Age is just a number, especially thanks to you, because you bring out the inner child in all of us.
I always miss my mom and Ben on this day. They surely would have celebrated the magic. I must admit that I feel pretty lonely at times like these. But, I’m celebrating the long history that we have and remembering wonderful, whimsical times with and about you.
Though you’re a few years older than my mom would have been, she loved you from the time she was a child and she passed that love on to me. She was in her 50s when she and my dad went to Walt Disney World for the first and only time, and without me! I will never forget her phone call, giggling as she exclaimed, “Abby, I met Mickey!” This picture was taken on that day, and it is my favorite picture of my parents because, for me, it captures my mom at such a happy moment with her inner child aglow, and my dad was so amused. When I picked them up at the airport, my mom deplaned like the other children, unabashedly carrying a big Mickey Mouse and Epcot Figment in her arms. My mom was the consummate child at heart, and I get that from her!
When Ben and I began our relationship, our first dates often began with a stroll through the Disney Store that was near the office where we worked and met. We went to every new Disney film on opening day and we practically studied the Disney Catalogs, which, sadly, are no longer published. I found several copies that he kept because he loved the covers and I have kept those.
We always treasured our visits to Walt Disney World, so after Ben’s ALS diagnosis, the first thing we did was book a trip to Walt Disney World, and we were so fortunate to be able to go four more times. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, or how much time we had, and we wanted to go to the place that made all our worries disappear, at least temporarily.
I admit that I was the one who had to greet all of my Disney friends. But, with you it was different. Ben always wanted to see you. And, after his ALS diagnosis, it was emotional and tear-filled. With an ALS diagnosis, we wanted and needed to feel the pixie dust, and more than once I asked you for some magic. You both made a fuss over him and gave me the hugs of support that you just knew that I needed. I will never forget that.
For as long as he could, Ben would insist on getting out of the scooter and walking to stand in his pictures with you. It was when he chose to ride his scooter and then electric wheelchair up to you that I was hit with the reality of his situation. It might seem strange that this moment was a revelation, when I was living with his ALS. But, living with something didn’t mean I really reflected on the entire situation. We adapted to the issues as they arose without really looking at them as milestones in the progression of the disease. Deciding that he could no longer walk up to you was a sign that ALS was winning the battle. But, Ben also had an incredible attitude, never lost his smile and laughter, and he remained determined to engage in life, especially with you at Walt Disney World.
You and your friends brought us a lot of joy at very trying times. You welcomed us into your kingdom and gave us fantastic memories. Since he has been gone, you have continued to entertain, console and inspire me. I was so happy to see you both when I returned to Walt Disney World back in October of 2019. I was grateful to have an opportunity to thank you for all that you did to raise our spirits and levels of hope. Although sadness loomed due to Ben’s absence, hugs from you let me connect with the past, feel secure in the present and know that I can count on you when I hit bumps in the road in the future. That is quite a gift!
I continue to find comfort and optimism from you. I look forward to returning to Walt Disney World and seeing you in person to get some pixie dust and Disney magic.
On your birthday, I shower you with tremendous gratitude, loyalty and love.
Happy Birthday, Mickey and Minnie. May you always continue to be the spark of hope, inspiration and happiness for children of all ages.
Today is Veteran’s Day, and yesterday was the 247th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. I’ve written about how the USMC was so important to my dad (click here for more). He was a patriot through and through. My dad was not a huge Disney fan, though he had a healthy respect for Mickey Mouse (he really had no choice in our house!) Truth be told, he and Walt Disney had something important in common: patriotism.
My dad was in the USMC during the Korean War but he had a tremendous fascination with World War II, during which he was a child. He and I were so close and spent a lot of time together, but when he was ill, I cooked and ran errands for him every weekend, and Ben and I found lots of documentaries about WWII for him to watch that Daddy liked to watch with me. I still miss the days of going to bookstores and finding the new World War II titles, calling him and reading the jacket descriptions to see if they piqued his interest and buying the ones that intrigued him, despite his protests of his (not really) impending death and that he “won’t need them where I’m going.” Daddy and Ben actually enjoyed discussing the war when Ben was well and we visited him together. Sometimes, Ben would ask me a history question and we would call Daddy and get a very detailed history lesson by phone. My dad loved Ben knew all the important USMC and war event anniversary dates. Ben and Daddy bonded over their shared love of history, but they felt particularly close when they were both ill with terminal illnesses. The other thing they had in common was needing me as their caregiver.
