A New School Year Requires My Disney-est Thoughts About Memories of Caregiving and Grief

It is time once again to brace for another school year. Summer is a time filled with so many difficult memories, particularly Ben’s last summer spent in the hospital. As excited as I am to end each school year, there has always been a bit of dread because I know that I will be haunted by those memories. Each new school year has conjured memories of my often unsuccessful attempts to balance full-time caregiving with full-time work. The quote that always gives me pause was said by Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in the 2015 Live Action version of the film: “Time passed, and pain turned to memory.” Seven years later, I can say that the pain is still felt. It is felt differently, and is not as debilitating, but particularly on milestone dates, and at times like summer and the beginning of a new school year, the memories are still gutting. However, for the first summer in seven years, I felt like a whole person, and I gave myself permission to feel alive. As much as I lament crossing the threshold to another school year, I hope that I do not allow school to defeat my spirit!

Maybe because I underwent my own medical issues with cancer treatment over the past year, I was intent on following doctors’ orders to relax and enjoy my summer. I made plans that excited me, traveled for the first time since the pandemic and visited some of my very favorite people. I felt like I had come into my own, doing things that I love, happy when they honored Ben and our relationship, and feeling comfort at looking at things through his eyes, but not doing anything solely for that purpose. For the first time, I realized that although I will always feel heartbreak that Ben was cheated of so much time, and that we were cheated of our time together, I did not feel guilty about living and finding joy in the fun I planned.

A few years ago, one of the first things I did on my own was fly to the Georgia Aquarium to do animal encounters. It touches my heart very deeply to interact with animals. It was an indescribably moving experience to feed Mara and Gibson, the two baby sea otters I had followed on social media since their rescue; to dance with a sea lion; be kissed by a beluga whale (and even get into the water for it!); and to actually touch a penguin! When I took that trip, there was guilt for enjoying an aquarium without Ben (click for that blog post). There were many tears and there was loneliness, but I took pictures I knew he would have taken, and I mentioned him in every social media post. The only way that I could justify the trip was to make him a part of it. Still, it was a big step to plan and take the trip the Georgia. Of course, it was motivated by my love of animals and fascination with the aquarium I had read about for years. But, it opened my eyes to how much it means to me to be around animals.

A most unforgettable experience at the Georgia Aquarium. August 2019

The pandemic made most animal encounters impossible and, at least for me, travel was out of the question. While I was undergoing cancer treatment, I made a decision that this was going to be a summer that brought me back to the people I missed and that nurtured my profound love of and connection to animals. Turtles and penguins were precious to Ben and me, but my deep passion for animals goes back to my childhood and was instilled in me by my parents. Central Park is a place that I love because it is so beautiful and peaceful, and it was indeed healing during daily visits after radiation, but I am most delighted that I have developed relationships with the squirrels that I feed. I feel protected by the cardinals and am very proud that I even developed a relationship with some blue jays, who have learned that if they do not steal the food from the squirrels, I will give them their own peanuts.

One of my little buddies hanging out on the bench with me.
One of the cardinals that has visited with me.

For years, I had read about an animal sanctuary called Nurtured by Nature, where you can swim with river otters. Otters are my favorite animals- sea or river otters. Swimming with them was my dream, and it was also a place that was always booked. I finally saw some available slots and Ruth, my very best and oldest friend, humored my desire and drove us to this secluded but almost enchanting location. While Ruth definitely would not like Fairy Godmother or any other Disney-ish status, she made my dream come true. The otters were so playful, curious and as cute, and being face to face with them was more delightful than I even imagined. We also got to meet and feed a capybara, armadillos, kangaroos and a ruffed lemur. The experience of being with the animals is so emotional it brings me to tears. Ruth has been there for me in the many good and bad times, and she was the person I trusted with my medical information and to talk to my doctors, so it was a particular delight to share this positive and whimsical experience with her.

To learn more about Nurtured by Nature, click here. It is a wonderful not-for-profit organization that provides unique experiences to children in need and their families, often partnering with Make-A-Wish.

Ruth surprised me with more unforgettable animal encounters at another amazing sanctuary called Wildlife Learning Center. We met and fed a bunch of darling animals including sloths, porcupines and tortoises. I was happy to learn that the Pixar folks used the resident sloth, Sid, as the model for Flash in Zootopia. They also used the Fennec fox as a model for the film, but he was hiding during our visit, which was a shame because fennec foxes are quite cute and I always appreciate a good Disney reference. I even got to hold a hedgehog, something I have been wanting to do! Scrabble was much more prickly than I expected but such a tiny, sweet hedgehog!

