Veteran’s Day, My Dad and History Through a Disney Lens

Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, and yesterday was the 248th 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 that 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. 

Daddy loved to visit the Cradle of Aviation museum and relive his USMC days.

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 not understood or embraced by the general public. Daddy found reasons to tip these 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.

My dad’s dress blues jacket. I loved to try it on when I was young. He didn’t keep his cap, but this was dear to him and it carries loving memories for me.

It pains me to think of how distraught my dad would be over what’s happening now in the country and in the world. 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. Others want to rewrite history. 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.

Not many F7 planes were made during the Korean War- he studied aviation and this was the plane he trained on- so it was hard for my dad to find a model of it and this was treasured.

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. For this reason, I was so disturbed and hurt that New York City public schools were open today, when calendars note that today is the day the holiday is to be observed. Our veterans deserve better. Those who love them deserve better.

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.

Ben and I found this book at a used/rare bookstore in Nyack, NY. Without even knowing that, the rabbi at the VA hospice told me that my dad treasured and was so proud of it, which touched my heart.

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!

I had to have Stitch as a Marine! The USMC would never be the same!
Memorial Day, Mitchel Airfield
Daddy at Mitchel Air Field on Long Island. He took me there a few times. I can’t say I shared his enthusiasm, but I loved to see how happy it made him to bring me there.

#VeteransDay #Grief

Carl’s First Date- Adventures in Life Amidst Grief

This ornament has such meaning for me. It holds all the dreams we had for the future, that I now encapsulate in my heart

Fall was our favorite season. Not only did Ben and I love the colorful foliage, but we loved to go to Walt Disney World for Halloween, which was also around my birthday. This season remains my favorite- sweater weather, pumpkins, and beautiful colors- yet it is also bittersweet, and sometimes even melancholy. Eight years after losing Ben, I acknowledge the darkness, but I firmly put one foot in front of the other to live in the present, while carrying in my heart the love and memories of the past and envisioning and shaping my future.

It stands to reason that I was very moved by the recent Pixar episode of Dug’s Days, called Carl’s Date. Dug’s Days is a series (on Disney+) that follows the lovable dog from UP and his human, Carl, the widower who grieves his wife, Ellie. In this episode, a woman calls Carl and asks him out on a date. Carl accepts the invitation, but after he hangs up the phone, he is hit with the revelation that this is going to be a date. His reaction is, “This is very, very bad.”  He goes to Ellie’s photo and apologizes. I totally get that. I freely admit that I talk to Ben all the time. His photo is my laptop wallpaper, and I often speak to him there, and say goodnight each night.

Two years after Ben passed away, I tried my hand at online dating and had that same feeling that this was very bad. The first date I went on felt completely wrong. Truth be told, I never enjoyed or was  especially good at dating. Ben often teased me that I did not know how to flirt and did not seem to recognize when someone was flirting with me. I left online dating and have not pursued meeting anyone, despite saying that I would like to. So, here I am.

I am pleased with the interesting, loving, and exciting things I have done as I have reshaped my life. I have created many new memories. I have found a stronger voice, for myself and as an advocate for caregivers, even on behalf of my students. Lately, I am also giving a lot of thought about how and where to spend my life in retirement. I have been actively writing and studying writing, with manuscripts of a caregiving memoir and picture books that I plan to have published. I also like to envision my future being spent with someone special. However, I am reluctant to delve into that territory. I completely relate to Carl’s lack of comfort and feeling like I would have to apologize to, or reason it through, with Ben.

As Carl says, “I don’t know how to date. What do I do?” Dug, in his adorable and compassionate way, suggests things like, “Bring her a toy.” I had to laugh, because for me, this is perfect advice! To survey my home is to see a record of Ben’s and my relationship, which was punctuated with oh so many plush and other Disney toys. Bringing me a toy went very far for Ben in our courtship, as our first dates always included a visit to a Disney Store.

Along those lines, Carl tries to look younger, even dying his hair, and Dug does not recognize him. Dug asks, “Why are you not you?” It is daunting to put myself out there again, and to be judged for my age, my looks, my experiences. I suppose I must keep reminding myself that everyone has their assets, liabilities, and baggage.

When I think about bringing new romantic love into my life, I sometimes get caught up in the grief, remembering how Ben would often point out elderly couples holding hands and say that it would be us one day. We were cheated of that. Does it betray Ben to think that indeed, it would be lovely to age while holding hands with a new and lasting love? Most people would say it does not. Intellect tells me they are correct. Alas, the heart does not always agree with the mind.

Before Carl finally departs for his first date, he talks again to Ellie and says, “I guess this is a new kind of adventure for both of us. Just know you’ll always be my girl.” I think that I am ready to have that conversation with Ben. I am still unclear about how to propel that adventure. I loved that Dug joined Carl on his date. I imagine that Ben will be with me, too. He used to joke that he would haunt me if I ever met someone. In truth, I am hoping he’ll come along as a grim, grinning ghost.

We loved to stand here, on Main Street, and look at all the Halloween decorations.

