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

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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.

44 thoughts on “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate

  1. Spring bake, love it. Not loving the reason why but loving that she found an outlet made of butter, sugar, vanilla and flour in the heart of your home. I have tears in my eyes, the word ‘suicide’ holds painful memories and fears for so many of us. Such an evocative and moving piece or writing Mrs P.

  2. Five suicides? Oh my goodness, that’s horrible. Does her school have a crisis help centre? I can’t even imagine being separated from a child during something like that. 😦 My best thoughts to you and your daughter to get through this.

  3. I’m sure your daughter will have loved every gesture of thrown flour and beaten egg during your bake off. She will have derived strength and comfort from having you near and knowing she could talk or not talk as it suited her.She will have returned to college with a new resiliance. She will probably also have returned laden down with a new wardrobe to accommodate all the extra pounds gained during this period of caloried hugs.
    No doubt her most precious cargo will have been the knowledge of the love waiting for her at the end of a letter, email, text or phone call home at any time between now and the Summer break and the strength this ongoing gift gives her to conquer any little doubts the work and the time away from home may cause.
    xxx Massive Hugs Shelley xxx

  4. With 2 sons at university I recognise every fear and worry in this: the agonies we go through as parents during the process of letting go. It has to be done though, they need to be allowed to find their own way, all we can do is be the fall back position.

  5. I’ve been doing some research, and thought you might be interested. The Romans had a minor goddess called Abeona who was the Protector of children leaving the home and Adeona who was the goddess who guides children back home.

  6. A most poignant post Shelley and beautifully done as always. I can’t help thinking that any young adult who can turn to a home as warm and understanding as yours clearly is, must be wonderfully well fortified against the travails of life.

  7. Catharsis in creation. The comfort of food and forming every piece by hand. My eldest daughter does similar and still wonders whether she should not embrace a cake shop rather than being a nurse. I suppose both give comfort in one way or another. There is real comfort in this post, knowing that whatever your child needs to do to cope, you facilitate. My heart goes out to the mothers and fathers of those young suicide victims and to the victims themselves, unable to find some way to cope.

  8. I am so sorry to hear about the losses in your daughter’s campus community. I can only imagine how anxious it made you. The story of your daughter’s baking felt so very intimate… a deep look into your love for her, and the solace she find in her childhood home. It is wonderful that she has that, can return to that.

  9. Baking is wonderful therapy. I use gardening. Everyone needs to find a hobby that propels them away from the ball and grind.
    I’m not sure why, however suicide has graced my world too many times. Last winter, a close friend and a brother in law both chose suicide 2 weeks apart. We never saw it coming. No ‘deadly diseases’ for which I actually can’t deny someone their choice to end their lives without suffering.
    Flat out. A scary, sad subject.

  10. There is nothing to equal something from a mom or dad’s kitchen for comfort and the expression of love. That ancient truth will always remain the same. Thanks to Rob for the lovely drawing which captures the mood of your writing.

  11. Hugs to you, Shelley, and your daughter. Your beautiful post brought tears to my eyes. I remember how overwhelming university was for me at the beginning. I’m so glad that I had support to adjust. I remember my parents showing up as a surprise early on in the year for my birthday, cake in hand. They weren’t sure if they were intruding, but I was so glad to see them. I’m sure your daughter will remember your baking time together, too.

  12. I always look forward to Sundays just to log on here and read your posts and see Rob’s drawings. Today’s post was a surprise. Instead of the laughs we’re usually given, we got a deep glimpse into the love between you and your daughter and a good reminder that even the most hilarious of people also dwelling in places sometimes so serious they’re scary. What a shame that not every one of those kids could hold on to get themselves home to their mother’s kitchen, huh? Here’s wishing you strength and courage while your daughter is learning how to sustain herself while out there in the cold world without you. But I’d say she’s done pretty well so far, right? She did manage to get back to you and show you exactly what she needed once she got there! Sending hugs to both of you!

  13. What a touching piece. Certain words are best left unsaid for fear that the mere utterance may make them fact. Suicide is such a word. It is impossible for me to imagine the despair that would lead someone to make such a decision. The pain of the loved ones makes me shudder. How could you continue? A Spring Bake seems a thoughtful and reasoned response. Words, may never be enough but if they are words of love and are mated with the scent of cinnamon there is always hope. My prayers are with you and yours.

  14. A very sensitive post! I have a (now) 40+ daughter and can only suggest that you stay “tuned” in after Univ as the stresses do not end with a Grad. I have seen a number of “errors” (obviously only my opinion) made by parents of clearly stressed offspring.
    1. They try and tell their offspring what they should do. A more productive approach is to suggest a number of options and let them decide. It is important that they make their own choices.
    2. They (parents) offer good common sense comments which are based on their own upbringing. The world is totally different now so instead, listen to how they (offspring) perceive their options. One of them just might make sense.
    3. Accept them for who they are. You may not like their sudden change in career path but, assuming there is no danger involved, support them anyway (aka “Tough Love”).
    4. They (parents) need to stop being a Mom/Dad and try and shift roles to mature female/male friend.

    I have a daughter who I could write a book about. She had difficult teens, made bad decisions re relationships, is a single Mom, made decisions that she is still coming to terms with, and has been fighting a brain tumour for over 6 years now. She is well versed in stress. She is very compassionate towards people who are experiencing difficulties and her legacy will no doubt be that of servant to the less fortunate. She never made it to University, nor did she follow any of the expected career paths, but I see the work that she is doing and am so proud of her. All she needed was someone to be “in her court” to advise if necessary and to always support.