I have read for years about the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, and they were magnificent. I saw my first live koalas, which was a tremendous thrill. Koalas have been favorite animals of mine since childhood, and they are probably the main reason that I want to visit Australia. I want to hug them! We saw so many stunning animals and I fed some giraffes, which was great fun, because they are such gorgeous and elegant animals, and their very long black tongues are funny and oh so strong! I cannot pass up any opportunity to get up close and personal with an animal. Well, not birds. Definitely not birds.

Our animal adventures continued at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was beautiful but a bit disappointing in that there were not many animals out in the Bay. I expected to see a lot of sea otters, in particular, and I think I might have seen one. I was told that kayakers do not follow rules, go into the kelp beds, and scare away the otters. How sad! The resident otters were great fun to watch in their habitat and I was able to capture their antics on film.

A very cute resident sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Ruth also surprised me with a visit to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. What an extraordinary sight to see so many massive adult male elephant seals and young seals- lounging on the beach or bullying each other! The females had already headed back to Alaska and soon these fellows and their kids would follow them.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

I must add that although animals were the running theme of our holiday, the other highlights included the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum (I saw one of Cher’s outfits there!), the La Brea Tar Pits and Solvang, the Danish capital of America. Throughout my visit I thought of Ben and how he would have enjoyed these experiences, and how much fun we would have had. Actually, my dad really would have loved to be there, because it was like living the National Geographic articles we shared. At the same time, and for the first time in seven years, I seemed to be fully myself, immersed in animal adventures that I discovered truly fueled me and were not about Ben or us. It was enough of an unusual sensation that it did register with me, but it did not make me sad or guilty, which was also a first. I chalk it up to yet another phase of grief to accept that Ben is always in my heart, but I can and will evolve and redefine myself, wholeheartedly delving into my life and maybe even discovering new joys. Little things can have big significance, and I am proud that I was emotionally ready to add to Ben’s and my Disney collection of mugs a new and fabulous sea otter mug from the Aquarium. I have used it every morning since I returned, and it shows me that, like the rest of my life, my Ben memories will intertwine with my new memories.

More than a mug, this is a symbol of a new memory meshing with my older memories.

I am grateful that I returned from California feeling invigorated and inspired. I have been working on a few picture book ideas, and I completed the third draft of my caregiving memoir/workbook. I earned my certification as a grief support facilitator and look forward to supporting caregivers and those in various stages of grief. I do allow the undertow of grief to immerse me in the sadness and aloneness that I feel at times. Still, it feels good to know that I have grown to be more productive and that I feel more of a sense of direction, albeit with a lot of anxiety that I am trying to manage. Of course, as I reach to follow these new dreams, it is even more difficult to return to school. Although it is not where I want to be, I remind myself of my club, and it is my hope that I will continue to reach caregiving kids. This is where I will find the fulfillment that I need and that, frankly, can feed my desire for growth in a way that teaching, or the school system, more to the point, does not.

It stands to reason that after my animal adventures, I felt compelled to watch Zootopia. I was struck by the quote byChief Bogo: Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true.  Chief Bogo was right. It reminds me of a quote by Walt Disney, who said, Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.” While some might say it is childish and naïve, ALS, cancer, caregiving, and loss made me very well aware of life’s grim realities. A wave of the wand would not make my troubles disappear. However, Disney has helped me through some very dark times. It inspired and comforted me during caregiving and throughout grief. Disney helped me escape and to make sense of things that were happening. Disney helps me to understand my grief and has inspired me to look inside myself and push towards pursuing dreams like animal encounters and writing, which give me a sense of fulfillment. It does take time and effort to balance the light and shadows and to temper the struggles with growth and positivity.

As the beginning of the school year looms, I remember how I was known by my former school staff as Abby who ran in circles trying to take care of her dad and her husband and then who lost both of them. I remember that despite being relieved (for several reasons) that with my position in a new school I was able to shed that persona, I struggled that new people really did not know who I was, because those years, although the most challenging and heartbreaking, really represented the most important and meaningful time in my life. Now, some teachers know my story and others do not, and all of that is okay. I feel like I am again getting to know myself better and writing new chapters. I hope that reflections will always result in my being a new and improved version of myself and that, even if it takes time and there are shadows, that I can and will work to make my dreams come true. I take comfort in knowing that my dad and Ben, along with all my other loved ones, are watching and supporting me along the way. That said, an insipid song sung by a Fairy Godmother would be a good idea right about now!