Death: The Ultimate One-Sided Conversation

My dad came to see me twice last month.

Like every other time he has visited in the four years since his death, the next morning I awoke with a mix of thrill at visualizing him so clearly, and sadness knowing it was just a dream. It’s no surprise he showed up; I found out about that time I was to have a piece of mine published in The New York Times, his favorite paper.

My father was a fabulous writer. His voice was strong, his prose fluid and conversational; but Dad directed most of his talent toward the academic realm. He wrote textbooks, research papers and journal articles. Even now when I flip through the pages, tapped out with two, furious index fingers because he never learned to type, I can see his love of the craft. Never boring or stilted, he managed to make psychological concepts and theories not just digestible for the average undergrad, but entertaining — no small feat. At the end of his life Dad began recording more of his personal history, too, but most of what he wrote can be found in a college library.

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He was also a voracious reader. A quick look at his nightstand would reveal his taste. Dad nearly always had three books going at once: an Elmore Leonard-ish crime novel, a current, political non-fiction, and a memoir. As I grew older and our tastes began to fall in line, it became more and more fun to compare notes on what we were reading and trade recommendations, but it was tough to keep up with him. Dad read fast and his appetite was huge.

What never changed, however, was the daily copy of The New York Times, tucked under his arm, which accompanied my father everywhere he went. Whenever we traveled overseas (which was frequently), at any hotel his first request was always a copy of the Times. Dad consumed the news through that paper; he read it cover to cover. I know he had at least one Letter to the Editor published, which he considered a major accomplishment.DadNYT

A couple of months ago, when I submitted my piece to the NYT Motherlode, I knew there was a possibility it would be published, but that chances were slim. After I read the email confirming it had been accepted, I cried. Out of pride, out of relief, out of confidence that someone as esteemed as editor KJ DellAntonia believed in my voice, but mainly because I wouldn’t be able to hear my dad congratulate me. I wanted, so badly, to pick up the phone and call him with the news. To listen to his voice raise an octave and somehow soften at the same time when he said “Wow, honey, that’s a big deal! The New York Times, that’s spectacular!”

We didn’t have everything in common and ours was a relationship that suffered its share of ups and downs, but when it came to writing, we were totally in sync. And mine made him proud. “My daughter the writer,” Dad said over the phone when my first piece was published in a widely circulated magazine. I could hear his smile.

In other areas of my life, Dad’s reactions left me wanting. Like many fathers whose primary focus was work, I found it tough to hold his attention for long.DadNYPD My trust in him suffered after too many of my attempts to engage him fell flat, leaving me heartbroken, so I rarely approached him with tender or personal issues. Instead the bond we shared was a cerebral one: A love of all things pop culture and literary. When we talked books, movies or current events his eyes, which were one of the many features we shared in common, came alive. We discussed and debated, compared and contrasted, jabbed and joked. I felt important, smart and admired. Connected. Loved.

Maybe his response about my piece, “After Cancer’s Calm, a Daughter’s Emotional Storm” would have left me deflated as he had in other areas of my life. I will never know. That is both the blessing and the curse of death. I can write the script. At once I can both mourn the loss of his praise, and protect myself by not risking the crushing blow of his ambivalence.

Like so many others, this experience will be projected onto the screen of my heart, already crowded with images of disappointments and joys I have ached to share with my father since he died. Time passes, but love and longing never do. Neither does the desire to hear the one voice whose validation often carried the most weight in my life, good and bad.

I miss you, Dad. I love you. Come back and see me any time.

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Looking Good… Sometimes

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Author Jennifer Weiner tackles some common, yet tricky, issues in The Pressure to Look Good, her op-ed piece in The New York Times this week. In it she dissects the conflict surrounding the messages we send to young girls about embracing their own bodies and not caving to the pressures of perfection, while we ourselves continue to do just that. In her typically candid, humorous way, Weiner shines a light on an issue I have struggled with myself for years. In fact, it bothered me so much that this year I decided it was time to do something about it.

My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to post pics of myself that were about moments; not how I looked IN those moments. To trust that there were enough collective shots of me looking good to make up for the ones where I didn’t, and begin focusing solely on capturing the event rather than stressing about whether I appear to have a double chin. (I totally don’t, by the way, it’s just a bad angle. I swear. No, seriously.) It has been a humbling, yet liberating road, culminating in a recent HuffPo piece I wrote about teaching swim lessons featuring a photo with me, makeup-less, in a swimsuit. Of course it didn’t hurt that I had such a sweet student next to me.

