Ben playing the drums at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. He loved listening to and making music.
In a post last week, I wrote, “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.” I’ve also written a lot about things that matter because they represent Ben and our memories. It has been so difficult to even consider parting with things that he loved, that he frequently used, or that were important to us. I’ve written about his table breaking and needing to be replaced. In that case, I never liked that table and until faced with how substantial a part of Ben’s life it was, I would not have imagined it to be something that mattered. Then, there is his shabby desk chair that became his makeshift wheelchair, filled with some lousy memories, but which is still the chair that I choose to sit in, despite my new and lovely Mickey Mouse chairs. Yes, they are things, but they give me a sense of peace and security. I feel Ben when I am surrounded by these things, even though I also know that he is in my heart evermore.
A few days ago, Ben’s desktop computer crashed. This was something I dreaded because Ben’s computer was his lifeline. Almost every single day, I would get him dressed and wheel his chair out of the bedroom to his desk and computer. He used the computer all day–paid bills, watched movies, texted, surfed, and, most memorably, listened to music. I especially loved to arrive home and see him with his cute little smirk, singing along to our Disney soundtracks, recounting our visits to Walt Disney World. Ben’s face lit up when he listened to music and he loved to talk about music and orchestrations. Without wanting to resort to many clichés, music was essential to his being. During his last weeks, I came home from the hospital each night and turned on his computer just to listen to his playlists. It kept him close and present in our apartment, where I felt very alone as I grappled with the knowledge that he would never return home. I have continued to use his computer, almost exclusively to play his music. Since music was so important to him, it has kept his spirit vibrant to have his music fill the rooms.
The Dapper Dans were very cool! Ben always loved them.
When suddenly his computer would not boot, I went into a complete panic. I tried to remember things he taught me about working with computers, but nothing resolved the issue. I was completely devastated at the thought of losing Ben’s music and not being able to play it on his very own computer. The fact that this happened in August, with the quickly approaching second anniversary of his “leaving,” amplified my emotions. I remembered the many times that he set up a video and music for me as a surprise for my birthday, Valentine’s Day or our anniversary. I remembered the song lyrics he gave me over the years to express his thoughts about our relationship and love. Even at Walt Disney World, he loved the barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, and the live bands that performed at the England Pavilion of Epcot, especially when they played The Beatles. Of course, I had some of the same music in my library and I could get any music, but I wanted things to be the way he had them, with the sounds of the iTunes playlists on his computer coming from his speaker. I tried to listen to music from my laptop and iPhone with a different speaker but it was too unsettling. These are the setbacks that bring back all the pain, just when I think I’m beginning to manage things pretty well.
In addition to the potential loss of his music library, I was also upset about possibly losing the inventory data for Pets en Voyage, my pet travel souvenir business, though I was pretty sure there were back-ups. Ben had painstakingly set up the inventory for me, and he was masterful with this kind of thing. He was so proud of what he had done, and of my business, and the data was invaluable not just for the information but for the memories it held of something that we worked on together and that gave us joy and hope. Although I had to put the business aside when caregiving responsibilities became overwhelming, planning and designing when I had a few minutes here and there, or even brainstorming in my head, kept my mind active and gave me some sort of focus for positive thoughts of the future, which generally seemed very bleak. Using Quickbooks to utilize the information has kept Ben a part of my activities and that has been such a comfort and inspiration to get back on track. I could not imagine losing that.
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.
Ordinarily, Ben would have been able to troubleshoot and solve his own computer problems. He did teach me many things, but I was unequipped to deal with a hard drive failure. It felt like another loss. As much as I did not want to ask someone to take on tasks that were integral to who Ben was, I also wanted to preserve those things that were Ben. So, yesterday, I hired a computer tech consultant, Carlos. It felt very strange and sad, and yet, I think Ben would have enjoyed working with him. He was fantastic, and although the hard drive was corrupted, thankfully, he was able to recover the data. He made a couple of copies of Ben’s music library, and I will also upload it to the cloud. Although he suggested putting the music library on one of my laptops, I asked him to set up a desktop computer that Ben had purchased but had never used. Carlos understood that although I did have to change the computer itself, emotionally, I needed it to still be Ben’s, with the identical files and structure, and the same monitor and speaker. Thanks to Carlos, Ben’s music will still play as it always did, with the sounds still coming from his speaker. The first music I played on the restored system was The Beatles’ “Love Songs” album, as it should be.