Ten Things I Learned About Caregiving From Mary Poppins

Since today, October 1, marks the birthday of Julie Andrews, I will devote this post to Mary Poppins, the consummate nanny who taught me many things about caregiving. “Mary Poppins” was the first movie I saw in a theater and it remains a favorite, as does Julie Andrews.

A kind yet stern and always magical nanny, Mary Poppins added whimsy to life while addressing all of its practicalities and mishaps. She got Jane and Michael Banks to use their imaginations and see beyond the confines of their nursery.  They were safe in her care, learned the importance of rules but also how to challenge them, and, because she knew just how to step in, they built and strengthened relationship with their father. She knew how to meet the needs of the Banks family better than they did. Now that’s what I call a great caregiver!

Here are ten lessons about caregiving that I learned from Mary Poppins:

  1. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.”
Mary Poppins 3

There were days where there was nothing fun in the actual tasks required in Ben’s care due to ALS. But, those silly moments that made us laugh amidst the sadness are the ones that still stand out.

  1. “Worrying won’t help anyone.”
Mary Poppins 4

Even as a worrier, I know it’s true. It doesn’t help. But, if it helps you to picture worse case scenarios and create plans if necessary, go for it. Just don’t dwell! Trust Mary Poppins. It doesn’t help.

  1. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way!” 

Lyrics to live by! I was there for a reason, and that reason was love and compassion. There’s the sugar. It made the awful, embarrassing tasks “swallowable.”

Click to play:

  1. “Never judge things by their appearance…even carpetbags. I’m sure I never do.”
Mary Poppins 7

Because a person needs a caregiver does not mean they become irrelevant. When people would come to see Ben and talk to me as if he wasn’t there, I would redirect them to include him in the conversation, even if I had to explain what he was saying as his speech became more impaired. His brain was still very active. He mattered. I did not let anyone make assumptions about his capabilities or ideas. Always let the person know they matter. Because they do.

The same goes for people who judged our relationship. Whatever people thought of me, or of Ben, and our caregiving situation, we were the only two who were actually in our relationship for sixteen years. In any caregiving situation, particularly within a family, there are dynamics that only those involved can really understand. You can have opinions, but tread gingerly when it comes to offering advice, even if it is requested.

  1. Sometimes a little thing can be quite important.
Mary Poppins 1

A smile, a thank you, a kiss, remembering something special. I’ve written about how Ben and my relationship felt like it shifted from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. It was in little things like holding hands, sharing memories, or “inside jokes” that we were brought back to who we really were as a couple before ALS.

  1. Best foot forward. Spit spot.
Mary Poppins 6

It’s all you can do. And, when you’re dealing with a lot of crises, you can’t take a lot of time to ponder. As I’ve said in prior posts, I often had to “just keep swimming,” even though I belly-flopped, but I always put my best foot (or fin?) forward!

  1. Let’s go fly a kite

All at once you’re lighter than air
You can dance on the breeze
Over houses and trees
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite

Mary Poppins 5

OK, we couldn’t really do that. But, we had to maintain a sense of fantasy and whimsy that could take us outside of our reality, at least for a few moments. The trips we took to Walt Disney World were always magical, and they took on a special meaning after his diagnosis. Those trips were the kite that took us briefly away from reality. Now, I can look back on those memories with gratitude and a bittersweet delight.

  1. It’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary

Oh, it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary
Mary makes your ‘eart so light!
When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!
Mary Poppins 2

Ben teased me that I loved to use the word “whimsical.” But, I enjoyed bringing whimsy into his homebound life. I often arrived home with shopping bags of “treats”- new tshirts for his collection, a gadget that I thought might help him, a new ingredient for our culinary adventures into pureed concoctions. It always made him smile and laugh. That made the “sun shine bright” for both of us!

  1. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius

It’s a great word. Covers a lot of territory. It especially made me chuckle to myself when a bevy of not such nice words were going through my head!  Try it.

Click to play:

  1. “Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.”
Mary Poppins 8

I tried, and often beat myself up too much for feeling that I was not a good enough caregiver. It’s a great goal, and always important to remember that we all define “perfect” differently, and that the definition may vary by circumstance. I hope that, at least at times, I was Ben’s Mary Poppins.

Happy Birthday, Julie Andrews! Thank you for all of the joy you’re brought!

All photos: Mary Poppins (1964), Walt Disney Production

#Caregivers #Caregiving #ALS #MaryPoppins #Disney

National Grief Awareness Day- What Is Happily Ever After?

ALS,Caregiving,Grief,Walt Disney World, Disney
My silly Ben with his buddy, Buzz.

Today is National Grief Awareness Day. Of course, for anyone experiencing grief, there is daily awareness, adjusting, and coping. Grief is usually top of mind, and, at least for me, especially in the early days of grief, in those moments that it was not my driving thought, there was guilt to bring me right back to grief.

A few days ago, I posted about the eighth anniversary of Ben’s leaving this world. I posted a photo that I love of Ben in his Buzz Lightyear shirt and holding a little Buzz toy. I am posting it again here. In the photo, Ben is also wearing a button that says “Happily Ever After.” We got those buttons during a visit to Walt Disney World after Ben’s ALS diagnosis. We had no idea how long our happily ever after would be. We tried not to dwell on that.

