Play Away…

 

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Sometimes I get assignments that make me dig deeper than others; force me to face certain truths or realities in my life that perhaps I didn’t see before. At first, writing pieces that shine LED lights on issues that were at first only lit by fireflies can be emotionally daunting, but once the initial shock wears off, I can always seen the benefit in unmasking these areas of my life: It makes me certain I am not alone.

Play is an activity woven into nearly every household that holds the breath of a child, but the package in which it comes can vary greatly in shape and scope. When writing Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play, I was pushed to confront these questions: Did I really play with my kids? In what ways did they remember my role in their lives? Was it different in comparison to how they viewed their father? All became crucial pieces of a puzzle I attempt to bring together and form the picture of their childhood and my role in it.

I am so glad I was able to participate in the You Plus 2 Parenting‘s  28 Days of Play. The series allows writers like me (a different one is featured every day of the week in February) the opportunity to investigate the role of play in our lives. Please do check out the series – you will no doubt find elements of your own lives and experiences there, too.

Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play

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 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

The One Vehicle I Never Wanted to Drive

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I don’t recall my first views of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s pink stucco exterior, or its halls lined with huge photos alternating between patient success testimonials, physician quotes of confidence about research and facility innovation, and picturesque beaches from across the globe. Salty tears and deathly fears quickly washed away any initial impressions.

What I do remember is feeling completely overwhelmed with the responsibility of keeping my husband, George, alive. That, the lobby, and feeling like all I saw around me was death and wheelchairs.

George is a doctor, a really good one. But when he was diagnosed with recurrent metastatic melanoma, he needed to disconnect from the reality of what he faced and allow me to vet the medical options available. He just wanted to play golf and escape, to bury his head in the sand pit.

He had been initially diagnosed with stage IIIA disease five years earlier and had done quite well on a drug called Interferon. It was a treatment meant to utilize his immune system to seek out and destroy any remaining, floating cancer cells in his system that weren’t cut out during surgery. He made it five years without incident, but there must have been a few crafty ones left that evaded the Interferon and took up residence because the cancer came raging back.

Melanoma is unlike any other cancer I know. You can never, ever relax your guard once you have been unlucky enough to be diagnosed with an advanced stage. It can resurface at any time, in any place and often, just when you think you are in the clear, it rears its head and proves just how silly and naïve you were to imagine you had any control at all. If cancer is evil, which I believe it is, melanoma may in fact be the devil.

Breast cancer, on the other hand, is like the minivan of the disease. It tends to be obvious and follow a relatively predictable pattern; there are lots of the same kinds and they’re pretty easy to spot. Sometimes breast cancer can fool you and stealthily hide a super-charged motor under the hood. Or it can occasionally house lots of friends behind its tempered glass, waiting to unload and create havoc in multiple parts of your body, but because breast cancer is so common, there are lots of places to have it treated and many options to try.

It may not be an accident that, as a breast cancer patient myself, I own an Odyssey. I guess it also might not be a coincidence that, as a notorious lead-foot, my cancer turned out to be pretty aggressive.

I certainly consulted MD Anderson (which is based in Houston, Texas) when I was diagnosed, especially given George’s successful experience there. But my case didn’t warrant traveling half way across the country to get the same treatment I could receive in my own backyard.

People can be directed to a place like MD Anderson because their case is highly unusual, but most often it’s because they have run out of options; their disease won’t allow them time to take more than one shot at killing it before it kills them.

These individuals need the best medicine our country has to offer, and they get it there every single day. But the initial walk through the place can make your stomach turn from the sight of so much discomfort, sickness and pain.

When George and I arrived for our first visit we had no idea what to expect. Our only hospital experiences to that point had been in rural or regional settings, and we knew no one else our age with cancer.

We were terrified of what we might hear, but also hopeful that the doctors there were ones who would be able to provide the options we were so desperately seeking. After a prognosis from another very reputable institution of approximately six weeks of life for George, I knew that this was our first (and last) stop.