As I have written, I have been ready to make some changes in my apartment, but definitely not this one. I’ve written about what we know from Bambi, that “Love is a Song That Never Ends,” and, thankfully, it will sound just right, as I continue to sit in his chair, peruse his playlists, smile as I remember his love of music and know that I have honored him and our life here.
Here is a tiny video that I took during our last trip to Walt Disney World, with Ben watching the live band at Epcot’s England Pavilion. He was so happy to listen to live bands and I wanted to capture the memory and he didn’t want me to miss the music!
On this blog I write about my experience as a caregiver dealing with my husband Ben’s journey with ALS. Since May is ALS Awareness month, and Walt Disney World was our most special place, I thought I would use our experiences there to shed a bit more light on how ALS affected Ben over the nearly six years that he bravely managed the disease. It was important to Ben to maintain a positive attitude, and to enjoy his life as much as possible. Of course, he had his very emotional moments and times of supreme frustration and anguish, and at times, he lived in denial of what was happening, but he wanted to live and die with ALS on his own terms. I remain in awe of his ability to do just that and I am proud to be able to share his story.
Ben was diagnosed in April 2010 but had been experiencing symptoms for at least a year prior- falling, weak legs, imbalance. A terminal diagnosis is a frightening thing, and since ALS is rare, we were blindsided and devastated. ALS is also unpredictable in its progression, so we had no idea what our next steps should be. We didn’t know how much time we had, so we immediately booked a trip to Walt Disney World, our favorite place. It was emotional, and although we were excited to go there, we also knew that we were taking this trip because it might be our last time.
Planning this trip was the first time that we had to think about problems Ben might have and adjustments that we would need to make to our lives. For example, He was still walking on his own, but knowing how much walking is done at the parks and how tired he got, he rented a wheelchair that was delivered by the vendor to our hotel. Ben’s dexterity was good at this point, and he was able to use the computer, so he made his own arrangements for the wheelchair and for some of our dining reservations. It was good for him to feel productive and capable, especially doing something he loved! Getting around the airport was a little bit daunting, so we requested wheelchair assistance and a customer service representative escorted us to the boarding area. I was able to help him in and out of his seat on the plane.
Fortunately, at this early stage of ALS, there were not too many logistical issues to consider at the parks. I arranged to take an accessible Magic Express bus (Walt Disney World’s own transportation) from the airport to the hotel. He laughed on the bus lift and made it fun. As he struggled to move around the hotel room with the wheelchair, he realized that a scooter was in order and a switch was very easily arranged. There are local vendors that work well and often with the properties and easily manage delivery and pick-up. Rather than lament the need for the scooter, Ben completely embraced it and absolutely loved scooting around. I think he also enjoyed seeing me trying to catch up with him!
2010- First use of the scooter to go to Epcot.
This was also our first endeavor to relive great memories and create new ones. We splurged and stayed at the deluxe hotel we had always thought about, the Boardwalk Inn. Not only is it beautiful, but the Boardwalk itself is a nice surface for scooting and Ben loved to look out on the lagoon. It was also convenient to scoot to the back entrance of Epcot, by the World Showcase, Ben’s favorite place at Epcot, because there were not too many attractions to ride and he had the freedom to enjoy the surroundings. He also loved listening to the live bands, especially at the England pavilion, where they played a lot of Beatles music.
At the Magic Kingdom, the first ride that we had to give up was Peter Pan’s Flight because it does not stop for loading and Ben’s balance was shaky. He suggested that I ride it alone, but it would not have been the same without him. Ben loved Pirates of the Caribbean, and that ride requires a large step down and then a big step up. I was able to help him down into the boat with little problem, but getting him out of the boat required the assistance of a cast member and other very kind passengers. That was his last voyage. The good news was that his other favorite attraction, the Haunted Mansion, was able to stop to load the doombuggy. The cast members were incredibly gracious and accommodating throughout the parks.