In his last years, my dad was concerned about the young men serving in the military. He took such interest in the guys in our neighborhood who were returning after various deployments and were struggling to adjust to civilian life. I met some of these young men when I visited my dad and was amazed at how well my dad knew their stories. He genuinely cared about these “kids,” as he called them. He felt they were the disenfranchised, abandoned by the government and that the general public did not relate to them. Daddy found reasons to tip the kids, give them things he knew they needed, and probably most importantly, listen to them.
Ultimately, Daddy ended up at the VA hospital out in Northport, Long Island, in the palliative care/hospice unit. We were both grateful for the amazing care he received. It certainly is not the case at all VA Hospitals around the country. I was grateful to have had the experience of meeting many veterans in that palliative care unit, hearing their stories and feeling their dedication to this country. It fueled my own pride in this country and my devotion to the men and women who have fought and continue to fight to keep us safe. I proudly display his beloved model F7- the plane he flew and one of his USMC caps, and I keep his dress blues jacket safe and sound in my closet.
It pains me to think of how distraught my dad would be over what’s happening in the country now. Growing up, I dismissed his warnings that history was important because history repeats itself. I think about that so often now as I read the news. I think about what Archimedes said in The Sword and the Stone- “Man has always learned from the past. You can’t learn history in reverse.” I don’t think that we are learning from the past. In fact, it seems that some leaders want to repeat some of the devastation of the past. In many ways, our civil rights movement has gone nowhere and this country is falling back instead of stepping forward. It scares me, and I fluctuate between wishing so much that I could talk to Daddy about it and being relieved that he is not eating his heart out.
Regardless of my disappointment in what I am seeing in America, today is a day to honor the veterans who have served this country. Their patriotism runs deep beyond politics that often puts their lives on the line. Daddy always wore a USMC cap and he loved when people thanked him for his service. When he saw other veterans with caps, he thanked them for their service. They would sometimes chat and reminisce. I think they liked to revisit the times when they felt strong and active.
I once gave my dad a 2-disc DVD set called Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, which highlights Disney’s contribution to American military participation in World War II. My dad was amused by my ability to find this connection between my love for Disney and his love for WW2! In 2014, shortly after my dad passed away, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War, a fascinating coffee table book, was published. I bought the book because it reminded me of my dad and how much we embraced each other’s lives. John Baxter, the author, pointed out that during the war, Walt Disney’s studio primarily did military contract work- morale-boosting war dramas, troop entertainment and training films for the military and, unlike big companies like US Steel and the Ford Motor Company, Walt Disney insisted that the studio did not profit from this work. Walt Disney said, “Actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe.”I think my dad could relate to that comment.
Today, and always, I honor my dad and all veterans on this day, with an extra special shout out to the USMC! Semper Fi! Thank you for your service! And, because he found his way to use his unique and brilliant talents to show his patriotism, thank you, Walt Disney!
As Rapunzel wisely stated in Tangled, “That’s the funny thing about birthdays, they’re kind of an annual thing.” Maybe it is for this reason that I could not determine what I wanted to say in this post. Birthdays happen. So do holidays. October is my birthday month and it is Halloween. Grief makes holidays difficult, though I have learned to accept the setback and tears and to embrace the good moments. Ben and I loved to go to Walt Disney World to celebrate at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. He even proposed to me at Walt Disney World on Halloween, asking me to be his Minnie. Now, Halloween and my birthday serve as an annual occasion to think about those memories. The thing is, it has also become a time to reflect on how I have adjusted and shaped my life. Maybe it is a bit scary to feel that I have not come as far as I would like.
Last year was a milestone birthday, but it arrived with a breast cancer diagnosis. It is difficult not to think about that. Gratefully, I am still here. And, I am so fortunate to be fine. Still, I do not really like to celebrate myself. It was fun and romantic when Ben planned birthday activities. I enjoyed planning them for him, too, and I enjoy participating in plans for others. Not for myself. I am already keenly aware that I have been gifted more years on this earth than my mom and Ben. That is a lot. I appreciate kind wishes from friends, colleagues, and family. Each year, as my birthday arrives, I want to be able to say that I accomplished something, contributed to the lives of people and animals in some small way. I want to feel that I have grown.
