Arin Amanda Prisand ’97 is dispensing a dose of fun

Arin Amanda Prisand ’97 (left) and her mother in 2008

What do you do when you’re bored, lonely, or falling apart? Why, you dance backwards! When the sky is cloudy? Dance backwards! When you’ve been lied to? Yes, then, too! This bit of fanciful advice—essentially, to meet each difficult moment with humor and good cheer—comes from mother, poet, Scrabble whiz, artist, and wind-up toy collector Hannah Prisand, who died of cancer at age 58.
Originally meant to lighten the hearts of ornery or just plain sad kids, the phrase lived on as the title of a new book published last Mother’s Day by the author’s daughter, Arin Amanda Prisand ’97.
In “Dance Backwards,” Prisand—who graduated from Brandeis with a double major in American studies and fine arts and now works in the financial services industry—spotlights twenty of her mom’s whimsical messages about subjects that range from ants to magic to imagining you can soar like a kite through the sky.
But the charming verses, each colorfully illustrated, are meant to do more than amuse, the editor-publisher notes. “She wrote them,” says Prisand, “to inspire conversation between parent and child. My mother felt a lot of kids were just being put in front of the television. She wanted to get them talking. Besides being a lot of fun, each story has a solid moral lesson. That was how she parented.”
Beyond honoring Prisand’s beloved mom, “Dance Backwards” was published to raise funds to help improve the lives of other cancer patients.
Originally diagnosed with cancer when she was 27-years-old and Arin was two, Hannah Prisand found her parenting years punctuated by frequent trips to the hospital for tests, surgery, and other treatments.
“My mother was always active and optimistic, and she never complained no matter what curve balls were thrown at her,” Prisand recalls.
In the hospital, mother and daughter filled their time with Mad Libs, joke books, board games, and other forms of entertainment. And even as a youngster, Arin noticed something that disturbed her: the other patients seemed to have nothing amusing to do.
“There’s no question,” says Prisand, “that, no matter what you are there for, being in the hospital really stinks. But it occurred to me that having things to do makes it a better experience, and it encourages you to heal.”
Hannah Banana Foundation logoIn 2007, when Hannah Prisand was told she had three to six months to live (she actually ended up living another fourteen months), Arin decided to turn her ideas into action. In 2008, she established the Hannah Banana Foundation, which takes its title from her mom’s lifelong nickname. The foundation’s flagship program is the distribution of activity packs to adult patients in New York-area hospitals. Included in the gift bags are word-finder games, markers, pens, playing cards, geometric coloring books, journals, and other diverting items.
Knowing how much her mother would enjoy knowing about the program, Prisand hastened to get the foundation under way while its namesake could still have a role in the planning. Hannah Prisand—Hannah Banana—designed the logo, helped choose the gifts to be distributed, and participated in building the organization’s board of directors. More important, she shared fully her daughter’s joy in the project.
On July 1, 2008, the foundation launched its Web site. Then, on July 7, there was bad news: Arin Prisand, the daughter, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Undeterred by her own cancer treatment, Arin showed up at the foundation’s first fundraiser, a gala Oct. 22 celebration, wearing a head scarf that obscured her baldness. Her mother, who had spent the first five days of October 2008 hooked up to a ventilator, had rallied to the point where she was able to climb onto a motorized scooter with an oxygen tank to attend the party, which attracted some 480 people and earned $100,000 for the cause. Photos from the event depict her hugging, kissing, and laughing with her many admirers. Eight days later, Hannah Banana died.
The foundation, however, was alive and thriving. By the end of 2009, the group will have provided about 3,300 bags of engaging items for distribution to adult patients at nine hospitals. In addition, the Hannah Banana Foundation has made scores of erasable white boards available for patients who have trouble communicating orally.
Foundation funds have also supported the publication of “Dance Backwards,” issued through Xlibris, a private publishing firm that keeps initial investments low by printing and supplying relatively small numbers books on demand. What’s more, Prisand holds workshops based on the book for hospitalized children. Known as Hannah Banana days, they feature arts and crafts lessons based on the poetry.
With nearly 400 copies sold at $30 a pop on the Hannah Banana Web site, the volume has almost paid for itself already. Prisand—now happily cancer-free and participating in athletic competitions—predicts it will continue to delight children and generate revenues.
“Publishing this book is something I always knew I would do some day,” she says, “but I didn’t think it would be as a memorial. I pictured myself, in retirement, laughing and joking with my mother as we worked on the book together. Nevertheless, “Dance Backwards” is really special, and I have confidence it will be able to give back money to the foundation for a long time.”

-- Theresa Pease
    Theresa Pease is the editor of Brandeis University Magazine.

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