The Things That Matter

There are so many things that conjure my loved ones and I hold onto those with much love and sentiment.  There is the Les Miserables sweatshirt my mom looked so cute in, along with her Paddington Bears and toy cars. I feel especially connected to my grandma when I use the rolling pins and cookie cutters that I used with her from the time I was a little girl. I hold dear the movie history book that my dad kept and updated with the death dates for the actors as they occurred. He was never interested in celebrities, so this always struck me as so odd but as endearingly funny and quirky as my dad. I love to look at his USMC cap and model of the F7 airplane he flew during the Korean War, as well as some of his books, including the book of dog breeds that we used to study when I was a girl. In my living room stands the curio cabinet that my great-uncle Davis made and my Tanta Rosie gave to me because I’d admired it since I was a young girl. Those are just some of the love-filled mementos I have of the past.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you also know that Ben and I loved to look at photos to revisit our days in Walt Disney World. I found web sites on which I could upload favorite photos and make a quilt, shower curtain and towel, so that he could always be surrounded by his favorite pictures and memories.  Now, those wonderful, magical times surround me.

Ben also had a huge and ever-growing collection of t-shirts, many of which I brought for him as little surprises. I could not part with them. I couldn’t keep that many t-shirts and wear them. I had them made into quilts for Ben’s daughter and for me. When I set mine out on the bed, it was emotional to think of what the t-shirts represented- the many Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Parties, places we visited, events we attended, and things he loved, like the Beatles. Now, it is a special feeling to wrap myself in those memories. For a while after he was gone, I continued to order t-shirts that I knew he would have loved. I’ve tried to curtail that, because without him here, they don’t bring the same joy, and I would soon need to make a new quilt!


A segment of the t-shirt quilt. So much nicer to wrap up in memories rather than leave t-shirts in a drawer.

The things that bring an unexpected sentimentality are the things that become most unnerving. Recently, it was Ben’s table, which was also his desk. He brought it with him when he moved into my apartment. I never liked it, and I tried to persuade him to let us get a new one. It was a somewhat beaten up, not terribly steady, unattractive folding table. He knew it was always on the verge of collapsing, but, it was comfortable for him and since he dealt so graciously with all of my dolls, how could I really argue?


This is Ben’s table waiting to be filled with cookie batter and lots of supplies!

Several months after he passed, I began to fix and redecorate the apartment. It felt too soon, but my tiny NYC apartment held many physical and emotional scars of ALS. I knew that it was a positive thing to do, but it also came with the guilt that making the changes, albeit necessary, might even slightly imply that I was happy he was not here and I could change things. I also wished that he could be here to enjoy it. I painted, recarpeted and got some new furniture. I also put up many pictures of Ben, continued to display his things and even framed one of his Beatles albums. He was a part of each decorating decision that I made and he remains very present here.

I thought it would be good to get a new table. I found a nice wood dining table that could be extended and I liked that idea because my intention was to start inviting people over. That was something we did not do when Ben was ill because he was self-conscious about having people see him and because the apartment was, frankly, a very cluttered disaster.

Given how much I disliked the table, I thought it would be easy to replace it. But, like the computer that sat on that table, it was like a lifeline to Ben. He sat at the table almost every day. I brought him to the table in the morning before I left for work, and brought him back to bed from the table each night. His little collection of Disney toys was on that table. He played around on the computer all day at that table. I fed him his meals at that table. I set his shaving things on that table as he taught me how to shave him (I can’t say I ever mastered it very well but Ben said I did pretty well). His birthday cakes and parties took place around that table. He looked at our Christmas tree from that table, and as I explained in a prior post, I placed his favorite ornaments on our tree so that he could see them from his chair at his table. Sometimes, after I put him to bed, I would decorate the table or place surprises for him that he would spot when he sat at the table. For example, one Halloween, I got him a Disney countdown calendar figurine and every morning, when he settled in at the table, he would see that I had moved the day closer to Halloween. The night before Halloween I put Halloween garlands and fake cobwebs all over his desk area. I also waited for him to go to bed to sit at the table and make my crafts, including making elaborate cards and gifts for him.  He knew there would be surprises and he loved to discover them.


Ben’s birthday, 2013, seated at his table. He loved peanut butter M&Ms but shortly after that photo was taken, he had to stop eating them.


