• Shannon Stocker

Cathy Breisacher: InHERview

As someone with a complicated history, I know how healing it can be to open up about the moments in our lives—celebratory moments, certainly, but also the painful ones. Buried hurts fester. But the beautiful thing about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is that it is not only therapeutic for us…it’s often therapeutic for others, too.

Because we are never alone in our suffering.

I started #inHERview because we all have a story. And so many of us have stories that overlap in some capacity. When we empathize, we become stronger—and we strengthen others. And when we, as authors, share life stories that resonate, we become more than the stories we write. We become relatable.

Human.

Recently, I spent an hour getting to know the human side of Cathy Breisacher.

“Cathy! It’s so nice to meet you! I know you’ve been gone recently. How was your trip?”

Cathy’s sweet, soft-spoken voice flits through the phone.

“Oh, it was wonderful,” she gushes. “I’m a librarian, so I went to Pittsburgh for four days for a STEM training where everyone who attended spent the time designing and building things using equipment and machines. We tinkered and learned and were given design challenges.”

“So you’re a school librarian?” I ask.

“Yes, at an elementary school. We started implementing a STEM lab in each elementary school library in our district at the beginning of this past school year, so we’ve been training and writing grants to get materials for the labs. A school near Pittsburgh offered this free, four-day STEM workshop for teachers. It was so fun to hear other educators talk about what they’re doing! Daily keynote speakers talked about finding ways to help kids make an impact in their communities. They encouraged us to help kids find real solutions to real-life problems so what they create and build will make a difference in the world. It was really inspirational.”

“That sounds wonderful! It’s nice to know there are such accessible opportunities for STEM training,” I say. “So now that I know you spend your free time learning how to create opportunities for local kids to connect to the community, why don’t you tell me a little about you before we dive into your three pivotal moments?”

“Well, I live in central Pennsylvania, in a town called Hollidaysburg. I’ve lived here all my life. I’m married and don’t have children, but I have lots of kids through the school, along with many nieces and nephews! My husband and I like to travel and spend time with family.”

“Did you always want to be a librarian?” I ask.

“Well, that’s actually part of my first pivotal moment,” Cathy laughs. “When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with people, so I ended up going to college and getting my master’s degree in school counseling. After graduation, I interned first with an elementary school and then with a high school. I enjoyed both, but I really loved working with teens. They are at an age where they can really share what’s going on in their lives. At the end of that internship, a school counselor retired and I ended up in her position for seventeen years! I absolutely loved working with the teens and helping them with every aspect of their lives: their career choices and their post-secondary education and training choices. Many would come in and talk about experiences at home and issues with relationships. I’d spend my days with the students and then try to do paperwork at night. Eventually, though, I started burning out. I couldn’t sleep many nights because I was so worried about some of the students. At the same time I really wanted to write, but I was really mentally exhausted by the time I got home. I had no energy, so I was only writing during the summers. So I took a year off and got my library science degree and certification. I thought I might become a librarian at some point, but when I completed that degree, I went back to my guidance counselor position.”

“Why did you go back?” I hate to interrupt, but I didn’t expect that turn in her story.

“There was an understanding that I’d come back to the guidance counselor position at the end of my sabbatical,” she says. “But I felt refreshed, so I was ready! I had a wonderful year and really thought I could keep doing it at that point. But by the end of that year, the elementary librarian in my district, who knew I had my library degree, emailed that she was retiring. I’ve been blessed with wonderful administrators throughout my career, and the assistant superintendent was one of them. He told me she was retiring and asked if I wanted to switch to her position or stay in my guidance counselor position. My heart was torn for over a month! I finally thought, ‘You know, I got the degree and this opportunity might not present itself again.’ It was scary, but I took it.”

“What about the switch felt scary to you?” I ask.

“Other than during my internship way back after I’d first graduated from college to become a school counselor, I hadn’t worked in an elementary school. It was a different world from the high school! Suddenly I was working with little kids who needed their shoes tied and argued about who cut in front of whom. The leap pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

I can’t help but smile at the thought that this sweet, gentle woman once felt intimidated by kindergarteners. She seems like such a natural.

“I assume you ended up liking it, though?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful!” Cathy gushes. “It’s a totally different world, but I love it and I’m so happy it worked out this way. Now I’m working around books all the time, too. I’m energized at nights and that allowed me to write the two picture books that just came out this spring. I’m constantly learning, like with the STEM program this past week. This position allows me to be creative. It was a scary leap, but that’s how you learn and grow. If I hadn’t taken that step, I probably wouldn’t have two books out right now.”

“About one of those, by the way – CAVEKID BIRTHDAY. Did you use Gift of the Magi as a comp for that?” I ask.

“We did!” Cathy says. I explain that it’s always been a favorite of mine. I muse that perhaps that’s one of the reasons I adore CAVEKID so much.

“So tell me about your next pivotal moment,” I say. “What’s your number two?”

“My husband has Ménière’s disease.” Cathy sighs.

In medical school, I learned that Ménière’s is a disorder of the inner ear. The ringing (“tinnitus”), vertigo, and even potential hearing loss can often be devastating to those who suffer frequent episodes. The cause is unknown, and a cure is nonexistent. My heart breaks for Cathy.

“That must be very hard,” I say.