It may seem strange, but this year I realized that I measure a great deal of my personal growth and how far I have come in my co-existence with grief by how I honor Halloween. Although most of my childhood birthdays were Halloween-themed, I attach much of Halloween, and my strongest Halloween memories, to Ben. We loved the fall weather and walking around, spotting fun Halloween decorations. We listened to Disney Halloween music. When Ben was homebound, I decorated the apartment for Halloween, usually after I put Ben to bed, so he had a fun surprise in the morning. He could often be found watching our videos of the Walt Disney World “Boo To You” parade. I have the soundtrack with that music, and I still listen to it almost every day of October, picturing Ben’s face and delight. When I took Ben to Walt Disney World for the last time in July 2014, I had our hotel room decorated for Halloween. All of those decorations came home with us. Several of those decorations were brought to Ben’s room in the hospice unit of the hospital. He loved being surrounded by those memories. After Ben left this earth, I had a hard time with those decorations. I put them in storage, and for a couple of years, I did not really decorate. I immersed myself in our memories.
After a few years, I went to storage and looked through our Halloween collection. I brought back to the apartment a few things that did not immediately make me sad. I decided that if I felt uncomfortable, I would just take them down. Annual traditions, annual tests. The Halloween banner that was placed outside our hotel room unnerved me, so it went back to storage. I did not bother to bring back many other items from our 2014 holiday because looking at them in the box at storage just made me miss Ben all the more. I felt that I was not entitled to enjoy them without him. Oddly, the Halloween countdown figurine that Ben adored proved to be a huge comfort. I still chuckle when I think about how he texted to tease me if I forgot to change it before I left for school in the morning.
Eventually, I purchased some new Halloween items, some Disney and others from another favorite store, the Vermont Country Store. It was a way that I held onto our memories but began to incorporate some new ones. Still, everything I chose was in some way connected to Ben. Each year, I tried to place the banner in the apartment, and each year, it never remained on display.
In 2019, I returned to Walt Disney World for the first time without Ben, but with my dear friend Monica and her two amazing kids. It was a tribute trip- to Ben and to my cat Disney, whom I had also lost and who was my last direct connection to Ben. It was challenging to face the memories but energizing and comforting to know that I could create new memories but have Ben with me in my heart. I brought souvenirs home that have also become a welcome part of my Halloween and Christmas decorations.
This year, once again, I pushed myself to rummage through the boxes in storage. For the first time, I felt prepared to bring almost all our Halloween decorations from storage to the apartment. Again, I told myself that nothing had to remain displayed if it brought sadness. I set out the big black candelabra and even ordered replacement LED candles for it. I placed the Halloween garland that I used in the apartment when Ben was homebound. I set out the banner, and, although for some reason I still feel somewhat bothered by its presence, I have kept it up. I ordered some new Halloween toys for Tinker Bell. I purchased some cute new Halloween toys- little Toy Story aliens dressed as other Disney characters, including Ben’s favorites: Buzz, Mr. Incredible, and Sully. The apartment has a Halloween spirit that Ben would love and that feels good. Actually, I talk to him about it. That, too, feels right.
About a week ago, I exited Central Park by our favorite block and decided to take a look at the brownstones, since they are always decorated so beautifully for the fun Halloween party that Ben and I almost always attended. The tears fell as I was enveloped by feelings of aloneness and missing the things we loved to do. Still, I was proud of myself for pushing my limits and embracing the memories as well as the tears.
I think a lot about a quote by Mrs. Frankenstein, from Frankenweenie. When you lose someone you love, they never really leave you. They move into a special place in your heart. Ben remains a part of my birthday and Halloween, even as I create new memories and traditions. He remains a big part of my annual Halloween cookie baking. This year, I made a cookie that featured the scene when Charlie Brown says, “I got a rock.” It was one of Ben’s favorite quotes. I know that he would have loved that cookie and it absolutely delights me that my friends responded so well to the image. I always feel like Ben and my grandma are with me when I bake.
I continue to cherish my walks through Central Park. During a recent jaunt, I was joined by a new little bird. It was intent on staying with me and as afraid of birds as I am, it did not fly or show a wingspan, and I have come to firmly believe that there is a reason for these visits. I took its picture and googled the bird and found that it was a tufted titmouse. I read that if seen in a dream, this bird signifies a breakthrough, good luck and a change in life. I like to think that he meant that for me.
Despite not going out of my way to acknowledge my birthday, Rapunzel is right that birthdays are an annual occurrence. This year, my annual Halloween preparations showed me that I am continuing to adjust and shape my life in positive ways. I hope that I can always say that upon reflection, my year was meaningful and productive.