We both shed tears at the beautiful parade on Main Street, with its happiness, hope and the magic that is Disney. It was overwhelming given our circumstances, but we were so grateful to be in our favorite place.
We loved to eat at the Crystal Palace and see Winnie the Pooh and his friends. It’s a buffet, and Ben was able to eat everything and enjoy the meal, with the only accommodation being that I had to carry Ben’s plate. And, Pooh and his friends sat with him when he had difficulty standing, even Tigger, who really does prefer to bounce! Ben was still able to hold the camera to take photos, which was also something that he loved to do.
2010- Standing to meet Tigger at the Crystal Palace!
I think the most emotional moments were with our Disney friends. First, when we met Mickey Mouse we completely broke down. Being at Walt Disney World is entering the fantasy. We needed a fantasy and being with Mickey Mouse is believing that he can sprinkle some of that Disney magic. One of the cast members was especially sensitive, and he pulled me aside and handed me a “ruby” that the dwarfs got in the mine, and he said he wished it would bring us good luck. I still have that ruby. I believe that the luck it brought was 4 of 6 years where Ben managed his ALS symptoms well.
I remember spotting Buzz Lightyear, Ben’s favorite Disney super hero. Ben did not want to meet him, saying Buzz was strong and he felt weak and embarrassed. I had not heard Ben speak like that and it broke my heart. You may not understand that and you might be saying that this is merely an actor in costume. But, to Ben, Buzz symbolized the strength and capability that he was losing.
With a scooter, rain is more of a consideration, so we panicked during the heavy but brief downpours. There was a learning curve of remembering to bring plastic covers with us, charging the scooter at night and bringing the charger with us in case we needed to recharge during the day. Ben was quite a trooper in his Mickey rain poncho!
2010- Adjusting to the rain and using the scooter was more fun with a Mickey Mouse rain poncho!
The monorail and boats are easily accessible, and the buses could also accommodate the scooter, so we were able to travel from hotel to park and from park to park without transportation issues. Bus passengers were not always patient, but drivers and cast members were amazing. Everything took a little bit longer, but we were able to enjoy our time with so much freedom. We really enjoyed being able to scoot or take a boat to Epcot and Hollywood Studios from the Boardwalk.
Ben loved riding the monorail!
I made a promise to Ben that for as long as he could, we would spend every Halloween at Walt Disney World, our favorite time to be there. Ben’s ALS had not progressed much over the summer, which was such a relief, and we decided to return to Walt Disney World in October 2010, just five months after our last visit. Looking back, a sadness and fear loomed over everything, as we wondered but did not discuss our worry that this might be the last opportunity to do everything that we loved. We continued to use a wheelchair in the airport, but I was still able to help Ben on and off the plane. At Walt Disney World, thankfully, there was not much of a difference in Ben’s abilities from spring to fall, except that his legs got tired more quickly. Ben still rode around the parks in the scooter, but was able to walk with a cane around the shops and restaurants.
2010- Ben was having trouble on Pirates of the Caribbean, but he still loved pirates!
Some of the attractions had a different line for people with disabilities, which helped with the waiting time, and Ben stayed in the scooter or transferred to a wheelchair until our turn. Disney has since changed its policies on special passes for people with disabilities, but Ben never wanted one, and it bothered us to know that people took advantage of this pass simply to beat the line. He was fine to wait his turn, he only wanted the ability to stay seated for as long as possible. I always got the pass because I thought it might help in the case of an emergency.
2010- Ben was so happy to be at the Boardwalk Inn and to look out on the lagoon.
This time, when we saw Buzz Lightyear, Ben was ready to meet him. Ben was dressed for the Halloween party in his Buzz Lightyear t-shirt and he used his cane to walk up to Buzz, who made a big fuss of how they were dressed alike. Ben had a wonderful time and it was great to watch him laughing.
Our favorite part of Walt Disney World was Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party. We were like two little kids trick-or-treating and comparing our candy. Being in the scooter earned Ben extra loot and he loved that! The decorations were fabulous, and the character dance parties were so spirited. The Halloween parade was Ben’s favorite event, and he often played the music at home. “Boo to you” was one of his most used expressions. I still say it and smile thinking of him.
