Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate

When hearing the term “spring break” many of us easily conjure up the images of families taking off for that one last round of late winter skiing, or finding a child-friendly cruise, with wallet-friendly options. We see ourselves organizing the garage, and sifting through closets, a cathartic cleanse that gifts us new space. And it’s especially easy to picture a throng of college students making their way en masse toward sandy white beaches far removed from the cramped, windowless lecture halls they’ve occupied through dark winter months.

But this year spring break was anything but the above depictions. For me, that is. And I think for my daughter too.

This year I spent the time uneasy and restless, tense and observant. I spent it hoping to hear the words in someone else’s thoughts. I needed to measure the struggle, my daughter’s level of distress.

Her campus was in crisis mode, all parents on high alert. The same lamentable word refused to be muted, would not release its steadfast grip.

Suicide.

It is a word that strikes through the strength of a family and weakens the backbone of a community. It is an action that brings us to our knees with the senseless loss from an unheard cry.

Chronic stress is a familiar disease most every college student is acquainted with. Its unforgiving malady inflicts academic anxiety, depletes crucial sleep, and unleashes widespread social struggles, challenging our children to fit in somewhere new in someplace foreign.

A known and nerve-wracking fact among parents and educators, the leading cause of death among university students is suicide. The statistics are varied, and we brace ourselves to hear of the wretched news. One is horrifically tragic. A second is a spreading concern.

But five?

Five within one year? And all on one campus.

It left me desperate to talk to my child … and to hear my child talk.

I wanted her home, with me where I could see her. But I forced a stillness within myself, remembering that she was attempting to build herself a new home. To stretch and redefine who she was. To discover where she will next belong.

We’d speak on the phone. I’d offer her words. But words are paltry and may only provide an anemic effect. It’s nearly impossible to feel you are getting an accurate reading in a situation such as this. It is a terrible tug of war. The wanting. The wanting to rush someplace and fix something. But that is not always the answer.

Your answer is not always their answer.

In the last 19 ½ years I have known this child, a few things have bubbled to the surface to claim the top box if she were filling out an application profile, describing who she is. It’s likely she’d say:

A scientist

A musician

An activist

But there is a tiny little baker buried deep inside her that materializes when in desperate need to combat ironfisted stress.

When spring break arrived, I met her at the airport. Encased in a hug that I hoped echoed a million words of warmth, I breathed her in. I’d missed the spice of her hair, the honeyed notes of her perfume.

I took her home—and not to a beach, the garage or the slopes. To no great surprise her personal Pillsbury Doughboy punched in daily on his flour-dusted time clock. Within minutes of arriving, he had transformed my kitchen into a satellite city patisserie.

Dorms consider a communal kitchen to be a closet with a microwave from 1957. College cafeterias are considered fresh and contemporary if they could advertise they’ve been cooking ‘nose to tail’ recipes long before it was considered hip, and were nearly certain there was a fork somewhere in the utensil bin that was dedicated as “peanut free.”

Winters can be bleak and mournful if the closest you can come to home cooking are dorm room banned candles crafted to smell like meatloaf and chocolate chip cookies.

My kitchen became an invisible big-bosomed therapist, warm from the heat of the oven, smelling of Madagascar vanilla, and costing a considerable amount of money which insurance companies would never reimburse under the umbrella of preventative healthcare.

It didn’t matter.

I savored the fact that she was home. And day by day the smudgy, dark circles beneath her eyes—the circles I at first took for a potential dabble into a late teen Goth phase, but knew were the result of a schedule where sleep was rarely granted before 3am—slowly faded. I would not have been surprised to see her drop her bag at the end of her childhood bed, fall prone and not rise until I told her it was time to head back.

But there was that urge to bake. To turn the bitter into sweet.

Every day the pantry was scoured, the fridge was raided, and recipe books were consulted. Every day something fragrant appeared in finished form, its come hither whispers accompanied by an invisible finger, crooked and beckoning.

There were mounds of muffins and breads, cookies and tarts. Chocolate covered confections and lime zested pies. Graham crackers married sticks of butter and served as a crumbly hug for whatever they embraced. Coconuts and pecans toasted themselves beneath the fiery, wiry heat of a broiler set to suntan. Apples, dates, bananas and carrots had every gram of sugar coaxed out of them with the deep calm of an individual lazily spinning through the quiet hours of an unnoticed afternoon.

Day by day, ample perfumes mingled with each other to signify a steadily budding state of grace.

Taste this.

Eat that.

Try those.

Little words, big flavors, potential aid promising relief.

Every day I told myself, Okay, either she’s going to run out of steam, or I’m going to run out of ingredients. The end is near.

The “End” did not arrive until I returned her and her tiny duffle bag to the airport where she was soon whisked back to seven more weeks of muddling through those stressors she’d left; the disquieting uneasiness locked behind a dorm room door and strewn about a grief-stricken campus.

The list of things I have to offer this child may be rapidly diminishing in terms of parental care, but there is still comfort. I will hold what she cannot contain, I will hear what she cannot say, and I will eat what she cannot finish.

She may not have had a traditional respite from school this year, less spring break more spring bake. But I hope it was what she needed.

When I walk into a space that is filled with the heady aroma of caramelizing sugar, I am immediately reminded of my daughter. Transported to a nearly tangible encounter, it is at once comforting and then painful. It is something I wish I could return to those heartbroken parents—the unmistakable scent of their child.

120415springbreak3

~Shelley

Related articles

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.