The Patience for Bread

A tan froth floats along the surface as I stir yeast and sugar into warm water. According to Google, the yeast is alive, ready to do the heavy lifting on this bread, if it bubbles when added to the water. There doesn’t seem to be much life here. No bubbles, just foam the color of the organic strained pears I shoveled into Noah’s mouth when he was a baby. That brown goop collected in the corners of his mouth and ran down his chin as he refused the sweet mush, pushed it back out with his tongue. I read the recipe again: dissolve yeast and sugar in water between 100 and 120 degrees. Maybe the water wasn’t warm enough to activate the yeast.

I dig through the drawer that holds all the various kitchen utensils I’ve collected over the years when I had unlimited time to cook high-maintenance meals for just my husband and me. Rummaging past multi-sized whisks and vegetable peelers, a citrus juicer, a melon baller, I find only a meat thermometer, grab it with shrug, and slide it into the scummy liquid. But then I see that the little numbers on the face start at 130 degrees, not the 100 I am looking for. I squint; I mark with a fingernail where the numbers would be if they were printed there; I wait as the indicator slowly rises up the dial.

Already this exercise in bread making seems entirely too difficult, not at all worth this kind of scrutiny of basic ingredients. What if the yeast is not alive? What if the water temp is not hot enough? Wasn’t there a different recipe I had browsed that said to add the yeast directly into the flour? I project my mind into the day and imagine the burden of coming back again and again to the bowl where my bread dough will rest, will rise, where I will poke in fingers, punch the mound of dough until it deflates and wrinkles like the skin of my belly. And I feel the demand of that process lay over my shoulders and I am already exhausted by the commitment.

But today I am testing of my patience. I remind myself of the golden, crunchy crust I enjoyed as a child when my mother made bread. I remind myself of the reliably wonderful smell that will fill the house, regardless of the success of the bread. Today, I am baking bread.

First activate the yeast. Next, add the yeast mixture to more water and then to flour, sugar and salt. Stir until a ball forms. So simple. But the success of the bread all depends on this yeast. For levity. Without yeast, there is no bread. And to have faith in this bland, tan substance, planning your day around the process, desiring a perfect loaf of bread… It’s that looking ahead thing, the dread of the process, which puts the burden on the creating.

The water registers just below the 130 degree mark. Despite the lack of bubbling, I forge ahead, pushing away the doubts, the predictions of failure. Sift the dry; mix in the wet. Whizz it through the food processor until it becomes a ball and threatens to bust the plastic bowl. Out and plop it down on the floury board, knead it like I saw on TV: push with the heels of your hand, turn, and push. Well-known cooks often like to say that kneading bread is therapeutic. Again, I worry about the right way: how many times do I turn the dough…if too many and I’ve activated the dough’s strong gluten, will it be too tough? Will my baked bread resemble a football again, like the loaf my brother threw down the basement stairs when last I attempted to bake bread when I was 14?

I know that I need to trust the feel of the dough beneath my hands. The heat of the oven as it hovers over the burners. The sound of the loaf when I knock on the top crust with my knuckle. This is old knowledge at play here, something like instinct whispers if you listen. I have learned that if you simply pay attention, you will know when a food is done baking by the smell that permeates the house as it nears its doneness. But bread is not cookies or cakes or casseroles. Bread demands a commitment, a faith that not much other food does. First, I must trust the yeast.

***

My son is almost 2 ½, with developmental delays, not yet walking, not yet talking…so the metaphor here is an obvious one. But this bread is not a metaphor to me, instead it is a step. Maybe someday it will be a practice. I’ve not yet mastered the art of meditation, but I know in my own novice way already that the key to surviving this lifelong journey as caretaker, parent, guide, defender, cheerleader of a child with special needs is going to be to stay in the moment. Tend to the process and let the yeast do its work.

I gave birth to a baby boy whom I thought would be perfect. And of course, before genesis, what is perfect but a myth created by Johnson & Johnson ads, the anecdotes told by relatives and friends of the joys of baby smells, first steps, and that oft-memorialized first day of school? The picture snapped as the child stands before the yellow school bus. Maybe another taken as the child ascends the stairs and does a quick wave goodbye over his shoulder, the fear and excitement held guarded on his face. I looked into the future with that same look, boarded the bus of parenthood with some trepidation, but eager to become the person I needed to be to survive middle of the night feedings, choosing a daycare, searching the internet for a miracle cure for stained clothing, teasing a smile from a pouty face at the bedtime. Oh yes, I was ready for the long haul as I perceived it, wasn’t I?

But there is no way to proof an egg or a sperm or zygote or embryo or infant like I can proof yeast. Though we try with folic acid and a quad screen, the many visits for a sonogram, the Apgar tests, the counting of ten fingers and ten toes. We read books and take classes and listen to the stories of other mothers to provide us with a roadmap for this very precarious journey we are about to embark on. And after the baby is born, we pay extra on our cable bill each month to get “Baby TV” to stimulate our child’s learning and we join playgroups to motivate them socially and we start to research the best preschools in case there is a long waiting list. We are a generation of completely prepared parents.

Sometimes, when I’m at my most cynical, I think must I have had “sucker” stamped right on my forehead because I believed in it all. I believed that if I did everything right, I was guaranteed the happy beginning of a new life, just as I had prepared for. But what I was not prepared for was a reality where even the smallest thing—a smile— might be denied me. Sound idealistic? Maybe it was, but…it was also very, very normal.