I remember nothing about the drive to the hospital on the first day of our first visit; my recollection begins after handing the keys to the valet in front of the main lobby. It was a particularly hot early summer day, even by Texas standards, and getting into the building felt good after standing outside for just the few minutes it took to hand over the keys and a tip.

George and I walked toward the information desk, past the multiple seating areas filled with oversized upholstered chairs in muted blues and purples, with clusters of individuals in hushed, intimate conversation.

Some people had smiles, but most dotted their bloodshot, glassy eyes with tissues.

Streams of bubbles worked their way from the bottom up in straight lines in several floor-to-ceiling tanks of water the length of the wall, creating a watery, white noise backdrop I would come to count on. The air was a mix of fragrance over alcohol, no doubt from the hand sanitizing stations at every corner, replete with signs encouraging all visitors to use them regularly.

As George and I tried to get our bearings, wheelchairs rolled in a constant flow from one end of the lobby to the other. I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked on, that those patients carried in these shiny, chrome vessels could only be classified as passengers, not participants, in life.

They appeared so close to death already, their faces gaunt, skin gray with illness. Most were bald and wrapped in blankets or sweatshirts, while just outside the sliding glass doors the mid-June sun blazed so hot and so high it created a shimmer just above the sidewalk surface. Some wore masks, guarding them against any airborne infection that could prove too much for their weakened immune system.

I would later learn that, for those who went to a place like MD Anderson, a common cold could mean the difference between an ordinary interval between chemotherapy treatments and a delay; a luxury no longer afforded to patients this ill.

Time is, perhaps, the most valuable drug major cancer hospitals have to offer. Time and hope. Many people would pay any price, tolerate any discomfort and sacrifice everything in their personal lives to get both.

I guiltily avoided any eye contact with those riding in the wheelchairs. It went beyond wouldn’t—I couldn’t look at them in their eyes because, in their deathly gaze, I saw George’s future.

Up until then, cancer had been simply a term in the ether, a concept. The minute we stepped into that lobby it became an actual disease capable of killing my partner in life and in love. Even as George walked in pace and step next to me, the picture of health and vigor, I knew under his skin and within his organs with every passing moment his cells were dividing and spreading, attempting to take over.

As the months passed, I learned how to spot the veteran wheelchair “drivers,” the ones who can manage to simultaneously push both handles of the chair, drag an IV pole and avoid crashing into furniture or other people.

I would also get smacked with the reality that those who looked closest to death were often the ones fighting the hardest to avoid it. And that those sitting in the chairs weren’t hollow shells of their former selves, they had simply been leveled by the grind of disease, surgeries and treatments.

I discovered all of this because, eventually, George became the gaunt, gray passenger, and I became the veteran driver.

Caring for Those Who Care

Recently I was asked to contribute as a blogger for the website Agingcare.com. The editor came across one of my Huffington Post articles and felt the topics and style of my writing would appeal to her audience.  1936123_1224187157146_7861387_n

I have focused so much of my time and attention, not to mention my writing, reflecting on aspects of my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. To go back and begin reliving moments in my mind of what it felt to be a caregiver to George has been both painful and rewarding.

Watching a loved one suffer or deteriorate is absolutely brutal, yet spouses, parents, same-sex partners, siblings, friends, and countless other supporters put their own lives on hold to take care of another. Caregivers are a largely neglected, but essential piece of the healthcare puzzle, and as insurance providers look for areas in which to cut costs no doubt this group will be called upon in an even greater capacity.

I look forward to helping bring some attention to this segment who deserves more recognition than they currently receive. After living that life, and not for very long, I can say I have never had more respect for those who do it day in and day out. They are champions.

Seeking Sanctuary In the Shower

 

Summer Fasting

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How are we already into July? I would say it wasn’t possible, but my youngest son’s hair is green from chlorine, we’ve gone through about 27 rash guards, and I don’t recognize half of the pool towels in our collection so it must be true.