It was very important- I guess symbolic- for Ben to stand in front of the Castle.
We made a point of visiting the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle during this visit. I have written before that with a diagnosis like ALS, you want to take any opportunity to wish or hope for a cure. Was it silly? Maybe. But it was hopeful. And we needed to be hopeful. Do I still wish for a cure? Every single day. Click here for my post on wishes.
An important visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle that became a ritual- wishing for a cure for ALS.
We returned to Walt Disney World three more times. We stayed at the Boardwalk Inn for each visit except for the fourth one, when we stayed at the Beach Club, which was across the lagoon from the Boardwalk and also quite nice. And, there we got to enjoy a character breakfast, which was a nice plus. The restaurants were great about letting Ben scoot up to our table so he could more easily transfer to a chair. The staff or I then parked the scooter.
Our third post-ALS visit was Halloween 2011. The airport was a little bit more difficult to manage because I had to carry the bags and wheel Ben around. He could no longer attempt to walk through the scanner by himself. I am always nervous when I fly, but security and the JetBlue staff were great and helpful. I called the airline a few times to confirm everything about our travel arrangements. It was much more difficult than I anticipated to help Ben to stand given the confines of the aircraft seating and the fact that I could not stand in front of him to lift him. The flight attendants were patient and helpful, and one man confided with tears in his eyes that his brother also had ALS but was in a more advanced stage than Ben. The accessible Magic Express bus from the airport to hotel was a necessity, but Ben always enjoyed that brief ride on the bus lift and treated it like a Walt Disney World attraction.
At the parks, Ben stayed in the scooter most of the time, except to transfer to a chair in a restaurant or to a wheelchair to get onto certain attractions. Fortunately, the parks are filled with accessible restrooms and I could help him when necessary. For me, a noticeable and sad change was that Ben did not always want to get out of the scooter for photographs with our Disney character friends. He did insist on standing and walking to Mickey and Minnie, which I found so sweet. I cried when Mickey walked to the scooter to escort Ben to the stage for the photo. Mickey and Minnie hold all of the magic and reason to believe. And we really wanted to believe that things would get better.
2011- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I held Ben on one arm and Minnie held him on the other!
2011- Slight change in photographs, with Ben opting to remain seated.
Ben was still able to enjoy Buzz Light Year Space Ranger Spin, but he could not use the lasers very well. We continued to go to the Haunted Mansion, and Ben was thrilled that they revised the loading path so we could enjoy the entire attraction. He joked that one day he would be a grim grinning ghost, and although it was morbid, I like to picture him there! He did give up going on Pirates of the Caribbean because it was very hard to help him onto the boat, not just because of his balance, but also because his feet had gotten quite swollen and it was hard to maneuver them into the small space on the boat. We felt that it was unfair, and potentially unsafe, to rely on cast members or guests to provide assistance with lifting him. I was so impressed that he never dwelled on disappointment in what he could not do. Instead, he enjoyed the things he could do with complete delight.
2011- It’s a Small World allows a wheelchair to board the boat, and since that was so easy (and, ok, there are not long lines) we road it frequently! YAY!
The perks of having a scooter are getting to be seated before the big crowds converge, and getting a good spot at the parades, and Ben loved his Halloween parade! And, of course, lots of treats during Mickey’s Halloween party!
2011- A visit to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle to wish for a cure for ALS.
It is hard to believe, but we saw “Fantasmic!” at Hollywood Studios for the first time during this visit. We loved the show, and accessible seating with early entry made it a breeze to attend.
2011- The first time we went to Fantasmic!
We went to our favorite Mexican restaurant in Epcot, La Hacienda de San Angel, and they kindly found a table where we had plenty of room and some privacy, which helped when Ben was self-conscious about his eating. At this point, he was primarily able to feed himself, but occasionally needed help cutting food. Anyone who saw me feeding him probably thought it was simply romantic! Overall, we put less emphasis on restaurant meals because eating was not fun for Ben anymore. We were at Epcot during the Food and Wine Festival, which was fun and practical, because we tried a wide variety of foods and he could see what worked for him and what did not. Also, because we were getting food at various kiosks and not seated in a restaurant, we could go to a bench where I could feed him in a discreet area, taking as long as we needed.
