grief

With Me Evermore

Listen to the song while you read the post! Performed by Josh Groban, from the Beauty and the Beast (2017) soundtrack.

 

It’s been a year since I launched this blog. I’d spent what feels like a lifetime collecting Disney inspirations and insights that helped me sort through the many emotions involved in caregiving and grief. I have learned a lot as I have written blog posts and corresponded with caregivers and those with ALS and other illnesses. I am grateful and humbled to have made new good friends through bad circumstance. I am also coming to a more peaceful understanding that the people I’ve lost are and will be with me and part of everything I do and everything I am, evermore.

My very first post began with one of my very first quotes, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,” which Christopher Robin told his friend Winnie the Pooh. I continue to remind myself of this and often to be surprised at just how true it is in caregiving, grief, and life! Wise little boy, and not so silly old bear!

I do reflect on my experience in grief, and on the judgments I’ve felt from others, and have made of myself. Last week, I wrote about how Ben was not defined by what ALS had done to his body, that he was still Ben inside, and he needed, and deserved, to be related to as he always was. As I wrote “What Aladdin Knew About Appearances,” I thought about how grief is not always displayed on the outside.  I have sometimes altered my outside to cover what is going on inside, so that people who care about me will feel relief that I am doing well and not find me to be a drag.  I will admit that sometimes acting cheerful on the outside can help cheer me up on the inside. Unfortunately, that does not always work, and sometimes it has backfired, leaving me drained and even sadder. I will always be grateful for waterproof mascara!

Even before I was ever in grief myself, I heard people comment that a particular period of time had passed, and someone should have “moved on.” If you’ve read this blog, you know I don’t like that phrase because it feels like it is saying that I have left my loved one behind. Maybe it’s just semantics, but that’s the way it resonates with me. I never understood the concept of a designated amount of time for grief. Did people think I was over the loss of my dad too soon, since I had returned to my caregiving routines quickly? Or, since I didn’t get to grieve my dad’s loss, was it two for one grief or did I get an extension on my time to grieve after Ben died? Ridiculous, indeed!

After I lost Ben, many people rushed to tell me that I had my life back so I should be happy and make this time about me. Happy? Really? Telling me I have my life back was not helpful. Yes, I did understand that they meant I had more freedom. Note to self: I have to be less understanding of people who tell me what and how to feel rather than asking me how I’m feeling. The truth was that after caregiving for my dad and then Ben for more than seven years, I did not know what to do with this life and freedom that had been returned to me. And, there were many times that I did not want to know. I was simply having a hard time without them. But, it was easier not to argue the point, and, I either kept my distance from these people or superficially put on a happy face. Those people never really saw what was going on inside my head. I don’t even think they would have understood, but the potential frustration was not worth it to me.

My friends know that I cry easily, so to cry in front of them was nothing new. But, I tried to enjoy myself with them, particularly shortly after Ben left. They felt relieved to see me smiling but they were very sympathetic, too. However, I was very conscious of and uncomfortable with my smiling and laughter because they did not match what I was feeling inside. For at least a year, and still at times, I arrived home in a puddle of tears. It is very stressful to fight your emotions. But, I had to test the waters and slowly ease myself into the land of the living. Fortunately, I did have some wonderful people supporting me.

From the time that Ben “left” (his word), I have also judged myself in my grief. Am I doing enough? Am I getting out? Am I crying too much? Dwelling on the loss? Am I OK? What is  OK? When I joined a support group and said that I’d cleaned out our storage space after a few months, and another woman said that she had not cleared out a thing, I immediately felt guilty. I thought about how my dad never removed my mom’s bathrobe from their bathroom- time stood still. What’s right? I have come to believe that everything and anything can be “right” if it feels that way, and it might feel that way in one moment, but wrong in another- that’s the hard part.

As I look back, I think that it was the man I hired to repaint and carpet my apartment who genuinely understood what I was grappling with as I tried to reclaim my life. He spoke little English, but since I speak Spanish, we communicated pretty easily. But, he seemed to understand my struggle as I explained things about the apartment and what I was changing. He saw the conflict between excitement about the changes and painful memories of ALS, caregiving and loss. He did not know me, he did not judge me, but he supported me as we respectfully changed things together.

