I have to admit that even thinking about Thanksgiving gives me anxiety. But here it is. Thanksgiving is a very difficult holiday for me because it reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. I have flashbacks of my last Thanksgiving with my dad, spent in the hospital, where I schlepped a full turkey dinner that he ate, mostly, to make me feel better because I’d been crying and pleading with him to eat and get stronger. My last Thanksgiving with Ben was melancholy because 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, we did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to feel gratitude was indeed a super power, because it gave us perspective that allowed us to always see the love that was there. At these more challenging times, reminding myself of the many things for which I’m grateful continues to warm my heart, even if those memories come with tears.
Of course, I always take comfort in Disney, so try to heed the advice of Walt Disney who said, “The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for.” I have really tried to embrace that attitude and, for the most part, it helps me. I can’t shake the hovering sadness that I don’t have my family. Much of the family that I do have is religious and judgmental, and I don’t feel comfortable with them. Ben’s daughters are not in touch with me, so that is another lost connection.
However, I am grateful to have amazing friends, and I will celebrate with them today. I am so fortunate to be included in the families of my friends and my friends are my family. And, I am grateful to Walt Disney and all he created for providing me with entertainment, inspiration, motivation, joy and opportunities to reflect and sort through my feelings.
Every year, I talk to my students about the importance of gratitude, whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving. When things are not going well, it helps to think of even the tiniest thing for which to be grateful- be it a favorite song or snack. I do validate the need to have a pity party from time to time, but said that once you begin to think of those little things for which you’re thankful, you may very well find that there are many of them. I could see that what I was saying resonated with many of them, and I could see them perk up when I said that I have done that myself when Ben and my dad were ill. Some of them have sad lives, especially at such young ages, so I like to see them respond to the idea of feeling grateful to receive a text that makes them smile, or that someone in class made them laugh, intentionally or not! It was nice to watch their faces light up as they raised their hands to share things they are grateful for- in Spanish, too! (well, I am a Spanish teacher!) Family is a sore spot for some of them, so they are happy that our vocabulary list includes music, candy, videogames, cell phones and other assorted things that they love.
Indeed, feeling and expressing gratitude has been a super power that’s helped me throughout caregiving and grief and emotions that have turned me Inside Out. What more appropriate time to summon gratitude than Thanksgiving?!
- At the top of my list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving surely was not easy, but it was the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save them, but 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. I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.
- I am grateful for my cat, Disney. She has been there for me in good and bad times. When Ben was in the hospital, and I knew that he would never come home again, it was a priceless comfort to return home to her. Disney always loves to be hugged and I know that she was attuned to my sadness. I am now her caregiver, as she has many medical issues, but she has brought so much to my life and it is my privilege to take care of her. I’m grateful for my love of animals, as they are often more intuitive, honest and more humane than humans. And, they completely delight 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. When family didn’t step in or made empty promises to him-and there were indeed disappointments and dramas-Ben and I 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 to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors. Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and I am grateful to know that readers find comfort in my words.
- I’m grateful to have settled into my life, enjoying many of the things I always loved, like going to the theater and spending time with friends, particularly friends I have not been able to see in quite some time. Yes, there is still loneliness and aloneness, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by wonderful people, a lot of love, and to carry with me in my heart very beautiful memories.
- I’m certainly not grateful to have had a romance cut short by ALS and to have to try to date and look for love again. The online experience is not really working for me, but I’m grateful to have met some nice people who give me hope that someone may very well be out there for me! And, it’s nice to feel the excitement of a little crush or at least the possibility of romance from time to time!
- I am grateful to be teaching in a wonderful public high school. Not only is it a healthier environment than my prior school, but it allowed me to start fresh, away from my old school and the memories it held of the crises, illnesses and, ultimately, the losses of my dad and Ben. Those memories certainly follow me, but it’s good to see that I can move beyond being seen only as Abby, the person everyone marveled at and felt bad for because I spun in circles juggling caregiving and teaching; Abby the caregiver and the Daddy’s girl who lost her dad and then her husband, even though those experiences are an integral part of me. My school plays music instead of ringing bells to signal the beginning and end of a class period, and my kids always love when I smile at the playing of “Twist and Shout,” sharing that it is the first song that Ben and I danced to- well, they’re teenagers- they love romantic stories! My stories sometimes help them share their stories, and we build a strong sense of community and compassion.
- As I’ve said, I lost myself in caregiving but I also found myself. I discovered that I am a caregiver to my core, and last summer I earned my certificate as a caregiving consultant. I am grateful to have met some terrific people who, tragically, are experiencing ALS as patients or caregivers. Sharing our experiences is emotional and powerful. I’m grateful to believe that wishes can come true and that there will one day be a cure for ALS and all devastating and terminal diseases.
- I’m grateful for my sense of whimsy and belief that if you wish and dream enough, your wish will come true. It lets me know that I will have even more to be grateful for next year!
At this time of year in particular, I think about Pollyana, her wonderful world view and the “Glad Game” in the 1960 Walt Disney Productions film of the same name, and based on the novel by Eleanor Porter. (click to read my original post about that). This was a game that Pollyana’s father taught her to deal with disappointment, in which you turn every bad situation around and think about something you’re glad about regarding that situation. As time has passed, I’ve learned that being “in a state of gratitude” is not to naively play the Glad Game. It is not to ignore the bad experiences or diminish their impact, but, instead, to draw upon the very important power of perspective. I have a good cry when I need to, or when something triggers it, but I can also shift my focus to aspects of these experiences that compel gratitude. That said, I don’t like when people tell me that things happen for a reason with regard to my Dad and Ben and their experiences- there is no reason for those kinds of illnesses. The lessons could have been learned without that kind of suffering and loss.
Film clip: Pollyana, 1960, Copyright © Walt Disney Productions For those of you who remember the TV series Bewitched, the woman in this clip, Agnes Moorehead, was Endora!
There are and there will be setbacks and I am consumed with feelings of wanting to be respectful to Ben’s memory and to make my dad proud. My memories will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. And, I keep reminding myself of what Christopher Robin said to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay because I have the super power of gratitude that gives me a positive perspective.
Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. Try the “Glad Game.” And watch Pollyana. Please get back to me and post your comments in the space below.
With all good wishes,