For so many years it felt like the summer dragged more than my dogs’ feet on their way into the vet. The weather was so hot, and there were only so many things to do around town, so most often we ended up at the pool where every day was exhausting. I had to be constantly on alert, one minute saving my child from drowning, the next playing referee over toys, goggles, a blade of grass, whatever.

I chased my kids across cement pool decks, convinced they would rearrange their teeth with a single misstep. And just when one child was finally old enough to understand the rules, the next was ripe and ready to give me a workout.

I have taught swimming for 25 years and the pool has always been my happy place, at least when dealing with a child under the age of four who isn’t my own. I adore the laughter, freedom, and sense of accomplishment that comes along with learning to swim. But mix the struggle and unpredictability of a toddler with the dangers of water and I think any country club could make a mint in Xanax prescriptions alone.

As a seasoned swim instructor I assumed I’d have otters for children who’d swirl around in the water without a care and be my shining-star pupils. Not a chance. My oldest and youngest were pretty straightforward, but my middle child, Liam, decided to keep things spicy.

I swear I can still see the dents in my shoulders from his fingers, gripping and digging into me with sheer terror at the mere suggestion that he put his face in the water. And this was no toddler; he was six.

For years I held him, patiently coaxing, reciting all of the phrases that had been successful with the hundreds of other children I had taught to swim. “It’s just like Nemo under there! Now you can see everyone’s toes! You can do it!” All the while Liam howled at the top of his lungs “Don’t make me DO it, Mommy! PLEASE!!”

Other mothers looked on in horror assuming I was stealthily pinching him under the surface. I’m thankful for all of my early successes since my own kid did little to promote my reputation.

I kept my cool, calmly reassuring him until at last Liam let go of me and made his first, brave, independent swim to the wall. I’m still not sure if the tears I cried that day were more out of relief for me or pride for him, but now at age 10, the same little guy who refused to let go of my neck glides effortlessly through the water earning ribbons in summer swim meets.

After 13 straight years of panic, vigilance, and threats of going home if they jumped off the side of the pool backward one more time, all three of my kids are officially water safe and my life has changed. I can sit and read if I feel like it, or even finish an entire sentence without having to stop and explain how impolite it is to interrupt mommy when she is trying to talk. My biggest responsibilities now are reapplying sunscreen and making sure my kids don’t spend their inheritance on Airheads and cheeseburgers at the snack bar.

I am finally beyond considering it a major accomplishment to make it to the end of a day without: A) Visiting an ER, B) Football-carrying a screaming child out of the pool who is simply not ready to call it a day, or C) Someone football-carrying a screaming ME out of the pool, because I was ready to call it a day approximately 17 minutes after we arrived. At last I get to enjoy some days with my kids, feel secure in their safety, minus the need to cart them to umpteen soccer practices and battle over math homework. Heaven.

Another bonus is now that my children are older our entire family can linger later into the evening at the pool. My husband and I can sit swapping jokes and stories with our friends, while kids of every age hang out together within earshot of their parents.

I remember feeling like my sister and I were getting away with something big the first few times we stayed late at the pool. We kept out of sight of our parents in hopes they would forget about us and lose track of time so that we could stay even later. As the sun went down and lights under the water came on, the whole look and feel of the place changed.

Sometimes the nighttime air got cold and a haze would form just above the surface. We kept our whole bodies submerged to stay warm, coming up just long enough to grab quick breaths of air with our noses like hippos, casting shimmering shadows on the bottom of the pool from the lights. For some reason even jumping off the same diving board at 2pm felt different than it did at 9, like an amusement park after dark: Same rides, totally different experience.

So many of my wonderful memories of childhood were made during the summers at our neighborhood pool: First sport, first kiss, and first love. All to the soundtrack of lifeguard whistles, FM radio, and cannonball splashes. My challenge now is to find a way to taffy out these months and make them last a little longer for my own kids. I want them to look back on their summers and have that same experience.

Now that I am no longer so anxious and am finally able to relax, I want to enjoy this time as much as I want to create an enjoyable time for them. That is, of course, until 2 years and 10 months from now when my daughter gets her license.