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With social media and online content as our main artery of information updates about our friends and the world, the pressure is high and the scrutiny intense to be on your “A” game constantly; but as is the case with so many areas in our life, I believe the best examples for our kids are ones of balance. By showing not only my daughter but also my sons that experiences with them trump my need to look good while documenting those experiences, my hope is that they will see that I take them more seriously than I take myself.

I do still love getting glammed up (sans Spanx, I can’t stand those things) for a night on the town with their dad, and after nearly 25 years with him, both of us getting through cancer, and the fact that with three kids I even managed to get glammed in the first place, I think some vanity is in order. When I do, I shamelessly ask my 14-year-old-budding-photographer daughter to snap lots of pics so I can find one where I look as pretty as I feel, and then post away.

As a mother it’s my job to teach my kids, like with many other things in life, that a little of everything is okay as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. Ms. Weiner’s children will see her unclip those extensions and take off those heels. And my guess is that when she does she will sit, criss-cross-applesauce, on the rug with her daughter making silly faces and playing games. That is what is important and that is what they will take away.

In order to really empower them, what we owe our children is to teach them balance. That and the best lighting angles for selfies.

Boys Will Be Boys, but Why Are They so Bad in Bathrooms?

My husband and son have nightly pillow-talk sessions. My son always gets to pick the topic and, because he’s seven and his focus tends to change a lot, there’s no telling what will be discussed. I can hear bits of their talks from where I tend to sit in my bedroom and I can honestly say that eavesdropping on them is one of the highlights of my day.

On this evening’s agenda was our impending move to Maryland. More specifically the house we will be renting, which we found on our recent trip to the Bethesda area over spring break. Though I couldn’t hear all of the conversation, I could make out one piece of it. It seems my son was concerned about the cleanliness of the new house, specifically the bathrooms.

“Dad, the toilets were really gross,” I overheard my boy say with disgust. “They were so dirty, and the sinks and the showers, too. I don’t think that guy even cleans!”

He had a point. When we toured the place, it was obvious the current tenant must have had more, ahem, pressing matters than tending to household chores, but nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t handle. What I couldn’t figure out was why my son was even a tiny bit concerned about it.

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Now it might be understandable if he were a bit of a clean freak, but though my youngest has lots of qualities about him to love, keeping a sparkly bathroom isn’t one of them. I mean one shift of brushing teeth in the morning and the top of the vanity looks like a Crest-fueled Jackson Pollock painting. One time I actually found toothpaste on the underside of the toilet bowl. The idea that a finger touched a toilet and a toothbrush in such rapid succession, well, I just can’t even go there.

And speaking of toilets, please, is there some magical way for boys to get all of what is coming out of them in the bowl? At the age of three my middle son could throw a grape from across the dining table and knock over my daughter’s cup of milk. Yet he still, at age ten, seems to have trouble aiming one simple, tiny stream of liquid into a very large body of water by comparison. When exactly does this skill kick in? Because at this rate I’m ready to purchase stock in Clorox. Or yellow grout.

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Both of my boys seemed to have developed their own clever method of dealing with their poor aim issue: Just wash the floor with the water from the shower. How do they do this? Simple. Always, always forget to be sure the curtain liner is inside the tub while the shower is on . Within about three minutes after turning on the knob, the floor is completely soaked. Not long after that the dogs are marching down the hall and into the bathroom for their own special version of Slip-n-Slide.

Once the shower turns off, I hear the dreaded “whoa!” and know it’s time to grab the stack of rags reserved for just this occasion unless, of course, I happen to be out of earshot. If so I’ll usually come in to find a boy using one of the brand new bath towels to sop up water and muddy paw prints from around the base of the toilet. In which case I tell him to be sure to get the glob of toothpaste on the bottom of the bowl.

Sometimes the floor is magically dry, the vanity remains a blank canvas, and my boys each pitch a no-hitter into the toilet, but they still can’t seem to leave the bathroom without making their mark on it. So they use a time-honored tradition passed down for generations that has irritated mothers and kept otherwise perfectly clean bathrooms from ever staying that way: They leave me a “laundry love letter”.