Since I posted the photo, I have been thinking about how I reconcile Ben’s and my happy ending. Was it really happy? We had to make it feel so. And we did, especially at Walt Disney World. In the depths of grief, I often thought about that. I still do. The ending was far too soon, but there was a lot of joy and love, even in the troubled times. Life was not fair to Ben. It was not fair to us. Still, I am here. Sometimes I am lonely, sometimes I feel very alone. I try to focus on how we filled Ben’s years with ALS with as much love and whimsy as we could. I made sure that he was surrounded by so much love and music as he left. As devastating as it was, the day he left was also beautiful, and I am proud of that. Now, the grief is a result of tremendous love that I was fortunate to experience.

Grief is tricky. It ebbs and flows. It is unpredictable. There are obvious setbacks and sharp pangs- milestone dates, holidays, and special occasions. At least we can brace for those. It is the unexpected things that set me on a downward spiral. Watching a film that has a scene with a loving mother, father, or grandmother always brings me to tears. Ironically, my tears turned to laughter when Ben, knowing exactly what would make me cry, would hand me the tissue he knew I would need without saying a word. Random events, things in stores, sightings, and anything that might pop up can bring a mix of warm feelings about loving memories and profound sadness. I have come to welcome all the feelings because I treasure the memories of my loved ones.

I co-exist with grief, but I have returned to the land of the living. I freely acknowledge that I still deeply feel the impact of grief in many ways, anticipated and unexpected, and that acceptance helps me to go with the flow and embrace the span of my emotions. Being comfortable with my feelings and reactions to grief has also taught me to be a bit guarded around people who tell me how I “should” feel and what I “have to” do to cope with grief.

Today seemed a good day to share these thoughts. I hope that when people understand that everyone processes grief in their own way and at their own pace, there will be less judgment and more compassion. Grief can be managed on our own, with the help of our loved ones, and/or through support groups or therapy. Most important, our feelings are okay, and they are our own, just as were our relationships with those we loved and lost.


Eight Years- Love Is A Song That Never Ends

Walt Disney World, Halloween
Ben and I at Walt Disney World, Halloween 2011. Good memories are always a comfort.

My Dear Ben,

Today is eight years. I miss you. Once again, as has happened every year since you left this earth, I replayed in my mind your last day. It still leaves me shaken and in tears. Once again, I was purposeful in deciding how I would spend today. I am returning from Binghamton, New York, where I spent a lovely few days visiting Dorie and Damian. Yes, I spoke of you. I was also accompanied by your baby Sully and my baby Eeyore. I took Amtrak and chose to return today. After all, you loved the train so much. We had such nice getaways via Amtrak. So here I am.

It is important to me to plan this milestone day in ways that honor you and our memories. As I glance out at the beautiful scenery, I like remembering how you enjoyed even the longest train rides to Vermont or Connecticut. I have been revisiting all of my blog posts from this date and listening to our favorite Disney theme park music through my headphones. I observe that in the first couple of years, I spent this day trying to sort through my emotions and come to terms with the grief I felt for you and for my dad. I realize that when I lost you, I was also deeply grieving the loss of my dad. I see that I have come to co-exist better with grief and I give myself permission to cry, or not. I still cannot predict how the most mundane thing will set me back. Today is hardly an ordinary day, and there have been tears, so, thankfully, I have a seat all to myself. At the same time, I am grateful to be on the train knowing that you are here with me as I think about you, us, and my life now. I think that you would love that I am using my new iPad on the train. Actually, it was very difficult for me to choose and purchase this iPad because technology was the thing that you always did. You taught me well, though. I had the skills to research devices. I am thrilled with all that I can do with my iPad, and especially delighted that my writing this while on an Amtrak train would make you happy and proud.

Ben’s baby Sully and my baby Eeyore are my travel companions now.

I think about how I spent this day a couple of years ago at my first Bruce Springsteen concert. He talked about his concerts as a time to visit with the ghosts of the loved ones he has lost. I guess milestone dates like this are my time to devote to visiting with you, even though you often send me signs that you are with me. I am certain that the visit I had from a cardinal in Central Park last week was to comfort and encourage me in anticipation of today. I know you make these things happen. You did say that you would be a grim, grinning ghost!

I wish we could have been on a getaway together. I will always be saddened that you were cheated out of so much of life and that we were cheated out of time together because of ALS. The song One Dance always makes me cry because it was the song that I listened to one evening after I returned from visiting you that forced me to face that you were never going to come home. Although lyrics do that to me, I am grateful for music that comforts me and encapsulates my feelings. Music is also significant because you loved it so much. Please know that I take you with me everywhere I go. You are a part of who I am.

I have not yet decided which of your favorite Disney films I will watch today. No matter what, today may be the day that you left the earth, but it will forever more be a day that your spirit is especially honored and celebrated with so much love. Most resonant with me is that Love Is A Song That Never Ends, from the song of that title from Bambi. Pangs of grief ebb and flow, but the love I feel for you is consistent.

I love you and miss you every day,

Your Minnie, Abby

Ben was doing his best Ricky Ricardo impression. 2007