Birthday cake, 2013, on his table.

There was a lot of history in that ugly table! I simply could not get rid of it. I decided to keep it, and to use it when I baked cookies and humentashen. I knew Ben would approve of that, because he loved when I baked and he even helped with the humentashen until ALS took the use of his hands. I folded the table and kept it behind my media cabinet. I placed his computer right on my new table and I continue to use it to play his music. I could never part with his computer. This Christmas, I put his fiber optic Disney tree in the same corner of the new table that he liked it to be on his table.


Holiday display on the new table, with Ben’s little Disney fiber optic tree in the same position that it had on his table.

On Christmas Eve, I took out Ben’s table to do my baking. Baking Christmas cookies gives me a lot of peace and I looked forward to doing this. As I started to set up the table, one of the legs broke off. I was devastated. In a panic, I got out my drill and tried to fix it. I took out my heavy duty glues, too. Nothing worked. I managed to secure the leg so that I could use the table anyway and just hoped that it would not collapse. I asked Ben’s friend to come over and look at the table. He did not seem too hopeful that it could be fixed but he could tell that I was heartbroken and said he could try to drill new holes. I was able to complete all of my baking and decorating, which was quite a relief. Ben would be delighted with these finished products.


The last batch of Santa cookies made and decorated on Ben’s table.


Chanukah cookies made on Ben’s table.


Mickey Mouse snowmen cookies. Also, the last ones made on Ben’s table.


The final assortment of cookies! My grandma and Ben would be proud!

On Wednesday, as I went to fold the table, the opposite leg broke off. I was utterly crushed. I realized that there was no way that the table could be repaired. Ben would not have been surprised. He knew the table was not in good shape but I think that, especially as the ALS progressed, he knew what was comfortable and manageable for him. I cried as I kept some of the nails and hardware and took the table outside to the curb. This eyesore of a table that I’d wanted to replace was the hardest thing to let go.

In caregiving and in grief, we are reminded to focus on memories that keep us connected to our loved ones and let us remember them as they were and as we were together. I’ve written about the wonderful memories that comfort me in the difficult times and memories of the ugliness of ALS. I am eternally grateful for the times that I could make my dad and Ben smile, or make their lives a little easier and more comfortable. Those moments are priceless reminders of the depth of the love we shared. The heirlooms and treasured objects also hold memories and affection. Then, there are the surprising things-the “stuff”- like Ben’s table, that touch my heart with the stories they tell. In love and loss, and caregiving and grief, all of these things matter.

Happy-ish Holidays! Healing Happens

Walt Disney World, ALS

Ben and I with Santa (We know him!) in 2007, pre-ALS

It’s Christmas Day and the first day of Chanukah. I send you good wishes. NYC is pretty at this time of year. We’ve only had a bit of snow, though it got messy and ugly pretty quickly. I saw a couple of store window displays, but was not really feeling enthusiastic, and I did not visit the Rockefeller Center tree. Given its proximity to Trump Tower, I do not think I feel like dealing with the chaos. Since I put up my tree and Chanukah display right after Thanksgiving, I’ve had time to conjure some spirit. I don’t pressure myself to engage in holiday cheer, but I also try very hard not to dwell-at least for long- in sadness or let myself feel obligated to visibly show grief.  But every step I take forward comes with the risk of a setback and difficult emotions (click here for prior post).  This time, that setback came when it was time to decide on a holiday card.

For many years I’ve hand-made a card that’s usually featured a family pet.  In general, I make more of a New Year’s card, to avoid family conflict over my love of Christmas when we celebrate Chanukah. Last year, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a card at all, or if it was even “appropriate.”  It was only four months since Ben had been gone.  I most definitely was not feeling very cheerful.  At the same time, having lost my dad in 2014, and then Ben in 2015, I kind of wanted to welcome a new year, though my track record of bad years made me wary of much optimism.