I will never forget being at the princess lunch at the Akershus restaurant in the Norway pavilion, after a trying morning where Ben was having a lot of trouble moving around and my back was aching. I spotted a little girl watching us as I struggled to help Ben into a chair and then to help him cut and eat his food. Most people did not notice us, but this one little girl did, and we didn’t want to her to be frightened, so we smiled at her and told her how cute she looked in her costume. This also happened to be my birthday, and the waiter brought a cupcake and sang to me. The little girl came over to me and gave me a big hug and wished me a happy birthday. My eyes welled up, and when I looked at her mom, I saw her tears. Words are not always necessary, but compassion is always a wonderful thing.
2011- This is one of my very favorite pictures of Ben because he was so full of happiness and laughter.
Halloween 2012 was a most magical trip to Walt Disney World, though things were becoming more challenging. We had stayed in an accessible room in 2011, but now we really needed it. We got much later starts to our days because washing and dressing took much more time. Ben’s feet were very swollen and just getting socks and sneakers on was a long process. Ben’s legs were much weaker during this visit, so lifting him to transfer was more difficult for me. It was humbling to have so many people come up to help me and to be so kind and good humored with Ben. I had to feed him most of his meals and he was afraid to eat some foods at this point because chewing and swallowing could be difficult.
2012- Main Street on Halloween was one of our favorite things to see.
It was during this visit that Ben proposed to me on Halloween, which he knew I would love. We had been together for twelve years but had not actually gotten legally married. It was emotional, but we proudly wore our “Happily Ever After” buttons, knowing that we might not have a very long “ever after.” Maybe that was why it was even more important to have that symbolic connection. The day we got engaged, we went to Hollywood Studios and Ben met, for the very first time, his other favorite friend, Sully. Another emotional meeting. I whispered to Sully that Ben loved him, and Sully came over to the scooter to try to help Ben up, which was heartbreaking and heartwarming. Sully escorted him to the stage for the photograph and it was truly touching. We made a holiday ornament from that photograph. Ben rarely got out of the scooter for photos, even with Mickey and Minnie.
2012- Sully escorted Ben for his photograph!
We gravitated to attractions like “It’s a Small World” and “Winnie the Pooh” because the wheelchair could go right onto the boat and honey pot. OK, that was a bit of a perk for me, since they are my favorite attractions! It is good news that the newer attractions are being built with that in mind.
For example, the new attraction for Journey of the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid has clamshells that seamlessly accommodate a wheelchair. “Finding Nemo” at Epcot also has accessible clamshells.
2012- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Ben took center stage in the scooter!
Since Ben was homebound, just having the freedom to scoot around the parks was exciting to him. Navigating with the scooter was becoming more difficult for him, so I sometimes had to help him steer into a spot on the bus. We did have one mishap in a shop, when Ben suddenly lost control of the wheel and he plunged into a rack of clothing, causing it to collapse. We both panicked and felt horrible, but the cast members never skipped a beat and were very reassuring as they reassembled everything in a couple of minutes. Ben was completely unharmed but took an emotional hit because it signaled the loss of his arms and, therefore, of his options for movement. Still, he was persistent and determined and that was admirable.
At the Crystal Palace buffet, Tigger hung out with Ben without bouncing.