  15. Shelley, yeast, warm water, kneading, rising, baking — this is all symbolic of birth. A perfect activity to soften the exposure to death. She might not verbalize it, but I’m sure your mother/daughter bonding midst the flying of flour and melting of butter was just what she needed–and you, no doubt. Profound post, thank you.

  16. What a beautiful response to such an achingly tough situation. How lovely that your daughter can come home and let out her stress through baking, and that you provide her with the space and time to do so. I’m hoping she’s gone back to school feeling a little more comfort, with the strength and grace to see through the last few weeks of the semester. My best to you and yours.

  17. I struggled so much with this post. It kicked me in the guts. Two suicides close to me … remembering my own fears for my 2nd son when he was away at school, profoundly unhappy and struggling to find his way.
    This is a parent’s nightmare and your last line was so mournful.

    I understand what this week meant to you … the desire to hold her close and never let her go, but knowing you need to let her go to find her way in the world. Always afraid.

    I discovered my son is an unbelievably strong person – in character, in values, in his work ethic, in his ability to cope.
    It sounds like you too discovered an inner strength in your daughter ❤

  18. Cooking is great therapy. Probably the best. For both of you. Colleges used to be nurturing but now they are glimpses into the corporate lives many kids will encounter and they are too young for it. Especially when parental hopes are added to the equation. Hope the smells of the home kitchen will carry your silent voyager forward.

  19. When you sat with us and spoke of writing this post and how hard it had been I wanted to take you in my arms and soothe your pain – we mothers who love feel so deeply our children’s pain, yet knowing it is theirs, not ours, just supply the ingredients so they can bake their way back to some ease. I see in my minds eye your beautiful kitchen strewn with flour and sugar, fruits fresh and dried, spices and essences and butter and eggs. It is a warm and healthy atmosphere, a place where hurts are healed and safety recovered. Sometimes we intuitively know exactly the right thing to do to reclaim our calm centre. to gird our loins for the next round, to fill our souls with the sweetness of life. You are such a good mother – I’ve said it before – Your daughter knows you have her back. And the baking supplies! xoxo

  20. A haunting post. It holds echoes for me and I’m sure for most parents. The ripples of suicide are powerful and awful. The anxieties of parenthood never leave us – even when our children have children of their own – I suppose it’s the price we pay for the gift of having them. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things for your daughter – all the best to you both.

  21. I hadn’t thought of baking as therapy but now that you’ve brought it up, it does make sense to me. Feeling worthless can put a person into deep depression, especially as the youngest of adults go through while in college. I say “the youngest of adults” because they’ve reached past that landmark of being 18 but are still so naive. I can understand your worry for your daughter, Shelley. Baking would keep that hands and brain busy, plus there’s the instant gratification that comes when you pull out the cookie sheet, muffin pan, or the can pans with all of those wonderful comforting aromas.

    Question: Was it you or your daughter who came up with this idea of baking as a form of therapy?

  22. This post speaks to all parents with kids growing up. I have two wonderful boys, one just graduated, one ‘half way’. It is this strange mix of letting go , letting them grow into their independence but still being there, being ready to talk, to just be the mom/parents they were used to if only for a little time to regain strength to ‘face it all again.’ Five suicides is shocking, beyond comprehension. What incredible grief. It was wonderful you had time together and say so much without talking…that is invaluable! thank you for sharing! Johanna
    ps the illustration is beautiful, loving and poignant.

  23. touching, of course. and ‘that thing’ about which we don’t want to speak, always a jolt iffenwhen it strikes. i wish i could say my kids, even, had been spared that occurrence within their respective circles. speakinuv, we circle the wagons, and …

  24. I’ve been waiting for this post with two parts angst and one part joy, knowing what an incredible mother you are and how in tune you’ve remained with your daughter. This is an extraordinary piece, Shelley, though one I’m sorry you had to write. My own son leaves for college in the fall; a neighbor’s son, attending the same school, took his own life earlier this year. The loss defies words. It strikes at our parenting core. The desire to love and protect will always be there. Sending you love and peace. I hope the rest of the year passes quickly and you can all have a well-deserved emotional rest from it all.

    Rob, the art work is stunning. You are one, well-rounded individual.

  25. The statistics are alarming… Very sad… Particularly whe such an extreme choice is involved… One cannot but ask oneself “Why?”…
    I have always thoughts that cooking has a therapeutic effect, maybe also there are
    cathartic gestures in doing so…. As seasons go by, we enter a renewed cycle… There is something eternal in that cyclical progression, I’d say… life is an act of daily living….
    Thus, we should be grateful each day and also honour our acquaintances… In this sense, your baking spring says a lot about Life, dear Shelley. Thank you for sharing and all my best wishes ⭐ Aquileana~

  26. Nicely done, very touching, and it surely makes one pause and ponder a bit. I know that my students suffer from extreme sleep deprivation, sometimes self-imposed, sometimes not. They get that same hollow-eyed look, in fact … much like they have now. We are all counting the days to the end of the semester, professor and student alike it seems. Thank you for a great post!

  27. “Your answer is not always their answer.” This is often a liberating truth, sometimes a heartbreaking and frustrating truth, but always a humbling one. Hopefully the hours of baking, rest, and love she received during her break will strengthen her for the remainder of her school year.

Don't hold back ... Hail and Speak!

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