“It is. We don’t have kids, but we were youth leaders at our church for many years. Pouring our lives into those teenagers and the relationships we formed with them definitely shaped us both into the people we are today. At the end of last summer, we had to step aside because of his diagnosis. This past year has been very rough.”

“How long ago was he diagnosed?” I ask.

“Eight years ago. The vertigo isn’t as severe, but he always feels unsteady and his tinnitus is loud in both ears, even though he can’t hear out of his right ear. Planning the activities and lessons for the youth group took a lot of time, so even though we loved it, we had to step aside. But working with those teens was part of my second pivotal moment—it was so special to watch them grow from seventh through twelfth grade. We were driven to do outreach with them, taking them to feed the homeless or teaming up with organizations, like a women’s shelter. It was meaningful to watch the kids learn to view the world in a bigger way. It shaped us, too.”

I ask my next question delicately.

“I know you said that your second pivotal moment was working as a youth leader, but wouldn’t you also say it’s been working through your husband’s illness?”

Cathy’s voice begins to break. I tear up, too.

“Yes, it has. It’s been very hard.”

I want to hug her. If there’s anything that can break my heart, it’s medical struggles. My empathy leans toward a more lighthearted question.

“Was there one particular trip that impacted you more than others?”

“Yes!” Cathy’s simultaneous relief and joy are palpable. “One summer we went to Philadelphia. About ten years ago, while searching online for meaningful outreach opportunities, I came upon a group that prepared meals for the homeless in inner-city Philly every Friday. It was a chance for the homeless to come out, eat, and feel valued. My husband and I encouraged the teens to introduce themselves and then ask, “What’s your name?” The teens listened to their stories—how some of them lived underground when it got cold, under manholes, or how they ended up on the streets. One girl was only about twenty, and she’d left home at sixteen because her father was abusive. Their stories were heartbreaking, but also eye-opening. Homelessness could happen to anybody in these circumstances.”

I unintentionally wade back into emotional waters. “So becoming youth leaders was a pivotal moment, but it sounds like leaving the position was, too. You’re headed someplace new now. You just don’t know where you’re going yet.”

Cathy’s quiet voice aches. “We were so invested. To step away…that was our identity. It was so, so hard to leave. These teens meant so much to us. But everyone knew my husband was sick. People were wonderfully understanding.”

For a moment, we talk about faith. Not religion, but faith. Believing that things happen for a reason, even when we don’t understand the reasons while we’re in the thick of it. We share our fears of looking down that long, dark tunnel with no light in sight. Feeling like we’re spinning our wheels and learning to be our own advocates. I feel like I’ve known Cathy for years.

“So tell me about your third pivotal moment,” I say.

“You know, I feel like I hit the jackpot being born into my family. We’re super close—my parents, my brothers, my sisters—we’re all so supportive of one another. I had a happy childhood and have grown up happy. So my third moment definitely happened when I lost my dad.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say. “How did he die?”

“He was an electrician. So healthy, and only sixty. He was at work one day and had a massive heart attack. He was fine, and then he just…wasn’t. I was a guidance counselor at that time, and my sister called me at work, in hysterics. I couldn’t even tell it was her on the phone. Once she calmed down, she just told me to come to the hospital. She wasn’t supposed to tell me he’d died—she just said, ‘It’s Dad.’ It rocked my world. Honestly, that’s another reason I decided to switch careers. I spent so much time working as a youth leader and a guidance counselor, I was often too tired for other activities. The last time I saw my dad, I’d stopped by my parents’ house on a Friday after work. When I was a kid, my dad called me Whitey because my hair turned so white in the summers. He said, ‘Whitey, we’re going to the Outback for dinner. Do you want to come with us?’ I said, ‘Thanks, Dad, but I’ve gotta get home. Maybe next time.’ And that was the last time I talked to him. He died at work the following Tuesday morning. After that happened, I felt like I needed to balance my life better.”

“You were heading home to do work that night?”

“Well, there was a troubled family in my youth group. The mom told me she might stop by with the kids, so I felt like I needed to prep my house and be ready in case they came. When my dad died, I realized that I wasn’t prioritizing my own family.”

“How old were you at that time?”

“I was thirty-five.”

“That’s young to lose a parent. Do you still see your mom and siblings frequently?”

“Oh, yes!” Cathy sighs before continuing.

“I gave the eulogy at my dad’s viewing. I told him, ‘We will take care of Mom.’ She was so strong when he died. She lives on her own, but one brother lives next door to her and the other lives right up the road. I have two sisters, too. We all live within twenty minutes of one another, and we visit frequently.”

“What a gift that is,” I say.

“It is,” she agrees. “His death forced me to realize the unpredictability of life. I want to treasure the time that we have.”

After Cathy and I wrap up and say our goodbyes, I think about her final comments. Life is unpredictable in so many ways…not just when it ends, but in all the twists and turns we face while we’re still breathing. Nothing is constant except change. So how do we find comfort in the face of so much uncertainty?

We open up. We relate to one another. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and in that vulnerability, we make magical connections that provide a sense of security. Familiarity.

Humanity.

We all have our stories. I’m so grateful to Cathy for sharing hers.

CHIP AND CURLY can be ordered from Amazon here.

CAVEKID BIRTHDAY can be ordered from Amazon here.

Look for Cathy online, too:

Website – www.cathybreisacher.com

Twitter – @CathyBreisacher

Facebook – Cathy Breisacher

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