Our last visit to Walt Disney World was in July 2014. My dad had passed away five months prior, and Ben was changing more rapidly, so I planned a visit for the summer. Walt Disney World in July was not ideal, but I had already missed many days of work caring for my dad and Ben. In June, Ben had finally agreed to hire a home health aide for a few hours a day during the week. Ben was homebound and could no longer walk. He could not use his arms much and his hands lacked much dexterity. The foods he ate were mostly pureed to a bisque-like consistency. There was more luggage, more expense, more caregiving responsibility and more to keep track of. We had to take an ambulette to and from the airport because the drivers could take Ben down the stairs of our building. This time, Ben did not have the dexterity or mobility to use a scooter, so he rented an electric wheelchair. We needed to bring assorted toiletries to the parks, as well as an insulated backpack with Ensure Plus in case we could not find enough food that Ben could eat. The ALS team suggested that I not travel alone with Ben, and I agreed, so I asked his home health aide to accompany us for the nine days in Orlando. I wrote about this most magical trip in a prior post and I invite you to Click here to read more about this visit. It may give you some ideas and will also give you some perspective. There were definitely more emotional moments during this trip. Ben required more assistance with all daily life activities, including getting into and out of bed and rolling over, showering, toileting, transferring, and eating/drinking. Having another caregiver with us did add a new dynamic. Ben’s biggest complaint was that it wasn’t romantic. There was truth to that, but for his safety and my own sanity, we needed to have another person to help out. And, in my mind, it allowed me to return to feeling like Ben’s wife instead of his caregiver, holding hands and enjoying our time without quite so much stress over caregiving responsibilities. Click here to continue reading about this visit.
Ben even had fun on the Magic Express wheelchair lift!
When people look at the pictures, they comment about how thin Ben got, and sometimes they see his very swollen feet. Living with him, I can’t say that I noticed those physical changes much on a daily basis at the time, though when I look at pictures now, I do see them. Mostly, I see Ben’s smile and his joy. After all of the ugliness of ALS, I think it is a gift to be able to say that.
The Dapper Dans were very cool! Ben always loved them.
These pictures do not reveal Ben’s last weeks in the hospital, when he got a feeding tube and a tracheostomy. They do not reveal our fear when he got an infection and pneumonia while in the hospital, shortly after these procedures. These issues were obviously more dramatic than those we encountered in Walt Disney World, and they are the issues that are generally discussed in relation to the progression of ALS. But, this glimpse into our visits to Walt Disney World offers a look at the subtle or small shifts in our daily lives that made significant impacts on Ben’s life with ALS. Maybe it seems trivial to write about Ben not eating the same foods or opting not to walk up to his favorite Disney friends for photographs. However, these details symbolized sad milestones in the shrinking of Ben’s world and what mattered within it. The changes in our routines and diversions at Walt Disney World were the markers of how he was slowly succumbing to ALS.
When Ben ultimately ended up in the hospice/palliative care unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC, he was surrounded with favorite Disney toys, photographs and Halloween decorations from our hotel room back in July 2014. He loved those memories and I’m glad he could be comforted and delighted by them until his last moments on this earth. He could not change the fate of an ALS diagnosis, but he did a great job of controlling his attitude, and he treasured the happy times and bravely navigated the journey on his terms.
I will continue to wish for a cure for ALS and I will continue to take any opportunity to raise awareness of the disease, even if it is in my Disney way.
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
Today would be the 18th anniversary of my first date with Ben. I think I’ll always mark these events in my heart. And, I think that’s ok. In fact, I think it’s good. I remember when we wore our “Happily Ever After” buttons at Walt Disney World, even after his ALS diagnosis. It isn’t always easy to remember pre-ALS days, but days like today bring me back to who we really were and the Disney-like romantic times that we were so fortunate to share. I like to believe that he is now watching over me now as I make new milestones, knowing that I always keep him close.
When Ben proposed to me, he asked me to be his Minnie. So, Happy Anniversary, My Mickey. I miss and love you.
Ben and I with Peter Pan and Wendy Walt Disney World 2006 Pre-ALS days
Peter Pan was originally released on February 5, 1953. Ben and I loved the film. What adult has not chuckled at how they spent their childhoods waiting to grow up just to wish that they had stayed children? I am a firm believer in embracing my inner child. Ben also loved to tap his inner child. Walt Disney World is a place where it is a requirement! Maybe that’s why Ben and I loved it so much!
The phrase “think happy thoughts” took on a whole new meaning when Ben was struggling with ALS and I was struggling with caregiving. ALS is known to be a very isolating disease. I’m sure that even when he was not literally alone, Ben felt isolated. I felt so helpless when Ben hurt because sometimes, it was so hard to speak to explain himself and be understood, that he just shook his head and stopped trying. Also, with every day came the dread of what ability he would lose. Sometimes he simply had a bad day and other times there was an obvious change in his health. There were days when I was able to care for him without any problems, but then there were the days when it was exhausting and overwhelming, and if I was having back issues, it was physically painful. We cannot walk in the shoes of our loved ones, we can only love them. Love is a lot. Thinking happy thoughts is a lot, too, because, along with love, it lets us remember who we were and what was important before illness changed things.
