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.
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.”
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.
I always picture Ben like this, in his chair at his desk. The chair stays!
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.
Frozen certainly became a phenomenon among Disney films. There’s romance, royalty, family strife, tested loyalties, an adorable reindeer named Sven and a really cute snowman named Olaf! What’s not to love?!
Of course, “Let it Go” has become an anthem for finding all kinds of strength. I know that it is healthier, and I feel better, when I can let go of anger, of bad memories, and of resentment. When I was caregiving and in grief there was a lot of that. I must admit that letting go, in general, is not always easy for me. I have found, however, that it is better to put my energy towards gaining perspective that allows me to let go of the things that are over and done, that I did not create and that I cannot change.
Who would believe that Olaf, the sweet and goofy snowman would so beautifully sum up my caregiving experience at its core.
We all know that we have to take care of ourselves. We have also heard that if we don’t take care of ourselves we will not be able to take care of someone else. After all, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we might become ill and will then be incapable of caring for someone else. I cannot tell you how many times I was told the airplane analogy of putting on your own mask first, so you could then help someone else. And yet, as caregivers, we do not always take care of ourselves. In fact, we rarely take care of ourselves. Hearing that advice became irritating because I knew that I should take better care of myself, but I also knew that I couldn’t. Why? Crises occurred, I was exhausted, there was not enough time, and the list goes on. Ultimately, love meant putting the needs of my dad and Ben first.
When my dad and Ben were ill and needed help, their needs were immediate. They had terminal illnesses. If my dad needed to go to the Emergency Room or if Ben needed to shift his position in bed or needed to use the commode, it didn’t matter that I needed sleep to be able to function at work or if my back hurt. I would find a way to catch up on sleep. I would go to physical therapy or take a pain reliever. Their needs could not be postponed.
I’ve written about the stresses and emotions of caregiving. I’ve explained that my loved ones were very concerned about me because I was running in circles, particularly when I was simultaneously caring for my dad and for Ben. It was my routine, my normal, and I just went with it. I do remember that during the time I took family leave, I enjoyed my time on the train, on the way to and from the hospice, because for those 5 hours every day, I was by myself, even though it was with phone in hand to manage any issues that arose during my commute. Enjoying my thermos of tea on the train while listening to music became my way of taking care of myself.
I don’t think that I realized at the time that I did not really have an opportunity to deeply feel the grief of losing my dad. I was taking care of Ben, who was also struggling with this loss because he loved my dad. Also, the death of my dad was a scary and sobering reality check for Ben, who lived in denial of that eventuality. For me, it was one step in the sad forecast of my lonely future. I couldn’t grieve with Ben because I did not want to upset him, but I also could not grieve on my own, because there was too much to do and I was working full-time. At times, I did feel like I was melting down, but I did not see any options, and I was so immersed in handling my caregiving tasks and full-time teaching that I just kept plodding along, with a few pity parties and venting to friends and family in conversations or emails and texts. Sometimes that was a distraction from the grief, but it also meant that the grief simmered within me.
I have to explain that although there were times when putting my own needs aside was the obvious and the only solution, it also caused frustration, sadness and anger. I felt depressed and lonely and frightened, and Ben and I were not always patient with each other, which led to resentments on both of our sides. Unfortunately, although I recognized that I was near a breaking point, I could not convince myself to shift my priorities in a way that changed my routines and accommodated my needs. I write this because saying that love is putting someone else’s needs first does not mean it is always done easily, graciously or without inner conflict. Everyone’s feelings matter, but they have to be prioritized. Even in retrospect, despite what reason may have indicated, my heart knows that it was the right and only thing to do.
While putting their needs first sometimes caused some melting, it was in the literal letting go of my dad and Ben that I truly melted. But, love meant supporting their wishes.
I did not like to see my dad in a hospice, although he got such wonderful, compassionate care. I melted as I saw him slipping away, but letting him go as he wanted, and very peacefully, was more important than my desire to keep him with me on this earth.
Love meant dealing with the fact that Ben would have gone to a facility if he had chosen to stay on life support. With a tracheostomy and feeding tube, Ben would have needed 24/7 nursing care that could not be accomplished at home. It was a bleak option, but his needs were the priority and as much as it devastated me to think of him in a facility, and it devastated him to accept that he would not be able to be at home with me, we both had to come to terms with that reality. I worried about his being alone while I was at work. I worried that the staff would not be as attentive as I had been. I did not share those worries with him, but I melted when I thought about it.
When Ben decided to go off life support, I melted because I did not want to lose him. I stood by his decision to go off life support because only he could decide how to live and die with ALS. It was a conflict for me because although I was not prepared to lose him, I was relieved that he would no longer suffer with the disease. I was at his side the day he left, we said our vows, and he was surrounded by loved ones and music. It was worth my melting for him to feel loved and comforted as he left this world on his own terms.
I loved my dad and Ben with all my heart. Losing them, particularly so close in time (a year and a half), was very difficult. But, it was worth melting to have shared the love that we did and to let them go and find peace on their terms.
I would like to state the obvious and suggest to caregivers who are reading this that you take care of yourselves and put yourselves first. But, we all know that won’t always happen. Maybe sometimes. Try. Plan. Fantasize! Take moments for yourself, even if it is a mental escape, or a nap, or a quiet cup of coffee or tea on your way to an appointment! But, caregivers, like Olaf, know the true meaning of love.