At each instance where I have done something for myself, I have been so touched by the support I have received. People want me to be doing better. I want me to be doing better! My visit to London after many years, my theatergoing, my increased socializing, and now, my dating, has made my friends and family so very pleased for me. I have to admit that I am proud of myself. But, sometimes I put that information out there almost to convince myself that I’m okay. This is a strange summer, in which I’m back in the land of the living while in my head and heart I am reliving all of my memories of my last summer with Ben. My emotions are “Inside Out” now, and I wake up every single morning thinking about my summer in the hospital with Ben. I put my posts on Facebook with all of the Broadway and ballet I’m seeing, and the lovely times with friends. I feel unsteady because my moods fluctuate quickly from happily engaged to distraught and in tears. But, I’m still living, and more and more often without guilt. Some people quickly move beyond any mention of Ben and my dad to remind me that those days are over. Well, the days are over, but the emotions are not and the memories live on. It’s a juggling act. The sadness does not bowl me over as frequently, though on the anniversary of the day Ben went into the emergency room, I stayed in bed crying and watching “Monsters, Inc” with our Sully dolls. And, no matter what anyone says, I think it’s okay.

ALS,Caregiver,ALS Awareness Month,Walt Disney World, Sully, Monster Inc

2012-Ben was so happy to meet his favorite buddy, Sully, at Hollywood Studios.

My experience with grief has shifted. From barely being able to grieve the loss of my dad to losing Ben and feeling like I was grieving the loss of both of them, what I have learned about grief is that my emotions are my own. I don’t have to explain or defend them. I do not have to listen to judgments from anyone, and I need not judge myself either. I’m doing okay. Sometimes, smiling and engaging in life does help me smile more on the inside, but sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the lousy side of grief- it’s unpredictable. These days, I am not as vulnerable to the judgments of others. People may have a timetable for grief, but my own timetable is all that matters to me.

In the past nearly two years, some people have commented that they are amazed at how much I handled when caring for my dad and Ben at the same time and losing them within a short time of each other. Some people have commented that they think it’s great that I have reached out to offer support to others who are dealing with ALS as patients and/or caregivers. Some people feel like I’m caught in the past. Some people feel that I can’t really begin dating because Ben is still so much a part of my life. I know that the judgments are usually grounded in a desire to see me thrive. I want people who care about me to feel like I’m doing better. And, I am, but it has to be on my terms and in my way. It’s not easy for me to say that, but maybe reflecting on my caregiving experiences has revealed to me my resilience and given me a bit more confidence.

My weekend in West Hampton was filled with less guilt for a good time (click here for that post). The Fab Faux concert was filled with much more smiling than sadness. In the lyrics to “Evermore,” Beast was talking about Belle, and I feel the same way about Ben, and the loved ones I’ve lost. The grief process has led me to a place where having them close to my heart in so many memories is always a comfort, even if it comes with tears and missing them. I’m learning to be here in this world with the knowledge that Ben is a part of everything I do- as are my mom and dad- and they will never leave me. I am creating a new way of relating to them and they are here, without physically being here, evermore.

If you are in grief and you feel that you need additional help, join a support group, seek therapy, or contact an association working with you or your caree to see if social work services are available to you. If you are dealing with someone in grief, ask them how they are feeling, let them have their emotions, and let them know that they also have your support.

Early in our relationship, Ben gave me this frame with his own picture inside. It’s a good memory that still makes me laugh.

Twist and Shout to the Memories

2010- Shortly after Ben’s ALS diagnosis and still standing, albeit unsteadily. In his favorite Beatles shirt at a fair with my Pets en Voyage products.

These days, I find that I spend a lot of time reliving the memories of Ben’s last summer, which we spent in the hospital. The memories are often difficult, and there are many tears, yet, I also do remember the profound love that we showed each other. I am beginning to be able to honor his memory with more of the joy I experienced with him, despite the overshadowing realities of ALS and losing him.

This weekend, I was invited to my friend’s home in West Hampton, NY. It was absolutely beautiful. For several years, I was not able to have a weekend getaway. I could not and would not have left Ben.  Though I did think about that while I was away, and about how Ben and I loved to go on little getaways, I felt less guilt this time, and I was able to really enjoy myself. At times, I enjoyed myself through Ben’s eyes. He would have loved the water views, as I did, and he would have had so much fun at the farmer’s market and outlet shopping. Knowing these things does sometimes bring much sadness, but it also keeps him close, and that lets me embrace life more easily.

The event Ben would have loved most of all was the concert we saw by the Fab Faux, a Beatles cover band that is absolutely amazing. I had never seen them before last night, and the concert was THE place to be in West Hampton! The seat next to me was empty, which was unusual given the sold out crowd. But, to me, it was as if that seat was there for Ben. I listened to and loved that concert for both of us. At the end, the band played “Twist and Shout.” This was the first song that Ben and I ever danced to, starting when we were at a gala for the organization where we worked and met. It became one of “our songs.” When the Fab Faux began to play the song, I actually felt a sense of panic as all of my  emotions converged, and I didn’t know how to react. Ordinarily, a memory that dear to my heart would make me cry- happy to hear it but missing Ben and thinking of the dances that we will never have. Last night, however, the song made me smile and, yes, to twist and shout. I was lost in the smiles and laughter of those memories. I felt Ben there with me and I enjoyed the live performance in his honor, with the tremendous enthusiasm that he would have felt. I know that he will always be dancing with me.