For us, happy thoughts almost always included memories of our visits to Walt Disney World. Ben spent so much time every day looking at the videos and photos from our visits to Walt Disney World. We loved to listen to the music from the parks, too. He went on their vacation planning web site to plan fantasy trips. I liked to see him planning because I felt it kept his head in living and focusing on what he could do. I truly believe that helped him manage the disease pretty well for about four years.
On those very difficult days when eating was a challenge, or there was a fall, or some other accident, or even just a lack of energy to transfer or be transferred, we had to remember, “All you need is faith, trust and a little pixie dust!” So much happens with illnesses and caregiving that is unpredictable and beyond our control. For me to maintain a certain state of calm that allowed me to be a problem solver, I needed to have faith and trust that things would ultimately be okay. The pixie dust was the whimsy that always let my inner child thrive in the midst of very grown-up, complex circumstances. Sometimes it was just a loving moment between Ben and me that would make us laugh. Sometimes it came from friends, sometimes it came from caring strangers, and sometimes it came from both of us taking a moment to remember the good and loving times. And, with faith, trust and pixie dust, we even made it back to Walt Disney World four times during his illness.
I named my blog Pixie Dust For Caregivers because quotes like this, as well as many Disney characters, films, lyrics and attractions from the Parks were the pixie dust that gave me perspective, inspiration, and comfort during the caregiving years and now, as I work through grief. They helped Ben, too. At times, they simply gave us much needed entertainment.
We did love the Peter Pan attraction at Walt Disney World. We loved to soar over Neverland on the pirate ship. Unfortunately, it is not accessible and has to be boarded while it is in motion. Ben had trouble with balance and walking early on, so it was the first ride we had to give up. Still, we never lost our love for Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
After a respiratory crisis, Ben landed in the hospital, and life with a tracheostomy and feeding tube was not going well, including infections and pneumonia. After six weeks, Ben chose to go to the hospital’s palliative care unit.
It was painful beyond words to know that Ben was miserable. Tragically, ALS was not going away. He was not going to get better. But, to know that he had only days left in this world was devastating. At the same time, there was a certain relief that he would be free from the physical and emotional pain and constraints of the disease that rendered him unable to breathe on his own, speak, eat, walk, use the computer or play his instruments- things he loved. A line in the song “You Can Fly,” is, “Think of all the joy you’ll find when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye.” I wanted Ben to have peace and to feel comfort he had not felt in the nearly six years he bravely battled ALS.
Peter Pan said, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” I don’t know that I would call ALS an adventure, but it was a journey. A very difficult journey that Ben navigated with much bravery. Now, I put faith, trust and pixie dust in the belief that Ben has “bid his cares goodbye” and he is in a peaceful place where he can walk and run and eat and talk and sing and use his hands to use the computer and play his instruments. That gives me peace.
Our Disney friends do a lot of wishing and dreaming.
Cinderella told us, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”
Jiminy Cricket advises us that, “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Any dream your heart desires will come to you.” He also said, The most fantastic, magical things can happen, and it all starts with a wish.” Jiminy Cricket
Longing to be human, Ariel sings her little heart out, “Wish I could be part of that world.”
According to Snow White, “Make a wish into the well That’s all you have to do And if you hear it echoing Your wish will soon come true”
Peter Pan wished he never had to grow up.
Aladdin’s was trying to decide which three wishes Genie should grant.
And the list goes on…
Wishes are funny things. We wish on stars, on ladybugs, on birthday candles, on shooting stars. As we grow up, some of us start to believe less, or not at all, in wishes. Personally, I think some people just won’t admit that they still make wishes! Think about how many times you hear someone begin a sentence with “I wish…” Maybe they aren’t being literal, but I think there is still that little part of all of us that wants to believe. For me, wishing is hopeful. You can call it childish naivete, but I’m fine with that. Wishes carry the faith that things will be okay. There have been times- especially when I was watching Ben and my dad struggle with their illnesses and I was also struggling as a caregiver- when I just needed to believe that my wishes and dreams could come true, despite what logic might have told me.