A dirty sock, a pair of pants in a pile on the floor next to the shower (underwear still in them of course), or a used hand towel on the top of the toilet tank just for me. Just a little something to let me know they were there and not thinking of me. And I, in turn respond the way many a mother has before me: With an eye roll you, too.

So far our household has been very lucky. The boys have shared their own bathroom and my daughter has had one to herself; but in the next house, all three kids will need to use the same facilities. Unlike her brothers, my girl is known for keeping a sparkly bathroom.

I’ll hold out hope that maybe some of my daughter’s cleanliness will rub off onto her brothers. But my guess is that I should probably be bracing myself for the day when some of her brother’s toothpaste rubs off onto one of her favorite pieces of clothing.

Oh well, as long as it stays off the toilet I’ll consider it a step in the right direction.

Story Slammed

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I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, but I’m really proud to be a part of anything that a local charity, ForKids, does. Of course I encourage all charity involvement and giving, but I particularly like the aim of ForKids: Breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty for families and children.

This year I was invited to join their annual “Story Slam” where folks from all walks of life get up and tell a story from their life, then compete via online votes to see who is crowned the winner and awarded the coveted Slammie.  Each vote costs $1 and all money goes directly to the charity. I was thrilled to join the slate of talented story tellers (including one of my favorite people in the world, Kerri Furey) in this year’s ForKids Story Slam. Now you have the opportunity to see me, along with all of the other slammers get up and tell a tale. Then you just click the link listed below the video and pay $1 per vote!  Plus, you get to listen to me talk about my boobs for, like, 10 whole minutes.

Thanks in advance for your support and your vote!

“Bosom Buddies: Betsy Hnath’s Story Slam”

Is This Really What I Signed Up For?

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I really love and respect the site AgingCare.com. Not just because the editor is willing to post my work, but because it caters to a population I feel often gets overlooked: Caregivers.

To know a site like AgingCare even exists thrills me. The idea that individuals isolated in their own respective locations can go to one place to get support, practical information and to interact with others in the same predicament is so comforting to me. 404735_2614514794468_1279033597_n

As someone in my early 40’s, I represent an atypical segment of the caregiving population. I was surprised when AgingCare asked me to contribute my views to their blog, but thrilled at the opportunity to share them. I hoped my words might reach someone in the same situation as I once was who feels as I once did, like there is no one else in the world who shares their burden.

In piece linked below I address the notion that at one point or another, none of us feels like we signed up for caregiving. But that we can all take comfort in the fact that it’s okay to feel that way.

 

Is This Really What I Signed Up For?  Taking care of a husband with cancer while raising three kids younger than ten was a future I never expected when we first said “I do.”

Getting Stoned in 2015

I found these rocks on a beach in Maine after George was diagnosed the first time with melanoma over 10 years ago.

I found these rocks on a beach in Maine after George was diagnosed the first time with melanoma over 10 years ago.

I’m a perpetual navel gazer, in fact I do it so often that my bellybutton may take out a restraining order on me any day now. So I’ll take any excuse to reflect, like say, the beginning of a new year.

I think back on the previous 12 months and wonder how we managed it all. I look over the pictures I posted on Facebook because, let’s be honest, that is now my photo album, and smile at the moments I shared with my friends and family. I take stock in what I have and whom I love, and I think about the parts of my life that I’d like to change. I also think about (especially over the last few years) the challenges I faced. Basically, I shake up the sand and see what comes loose.

As much as I might like others to catch my attention, it’s always the big-boulder issues that jut out toward the top; the kind with jagged edges that leave psychological cuts and bruises. I know them well, their permanent scars show in my deepest insecurities and chronically bad habits. For years I got pretty good at dodging them; it wasn’t worth the pain of getting close.

In my youth it was easier to turn my back on something painful in my life and pick one of the many visceral pleasures I knew would soothe my ache for the moment. But we all know what that gets you: 15 lbs., a monster Visa bill and a raging headache. Without facing my pain and expressing myself about it, all of my potential steppingstones remained barbed.