I missed Ben terribly and I wanted people to keep him in their hearts. In grief, he certainly took center stage in my feelings. I decided to create a tribute card with some of our favorite pictures from Walt Disney World, where Ben looked so happy, even as his ALS had progressed. It felt like the right thing to do.  Disney was also very, very okay with not having to wear a Santa hat or reindeer antlers, though, oddly, she does like her Mickey Mouse pajamas! The only song that resonated with me was “Auld Lang Syne.” I was still pretty much in shock and exhaustion over the loss, and the notion of remembering loves and lives lost but not forgotten, was a comforting and peaceful sentiment.  It suggests keeping our loved ones with us in a spiritual way that, to me, is very beautiful, if also bittersweet.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne! – Robert Burns

ALS, Disney,Grief

Holiday Card 2015
A Loving Tribute to Ben

I shared the card with old friends and new ones, with people who had known Ben for years and saw the changes as the ALS progressed, and with our Facebook friends and acquaintances, some who did not really know Ben, or know him well. I felt then, and I feel now, that it is important to share with people what ALS is and does to a person, even though a photograph only conveys some of the physical manifestations of the disease.

As this year’s holiday season approached, I was not sure how I felt about making a card to welcome 2017.  Although so much of what I do still includes photos of Ben, and he is with me in all that I do, I did not feel that I should make another tribute card. Likewise, I did not want to make a card that shouted gleeful holiday spirit that I simply do not feel. I do like to take this time of year to reach out to people to extend holiday greetings and let them know I am thinking of them and I wish them well. I think that my internal debate about whether to make a card and what it should be helped me realize that creating my cards has become an important tradition to me.

For a few years I had toyed with the idea of doing an “It’s a Small World,” card. It started when Ben gave me some of the It’s a Small World singing dolls for Christmas. I never got to make this card while Ben was still here and I decided to give it a go this year. Disney was very cooperative and I did get a cute picture. I feel that the lyrics to the song were very appropriate for welcoming a new year. Given the current political climate, it seemed especially timely.

It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hope, and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a Small World after all. – The Sherman Brothers

I chose some of our favorite photos from the attraction to border the center picture of Disney and friends by the tree. I enjoy playing around with Photoshop, so I enjoyed the project of making the card. I felt sort of guilty, and sad, for making a card that did not formally acknowledge Ben. When I began to sign the cards, I felt doubly sad to write only “Love, Abby and Disney.” However, I did have to chuckle as I remembered how Ben joked that he was honored that I signed his name before Disney’s!

Walt Disney World, It's a Small World, Grief,ALS

Holiday Card 2016

I wrote to some people to explain that It’s a Small World was a favorite attraction of ours, and my favorite song, and that the card featured some of our most loved pictures from the ride, as well as the dolls that Ben gave me. As I wrote this explanation, I realized that whether or not his name or picture is on the card, Ben is a huge part of it. These are our photos, our memories, and his spirit and thoughts of him are right there in the card. He remains in my heart in so many ways and is with me in the less festive moments when I need comfort, but I do believe that he is also with me as I welcome this new year.  For that matter, so are my dad, my mom and my grandma.

As I think back to last year’s holiday season, I can honestly say that I could not have made this year’s card last year. The holiday season arrived too soon after losing Ben.  It was all too raw and I only wanted to share how much he was missed and how vibrant he was, even with ALS. Over the past sixteen months I have had much time to reflect. I also participated in support groups that helped me sort through feelings and emotions and brought new friends into my life. This blog has been another outlet of working through grief and the caregiving experience. When I’m feeling bad, I feel as if I have not healed, but reflecting on things like this year’s card, I realize that healing happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.

I always seek to honor and celebrate Ben, and I’m sure I always will. Some people feel uncomfortable mentioning him, or they feel that if I talk about him that I am dwelling in the past and/or grieving too long. On the contrary, I like to know that people remember and think of him and I am happy to hear their memories. There is still sadness, but I also allow myself to enjoy more and more good times in the present, as I make new, good memories.


Our last family Christmas/Chanukah, 2014. We got matching Mickey and Friends pajamas- even Disney! (She liked the pajamas, but not the picture-taking!)

I have begun to take steps forward to reshape my life and let in the light, and that also feels good and right, even if my paces are somewhat awkward and unsteady and I fall backwards at times. Sometimes I react to memories or to present life and thoughts of the future with tears and anxiety, at times I ask for help and support, and sometimes I smile with cautious optimism and the feeling that my loved ones are watching over me. I react on my own terms, as anyone in grief must be allowed to do. It’s all healing and it’s all okay.

Wishing you and yours happy, healthy, peaceful and healing holidays!