving, but you must realize that I am writing this after nearly a year and a half of losing Ben to ALS, and almost 3 years of losing my dad. Time, reflection, and perspective gained are important. Nothing comes easily.
Life as a caregiver was stressful, exhausting, and it certainly kept me busy and on my toes! When I was the caregiver for my dad, at one point I took family leave and traveled about five hours every day to visit him, first at the hospital and then at the hospice. During this time, Ben was fairly comfortable staying alone during the day, and we had friends who could help if needed. And, indeed, there were occasions when they were needed- sometimes he could not stand up, other times he fell. Not being there was very difficult, because I was wondering, hoping that Ben was taken care of, until I would get an update. When I was at work, I kept my cell phone with me at all times, in case anyone needed to reach me.
I probably don’t need to say that I was devastated by my dad’s passing away. We were very close and I had also lost my mom. Ben was also distraught by this loss. I think Ben lived in such denial of his ALS and its ultimate outcome, that losing my dad made it too real for him. Although his daughter stayed with him on the day of the funeral, that night it was back to caregiving for me. We were both sad, but I was too busy taking care of Ben to really reflect on my loss. And, I was worried about Ben being too preoccupied with death. I resented that somewhat, because I did need time for my own feelings, but it was not Ben’s fault that he needed help and his immediate needs had to be the priority. Emotions can always be dealt with later, right? Well, not really. If you try boxing up your feelings, they are going to show up in any number of ways, including attitude, behavior and physical ailments. If you’re a caregiver, please remember that you matter.
With only Ben to care for, you would think that life got easier. Unfortunately, his ALS was progressing. Ben was very reluctant to get additional home care. Some of it was due to his lack of acceptance of the progression of ALS. He told me that I didn’t do much for him, or have to do much, which was untrue and, since I want to be honest here, it hurt and upset me, and left me wondering if I was good at what I was doing. Ben was not entitled to home health aides through insurance. I missed a lot of days of work if we were up all night or if I woke up and he was not feeling well, or he felt uncomfortable staying alone. When he awoke one morning and finally admitted he was afraid to be alone, I stayed home from school and made a lot of phone calls, finding him private care for just a few hours a day during the week, which was some of the time that I was at work. We put all kinds of systems into place for him to contact me, including a medic alert system, texting me at certain times. He was still alone at times, so I ran home after work, where I was then on duty until I left for work the next morning. In fact, I was never really “off duty,” I was just not physically present at times. And, our systems were not fool-proof. He texted me through his computer and an on-screen virtual keyboard, and if the mouse got away from him he did not have enough range of motion to get it back. Also, his voice was not strong. Once, he set off the medic alert device by accident. They did speak to him through the system but they called me to let me know that he had activated the alarm but seemed fine. However, I did not get any response from him when I texted to follow up. I dropped everything and ran home to find him sitting at the computer, absolutely fine, but had had been unable to respond to me because he could not reach his mouse. A few more gray hairs for me!
Even when he was in the hospital, I remained Ben’s caregiver. I was with him at least 12 hours a day, and sometimes overnight. ALS is very isolating. Ben could not use a call button and it was hard for people to communicate with him. He depended on me, but he also took that out on me, which was all understandable, even if upsetting. I supported, advocated for and comforted him on on the ALS journey throughout his experience in the hospital. Looking back, continuing in my role as caregiver was necessary and helpful to the staff, but it also gave me a sense of purpose in the midst of a tremendous feeling of helplessness.
After a summer entirely spent in the hospital and concluding with his loss, I had to return to work (school) in just over a week. I was not prepared. People told me it would be good to return to my routine. What they did not realize was that it was not my routine. My routine at work involved caregiving. It was texting with Ben. It was being in touch with the doctors and teams who worked with him. It was coordinating with his home health aides. It was walking around with my phone. Many a day that I left school, I cried because I missed my rituals of calling my dad and saying, “I’m free!” and texting Ben to see if he needed me to run any errands.