Walt Disney World Halloween 2011
Ben and I never made a point of going to the Wishing Well at Cinderella’s Castle during our many visits to Walt Disney World. And then he was diagnosed with ALS. With a diagnosis like that, you’ll find yourself believing in a lot of things! Ben was diagnosed in April 2010 and in May we headed to Walt Disney World, not knowing how the disease would progress. We headed right to that Wishing Well, and we returned each time we went there after his diagnosis. I emptied a purse of coins into that Well each time, wishing that his ALS would go away, that we could turn back time, that there would be a cure. Did it change anything? Did his ALS go away? No. The disease took away his abilities one by one- physical devastation for him and an emotional toll on both of us. And, our happily ever after was cut very short.
So, how I can say that I still believe in wishes? Because my heart needs to.
Halloween 2010 Walt Disney World
When we went to Walt Disney World for the last time, in July, 2014, we went on the Pirates and Pals Fireworks cruise, where we met Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and then took a boat ride with a very funny pirate to watch the “Wishes” fireworks show from the water. Ben loved watching the fireworks at Walt Disney World, and the display really was pretty spectacular from the lagoon. When the “Wishes” song played, as we listened to the words, we both cried. For a lot of reasons.
In our hearts, we both knew it would likely be our last trip to Walt Disney World. The progression of ALS varies from patient to patient, so although we knew the eventual outcome, we did not know where the journey would lead from day to day. We just wanted to be able to wish on those stars and have our dreams come true. It’s that conflict between being realistic and being hopeful.
Excerpts from the “Wishes” Fireworks Show
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish, I wish tonight.
Oh, a world of wishes,
A world where dreams come true.
So make a wish, see it through.
Dare to do what dreamers do.
Dream a dream.
Set it free.
Trust your heart.
We’re all just children,
Reaching for our dreams.
They’re shining high above us,
And even though it seems so far (so far)
We put our faith and hope on a shooting star.
You know, any wish is possible. All it takes is a little courage to set it free! A wish is a powerful thing—especially when it comes from the heart.
Remember, we must always believe in our wishes, for they are the magic in the world. Now, let’s all put our hearts together and make a wish come true.
Pirates and Pals Fireworks Cruise Party Walt Disney World July 2014
Ben loving the Pirates & Pals Fireworks Cruise.
I think one of the hardest things in life is feeling that there is no point in having faith in wishes and dreams. As Mrs. Potts told Chip in Beauty and the Beast, “You don’t lose hope, love. If you lose hope, you lose everything.” So, I keep wishing and believing that my dreams can come true. Without that mindset, I don’t think I could have gotten through caregiving and watching Ben and my dad struggle. I don’t think I’d be able to envision working through grief. We wished for a cure for ALS as we tossed our coins into the Wishing Well, but that wish did not come true, at least not in time to help Ben. Of course, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother said, “Even miracles take a little time.” I will wish for that cure until it happens.
For me, as I’ve written before, the pixie dust may be in the perspective. Ben and I did have some wishes come true. For four years, Ben managed pretty well with the disease. He did not want to lose his ability to walk, but he made using the scooter and then the electric wheelchair so much fun. With Ben zipping around, we laughed our way through the Disney Parks. Although traveling to Walt Disney World became more and more complicated, he handled it with a great attitude and with determination to have a wonderful time, and he did. We always said we wished we could go there more often, and after Ben’s diagnosis, we were able to go there four more times, which was quite a treat and a splurge for us. We relived beautiful memories, created new ones and had a lot of laughs, along with some tears. And, we had a lot of love that got us through very difficult times. So, maybe there was some magic in that Wishing Well. And maybe the true magic was the gift of seeing love, laughter and light in a very dark situation.
Princess Aurora says, “If you dream a thing more than once, it’s sure to come true.” So, I will keep wishing and dreaming and feeling the pixie dust. I hope you do, too, and I hope your wishes and dreams come true.