grief

Birthdays…Memories

Walt Disney World, Grief, ALS

At the Crystal Palace

Today, October 27, is my birthday. My second birthday without Ben. I guess that I often measure time that way now. Last year, I preferred not to deal with the day, staying home and basically throwing the quilt over my head. To be fair to myself, it was merely 2 months after he died.  It’s still emotional to think of celebrating events without him.  But, this year I decided to take myself to London as a birthday treat. It was another milestone to travel again, by myself, and to make it easier I went to a favorite place where favorite friends live, too. Also, a place I’ve gone many times without Ben.  It might seem strange, but I am proud of myself.  I spent a beautiful and reflective week there and I will write about that in another post soon. Now I’m back, and facing conflicting feelings- that childish delight about a birthday mixed with the sadness of not having Ben or my mom, dad and grandma- the people I was closest to- with me, and guilt about continuing to navigate life when they aren’t here and conveying in any way that they are even a little bit forgotten.

I’ve thought a lot about the wonderful birthdays I had with Ben. Several of them were spent at Walt Disney World during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. I am so lucky to have had that kind of love and those delightfully whimsical and magical experiences.  As I’ve said before, Ben let his inner child shine and he completely indulged mine. Well, my inner child isn’t so inner- it’s front and center of who I am!

Mickey and Us

Here are just some of my favorite Walt Disney World birthday memories with Ben:

The time I asked Mickey how old I looked and he held his hand up and I asked if he thought I looked 5. He shook his head and held his hand up again and I asked if he meant 50. This went on for a while until he held up one finger at a time and I realized that he only had 4 fingers. He looked up at the ceiling and held his hand to his forehead and when I looked over at Ben, he and the PhotoPass photographer were laughing hysterically. Ben couldn’t believe that I didn’t know my Disney buddies had 4 fingers and he said the photographer was laughing so hard that she couldn’t take a picture. From that point on, Ben and I only “high four-ed” each other.

Mickey has Four Fingers!

Mickey has Four Fingers!

The birthday holiday we took there when Ben proposed to me. The actual proposal was on Halloween because he knew I would love that. I did.

Mickey congratulated us on our engagement!

Mickey congratulated us on our engagement!

Birthday hugs from Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet at the Crystal Palace, because I had to have birthday lunch with my friends from the 100 Acre Woods. I was as gleeful as a 5-year-old when the waiters sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Ben surprised me with a cake once and Pooh kissed my hand. I’ve kept all the confetti and the birthday cards.

Birthday cupcake Birthday Hugs from Tigger

The little girl at the Akershus Restaurant whom I noticed was intently watching Ben and me as we struggled a bit to get him into a chair and then as I cut his food and helped him to eat. When she saw the waiter bring me a little cake with a candle and sing happy birthday to me, she came over and wished me a happy birthday and gave me a hug. Kids have such intuition, and her mom and I both had tears in our eyes.

Cinderella at Akershus

Dancing with Stitch and Goofy at the Halloween party while Ben sat in his scooter, laughed at me (with love) and videotaped it. As if anyone who knows me would be shocked!!

Getting extra candy when we went trick-or-treating at Mickey’s Halloween Party because I announced that it was my birthday, probably more excitedly than most of the little kids. Between Ben in the electric wheelchair and my birthday, we did very well collecting candy!

Having so much fun tasting the foods at the various pavilions during the Food & Wine Festival. Even though he needed help with food, and he couldn’t eat everything he wanted, Ben loved to be at Epcot and he didn’t let himself lament what he couldn’t do or eat.  His attitude was incredible.

I am grateful to always have those very sweet memories, and so many more. I grieve for the birthdays I won’t have with Ben, and also for the birthdays he won’t have. But, I’ve felt his presence over the past year and I know that he is with me, as are my mom, dad and grandma. People say that Ben would want me to be happy and to celebrate. I’m sure that’s true, but it still doesn’t feel quite right.

Tonight is parent teacher conference night at the school where I teach, which is kind of a good excuse to just tiptoe around my birthday. I do remember the one other time that my birthday fell on parent teacher conference night. Ben and I had decided that we would celebrate over the weekend instead and it was no big deal. He picked me up at school, as he always did after evening events, and when we got to my apartment, I was delightfully surprised to see that he had decorated with balloons, flowers, a cake and some of my Disney toys all around the decorations. He had done all of this after work and before meeting me. That was Ben-always romantic.

Surprise Birthday

Despite all of the very difficult memories of Ben with ALS and in the hospital and hospice, I am glad to be able to recall with love and smiles, and yes, also tears, all of the wonderful times before our lives changed. Because those times tell the story of who we really were together.  Remembering that is indeed a most special birthday gift.

True Love

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.

Making a Memory

 

Film clip: The Parent Trap (1961)  Walt Disney Productions

In this clip from original Walt Disney Productions The Parent Trap, Sharon- actually, Susan- returns home from camp and is meeting her grandfather for the first time (he, of course, doesn’t realize this).  She wants to remember everything about him, including the way he smells.

This scene touches my heart each time I watch it (and when I watch the remake, too!). Memories do give me great comfort, despite the tears they bring. So many of my memories with Ben surround going to Disney films, Disney music, Disney stores and Walt Disney World.

After he was diagnosed with ALS, our trips to Walt Disney World (WDW) really became about reliving and making memories that we could always hold in our hearts. Every experience and every opportunity to take a photo became that much more significant. Those memories are what I have now- bittersweet, and sometimes not happy, but it was life and love.

As the ALS progressed, our trips to WDW became more complicated. By the time we took our last visit there, in July 2014, we were dealing with an additional caregiver, ambulettes to travel to and from the airport, assistance on the plane, an electric wheelchair, challenges with eating, and not being able to go on his favorites rides (The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean). Despite the challenges, Ben was determined to have an incredible time, and he did. I loved that about him.

I was fixated on planning a trip that neither of us would ever forget, filled with all kinds of surprises for Ben. For example, we took the Pirates and Pals Fireworks cruise where we could see the Magic Kingdom fireworks and he got to meet Captain Hook.  I knew Ben (and I) would miss being there for Halloween, our favorite holiday and our favorite time to be at WDW, so I worked with the fantastic Disney Floral and Gifts team to surprise him with our hotel room all decorated for Halloween. I remember his face when we arrived outside of our room and there was a big banner with a pumpkin and blinking lights that he thought was a promotion for Halloween and he got so excited. He was completely blown away when I opened the door and it was like entering the Haunted Mansion, which Ben adored. I took tons of pictures and videos for him to enjoy. We also kept all the toys and decorations to decorate our home on Halloween, and I brought them to his room in the hospital to share good memories and Halloween.

I’m so grateful that we were able to relive memories and make new ones. Although I cannot deny that there are tears for the difficulties and ugliness that ALS brought, and for the times we won’t have anymore, I am so thankful to be able to remember him smiling and laughing and being my silly, romantic Ben. I also love the simple memories of that trip: Ben playing air guitar while the band played in the England pavilion at EPCOT, his trying on character hats and choosing t-shirts in the souvenir shops, our holding hands while I walked next to the electric wheelchair or as we watched the fireworks displays, his enjoying the freedom of getting around with the electric wheelchair. Though some people look at the pictures and see how he became very thin with very swollen feet, and that he was wheelchair-bound, I see and remember the joy on his face.

It was too painful for me to decorate last Halloween- Ben had only passed away in August and it was too soon. I do love the photos, and I hope that one day I will want to decorate again and remember the way that we enjoyed it. Maybe this year. I’ll let you know.

Make a memory. Make many. They might be hard to think about or look at in the beginning, but they will be there to embrace if you choose to.

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.