I did not want my memories of ALS to define my relationship with Ben, but I found that I did define myself as a caregiver. I joined support groups where the people said they would never want to be a caregiver again. I, on the other hand, missed not the illnesses and their ugliness, but the caring in the caregiving.
Maybe as a teacher I am a nurturer, but caregiving is something I cannot let go of. I started this blog as a way of sorting out my own thoughts, but also with the hope of helping others by sharing my experiences and things that supported and inspired me. Of course, with me it has to have a Disney twist! I did not realize that I opened up a new door when I began to blog. In a way, through Pixie Dust For Caregivers I discovered that caregiving is ingrained in who I am. Social media connected me with several wonderful caregivers and caregiving organizations and forums through which I have been able to exchange ideas and give support. I wish I had known about them when my dad and Ben were here and I was struggling in so many ways. I also enrolled in a caregiving consultant certificate program offered through Caregiving.com. There is a sense of responsibility that I feel to other caregivers, and camaraderie that I feel with them. It is also important to me that I remain engaged in the fight to defeat ALS and I feel strongly that supporting the emotional needs of caregivers of people with ALS is one way that I can do this. Through this certificate program I have been given an opportunity to participate in a unique virtual “performance” of the six stages of caregiving, to be broadcast online by Caregiving.com on Sunday, February 5. Learn more here. Please join us.
Another door I opened is that I have volunteered to work with my local chapter of ALS to create and deliver events for children who have a parent with ALS. My background is in arts and education and I am passionate about the power of the arts in our lives. When I heard that they have done crafts and other events for these children, it felt so right to me to be a part of it, and I am grateful and excited that I will participate in these efforts.
I could never have jumped into these endeavors immediately after I lost my dad and Ben. I could not have written my blog while I was going through the difficult experiences. I did write in my journal, but when I revisit those entries, I see that my thoughts were very scattered. I take to heart my favorite quote, from Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh: “You are Braver than you Believe, Stronger than you Seem and Smarter than you Think.” I am an emotional person and I easily cry, but I am strong and I lived through and handled challenging caregiving situations creatively, and hopefully, at least somewhat intelligently and successfully.
For people who believe that blogging and maintaining such a close connection to my relationship with Ben and with caregiving keeps me in the past, all I can say is that I disagree. I have taken my experiences and I am now ready and able to grow from them. I am learning about myself in ways that I believe are helping me to face the future, while maintaining my commitment to honor those I’ve loved and lost and, in this process, hopefully, helping others. I am emerging from intense grief and letting more light into my life.
I have begun to open different doors to begin to reshape my life. I hope you’ll join me on this journey and make some discoveries of your own! Always feel free to share and comment here!
Ben took this picture during our second visit to Walt Disney World, 2002 Mary Poppins is the first movie I ever saw in a theater. It will always have a most special place in my heart.
Today, January 13, 2017, marks 25 years since my mom, Sandra-“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. I still, and always will, wonder if she would be proud of me.
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, but I think we were fortunate to have had such a close relationship. We went to the theater and ballet together and spent a lot of time together and even with my friends. Our excursions to NYC from Long Island for the holiday windows and the after-Christmas sales were epic, strategically choreographed events to see all we could and find the best sales. She was simply an adorable person. Being in London with her was also a hilarious occasion- I still remember laughing at how I would have to translate English to English because the British accent baffled her. Everything delighted her there, as it still delights me. We had so much fun. I loved my mom and she loved me, unconditionally. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died.
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, though it was frustrating to me that she pushed people away. 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.
London 1987. My mom could not wait to visit the Paddington store!
As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and our time together. So much of 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!” (picture below, left) Another is watching and giggling through “The Little Mermaid,” especially because my grandma was straight-faced and completely bemused by our amusement.
I proudly say like mother, like daughter!
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 my 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 on those days he would plan something Disney-related, like our date to “Beauty and the Beast-3D” (click here for that post).
I enjoyed the movie “Brave” and the feistiness of Merida as she searched to find herself. Fortunately, I never had big issues with my mom. But, the scene in the clip at the bottom of this post says it all. Even after 25 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 miss and I love you, Mommy.