Amazing band! Check them out!

July 6 and True Love’s Kiss

ALS,Walt Disney World

A PhotoPass photographer caught this moment in front of the Castle at Walt Disney World. It was actually the first time we returned after Ben’s ALS diagnosis in 2010

The beginning of July should be a great time for me. After all, I’m a teacher, and school ended on June 28.  On the last day of school, I did my annual Snoopy Happy Dance and left the school building with a big smile on my face. The thing is, for me, summer is now filled with a lot of sad memories, even though I am reshaping my life and do have more joy. Today, July 6, marks the second anniversary of the day that Ben had a respiratory crisis and we ended up in the Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Medical Center, where we were met by Ben’s hero and doctor, David Muller, who would, over the course of that summer, become my hero, too. Today was the date when everything changed for us, because this was the summer where Ben succumbed to ALS.

I cannot help but think back to how that summer of 2015 began on a difficult note. Ben had decided, without conferring with me, that he would let go his private home health aide on the last day of school  and that I would take care of him 24/7 for the summer, with a few hours of assistance during the week from a home health aide provided by hospice. To be honest, I was upset and I was also worried. Logistically, how would I even run any errands? Emotionally, I could not understand, and was hurt, that Ben did not realize how difficult-physically and mentally- it was to be his caregiver around the clock, or that he did not think it was something that we should discuss. Although, two years later, I can rationalize my thinking and my reactions, I still feel bad about it, because I would do anything to have him here and healthy today. As it turned out, that summer was spent at the hospital, I was at his side day and night, and I did not want to be anywhere else.

Yes, for me July 6 was the beginning of the end and the memories are still vivid. I remember being in the Emergency Room and meeting with teams of doctors, while also contacting our ALS chapter. I had spent so much time in Emergency Rooms with my dad that they were sort of my normal, but Ben being in crisis was not normal. I remember Ben having different masks on to try to find the most comfortable and effective one, while we struggled to communicate because he couldn’t speak and I could barely read his lips through the mask. And yet, I remember sweet moments, and laughing, too. I remember that I couldn’t kiss him when he had the Bipap mask, so we blinked our eyes tight to show a kiss. How ironic that July 6 is International Kissing Day! But, as the song from Cinderella goes, “So this is love” when you are dealing with ALS- a different kind of true love’s kiss.

Ben had always said that he wanted to do anything to stay alive, but once in the hospital, he wanted to rethink that choice. Many visits and emails with Dr. Muller helped us sort through a lot of that. I’ve written about this a lot on the blog, but it is worth repeating that I told Ben that I would support any decision he made, because only he could decide how he wanted to live and die with ALS (click here to read Sometimes the Right Path is not the Easiest One). It was not easy to grapple with the complications that arose during his hospitalization, and to have doctors explain that these complications were indicators that this would be life with a feeding tube and tracheostomy. It was heart-wrenching to have Ben say he was miserable and then, having made the decision to go to hospice, ask me to help him choose a good day to die. I don’t think those memories will ever become easier. I was not prepared to lose him because his drastic decline was so rapid. For the same reason, he was not prepared to have to make the decision to separate from the ventilator and leave.

It is touching and consoling that music proves to be so important to my healing and to my memories. Every single morning, I listen to a playlist of songs that Ben loved and that were significant during our relationship and that summer. Ben would love that. I cannot forget how the song “One Dance” was my reality check, and the song during which I completely gave in to the devastation.  I am reposting the video with that song. To read my post about the song’s profound significance, click here.

Last summer was my first summer in many years without caregiving responsibilities. I felt lost and conflicted about all of the sadness mixed with the potential to actually enjoy the summer. The first anniversary of losing Ben loomed over the whole summer. I launched this blog during that time, and it has been invaluable in terms of thinking through my own emotions and feelings, dealing with grief, and interacting with so many incredible people who are also taking journeys with ALS or other illnesses, caregiving, and grief.