As I grew older, and with the help of careers, kids and cancer, I realized that avoidance was no longer a luxury I could afford. To make a lasting change in my life I couldn’t simply sidestep these sharp stones, I had to grab them with both hands, turn them over, investigate them from every angle and suffer the scrapes. It was the only way to create a path through my pain rather than a detour.

Ground down with honesty and reflection, smoothed with attention and familiarity, even the sharpest of edges became easy to touch. I could move and fit these rocks nicely together with other rounded ones from my past. Each painful experience honed and transformed to work together and create a foundation of emotional resilience. And with even more time those challenges, which once seemed huge and insurmountable, became manageable.

The smaller pebbles of my history settled toward the bottom, filling in the cracks of my personal strength, shoring me up for the times when I felt like I might break. Those stones of losing an important job, or the letter from my editor telling me to start again combined to form the base; the grains of my 6th grade heartbreak and getting out-touched in butterfly when I was 10 provided the grout.

At 43, I have come to the age when many of my contemporaries have begun experiencing tangible trauma, and irreplaceable loss. Some have lost parents, spouses and even children to illness and accidents. I see others providing long-term care to loved ones facing disease, at great cost to their own families. They are divorcing, deploying and depressed. Regardless of the circumstance, very few are escaping the damage that only true sorrow can bring.

These are situations that, on a good day, cut so deep and so wide the word “cry” can’t do justice to the kinds of sounds and faces you make — the ones that would terrify your kids if they ever saw or heard you. Even as a writer, I have yet to find a word that accurately describes the head pounding, chest aching sobs that make your heart hurt and you feel in the pit of your stomach.

My family and I have faced some hefty loss, too and it would be so easy to slide into anger, especially when it impacts the lives of children. I have often questioned what could possibly be the purpose of this much hurt for ones so young. But I refuse to accept that any pain we suffer is wasted, or that a tear we shed is in vain.

Instead, I choose to believe that every challenge we face head-on isn’t just important, it is essential to our development as individuals to grow and succeed emotionally. It is by turning those stones and filling in the mortar that we establish our strength. Each time we suffer pain it is simply a building block in transit.

I stand upright because I lost that job, suffered that heartbreak, and got out-touched in butterfly. Because all three of our children were admitted to the hospital before each was a year old. Because my dad died before he could read this. Because George used to have three brothers and now he has one. Because George got cancer and so did I. And because when I see my loved ones suffer my heart breaks. Those are some big, big rocks.

But I keep picking them up, turning them over, getting cut, and figuring out why. And if I spend time working on them I soften the edges enough (I hope) not to get hurt by them again. Then I put them down next to the other weathered rocks to help make me strong. And I do it over and over, building up my footing.

I have always felt that the greatest gift from God is perspective. Since pain can often be a breeding ground for myopia, a step up is a great tool to prevent me from getting stuck. With each stone under my feet my view gets bigger and better; I guess I can thank my struggles, in part, for that vista.

I know I have much to experience, much to learn, but with each challenge the process gets simpler. And I know that all of my challenges have worth. I’m not done building, but it’s a start.

Wishing you all a year of rounded rocks.

–b

Giving Thanks… For These Folks

I, like many, spent the weekend giving thanks: For my family, for my health, for my friends, and for public servants far and wide who sacrificed their holiday protecting civilians like me.

But some police and firefighters go beyond simply trying to contain crazy, tv-deal-grabbing discount hounds on Black Friday at Walmart, and for them I am especially grateful.  These brave souls have to hit the streets in vehicles decked out like this:

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And this:

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And even this:

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I am a BC veteran and even I bow my head in sincere admiration; I know I couldn’t do it.

These folks work every day to ensure our safety. They rush in when others rush out, putting themselves and their lives at risk when we need them the most. Like at Walmart on Black Friday. Whether it’s an accident, medical emergency or a fire, they are there in a hurry to keep us safe.

My body has often felt like it was burning from the inside out, I might even say it was on fire, all courtesy of my hormone-fueled hot flashes. Perhaps someday there will be a separate firefighting unit dedicated to only this issue, and when you call 911 this guy would show up:

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Imagine the goodwill and smiles he would spread to the bc sisterhood; I certainly think I’d feel better. I’ve always said it takes a real man to wear pink —  or in this case a real hot man.

Man-oh-man, nothing says community helper like breast cancer!