As I faced the beginning of summer vacation, particularly today, I have dealt with tidal waves of emotion and difficult memories that are woven into my glee at the summer freedom from school. I wonder if the approach of summer will ever come anxiety. It helps me to reflect on memories and events, even though my emotions are Inside Out. Intellectually, I can see that despite being someone who cries easily, I have grown a lot in the past two years, in terms of my perspective and my devotion to caregiving and caregivers, with an especially deep connection to people dealing with ALS. I think that would make Ben and my dad happy. I do find comfort in my conviction that Ben is in a place where he is free from the constraints of ALS, and he is talking, eating, dancing, walking and playing his music. At the same time, I miss him and still find myself talking to him and seeing things through his eyes. These mixed emotions have become a way of life. I chose to write this post because although it has been two years and there are still, and always will be, tears and broad spectrum of memories, I know that this is the unsteady rhythm of life and death and love and loss, but it’s all okay. Summer will be okay. Ups and downs are okay. I’m okay, even if I don’t feel that way at this exact moment. My Disney connections still keep me focused and able to deal with the sad times and the loss. After all, “Love is a Song that Never Ends” and, as Belle’s father Maurice said, “It is love we must hold onto.”

 

New Chairs- Old and New Memories

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.

ALS,Grief

I always picture Ben like this, in his chair at his desk. The chair stays!

On Mother’s Day (and always)

We were always Mickey Mouse fans!

Today is Mother’s Day. My grandmother believed that every day should be Mother’s Day. And, the truth is that when my mom was alive, every day WAS Mother’s Day. We were so close that we did not need an actual holiday to celebrate that fact. Living in a house with Grandma, I feel like I grew up with two mothers, and I would like to honor them today.

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 loved each other unconditionally and had so much fun. Frankly, I could not imagine living after she died.

Grandma and I were also very close. From the time I was a child, I was in awe of Grandma and her elegance. I loved her sense of fashion. She had a wonderful way of putting together colors and fabrics and styles. I still have some of her clothing and jewelry. The best shopping I ever did was in her closets and drawers. More than once, sales people at stores would approach me and ask, “are you the person who called your grandmother for fashion advice?” They found that admirable. If they knew her, they would have called her, too!  When I’m feeling lazy about dressing up or putting on make-up- it happens rarely, but it happens!- I hear her warning me that I never know who I am going to meet and I should always look my best. Clearly, she was hoping for a nice, Jewish Prince Charming. My fairytale was not quite exactly her idea of the “tale as old as time,” but Grandma always seemed to understand that I danced to my own beat. Sometimes we frustrated each other, particularly when I challenged her ideas of an ideal life. But, we had a special bond and an unconditional love for each other.

Grandma doing my hair. She crocheted my dress- so talented! I get my creative streak from her.

Grandma had four brothers and a sister, my great-aunts and great-uncles, and I loved them all dearly. I loved spending time with my great-aunts and great-uncles. Losing Grandma and my older relatives left a huge void in my life. However, through our loving relationships, I developed a tremendous appreciation of and compassion for elderly people that I have to this day.

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

Grandma was very artistic and I inherited her abilities and passion for crafts. She crocheted many aphgans and sweaters, skirts, dresses and ponchos. I remember choosing wool colors with her and how each item had to represent the gift recipient, yet had to be timeless and classic. I can see my own shifting tastes as I look at my childhood aphgan in its pastel colors and then the gray, maroon and cream colors in my college aphgan. I remember waking up in the morning covered with the squares she made while I was asleep.  My dollhouse and dolls even got aphgans! I still have many things that she made. They hold such beautiful memories of time spent watching her and learning how to crochet. Eventually, she helped me to make an aphgan of my own. Ben used it often. Grandma’s talents extended to the piano, and she inspired me to learn how to play. I never played as well as she did, but she helped and encouraged me to play, and I’ve kept some of the sheet music.

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 Grandma, 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.

I realize now that in many ways, my own caregiving days started when my mom died. I followed her example and began looking after Grandma, my dad, my great-aunt who was in a nearby nursing home. I was constantly on the phone with 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. 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. And, 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.

Grandma and I around 1990

When Grandma was ill, I helped with her caregiving, and although I was not her primary caregiver, I was the one she usually relied on for comfort. At the same time, she wanted to protect me from the fact that she was dying.

As time has passed, I think mostly of the wonderful memories of my mom and Grandma and our time together. So much who I am and what I do reminds me of them. I get my Peter Pan-like inner child spirit and love of Disney from my mom. You won’t be surprised that one of my favorite memories is when my mom called me from Walt Disney World exclaiming, “Abby, I met Mickey!” Every time I bake I feel Grandma with me, and she is a part of all of my creative and artistic endeavors, as well as my fashion choices.

Making humentashen is a tradition that started a long time ago!

There is not a day that I don’t think of my mom and Grandma. I am proud to honor them on Mother’s Day, though in truth, I celebrate and treasure them always.