When you first suspect your child is not developing in the predicted manner, you stare your fear in the face…flinch…and either log onto the internet or pull out a mammoth guide to babies and search desperately for all proof that your baby is just doing things a little later than normal. You tell yourself that normal is on a continuum. And you can still log your child somewhere on that continuum with a penciled hash mark. You believe you can still fill out each page of his baby book as they are presented. Until you can’t.

There are certain things in life in which you can have a reasonable amount of expectation in regard to the product. If I buy a loaf of Wonder Bread, then I expect to get a slightly saggy loaf that smells subtly of plastic, but tastes like childhood when swiped with some peanut butter and jelly. If I buy a peasant loaf from the local bakery, I can expect a thick crust, something that would laugh at jelly in a mocking tone and demand right then a nice block of aged cheddar. For those who aren’t the adventurous type, but enjoy a bit of homemaking, prepared bread dough can be found in the frozen food aisle. Sure there is some thawing and rising involved, and it is raw when you start out, but let’s get real: you are buying bread dough because it is damn intimidating to make dough from scratch.

Making bread from scratch takes time. It requires the baker to commit a part of a day to the process. And in our culture, other than sitting at our desks or typing on a computer or staring at a tv screen…well, we’re pretty much abhorrent of spending half a day doing any one thing.

And this is how time passes, slower than you can imagine, when your infant, maybe nearing his first birthday, doesn’t do anything, or doesn’t tolerate anything, or doesn’t say anything. Every guarantee you invested in so heavily when deciding to have a baby has been stripped away and your future with your child is an open expanse of nothing. Nothing, but commitment. And commitment is neither black nor white. It is neither hopeless nor full of hope. It is both. It just is. And it is forever. It is a weight on your shoulders. It is a dread in your heart. It is the power of loving this little being beyond the moon and stars while being so angry that he has denied you your dreams for him.

I dreamed of sending my son to a language immersion school so that he could learn two languages very young and have the opportunity to travel to another country as an exchange student. I dreamed of ways I would lead him toward his becoming: gymnastics to learn how to control his body; karate to learn how to be strong of spirit and ward off potential bullies; volunteer work to teach him compassion. I dreamed of dancing with him at his wedding, he at least a foot taller than me, and tolerating my tears. To survive these first two terrifying and tedious years of his life has required me to pack away these dreams in a box that will never be reopened.

So, instead you play with scenarios. Okay, so you are certain your hypotonic son will not become the quarterback of the high school football team. You can live with that; he can do something studious. And, well, he might not join debate or the science club, since learning seems to be somewhat a problem. He can do something creative! And so what if he’ll need to start out school in a special needs classroom? We’ll give him what he needs now; he can be mainstreamed later.

But where do the modifications of our expectations end? And when do we take a hold of the great eraser in our minds and allow for the future to make up its own path? When do I allow my son to unveil himself like a late-season rose instead of throwing on a blanket of Miracle Gro and rushing his rise?

Many parents with kids with special needs feel like we are caretakers first, parents second…always tending, never harvesting. Many feel the burden of the invisible golden chain we clip to our kids’ belt loops each time they go out into the world, hoping to pull them back from rude stares, harmful comments, dangerous intersections, lurking new dangers we can’t even predict. And yet, perhaps the greatest cruelty of all is that we had to learn too soon to let go. Since I cannot predict his future–not this child who has run the rails and determines to make his own way–, then I must simply allow the future to spin out like a good thick story.

And like a story, there is something organic to be found in raising a child with special needs, I suppose. Certainly we take advantage of every possible medical intervention, every therapy, every assistive devise, every medication and supplement; not much of that feels organic. And of course, we know we live in a world of typical people doing typical things and that simple reality can make going to the grocery store a nightmare. But, at some point, we are forced to start listening to our hearts, or to our child’s spirit for clues on how to be, how far to go, when to push and when to hole up in our houses and warm ourselves at the stove wherein bakes a loaf of bread. There are limits to our ability to shape our child in our image, or even our image of them, and instead, we are forced to find joy in the discovery of the person they are.

I don’t aim to romanticize the life of a special needs parent or child: looking on the bright side is not a normal act for me. My heart bursts with anger at all the potential my son has been robbed of. In a perfect world (which I think we have proven does not exist, otherwise my son would be walking and running and asking for a popsicle), Noah would be free to go his own way, unshackled from the expectations I couldn’t help but create for him the moment I planned his perfect delivery into this world. But the world will expect much from him, possibly too much, and from me. The world will attempt to label him, categorize him by aptitude, by accomplishment, put him in his place. As his mother, I hope to present him with a blank canvas, perhaps one with a story told in invisible ink, a story we will know only once he has lived it.

***

The dough is on its second rise. It has taken 2 hours of attention and inattention to come this far. With Noah and his dad out swimming, I have organized the spice cabinet, paid the bills and surfed the internet while I wait, visiting the kitchen every half an hour or so to peek at my loaf of bread warming on top of the stove. I poke two fingers into its smooth, floured surface and the imprint stays. Ready to be kneaded once more, rolled, shaped and laid in the pan copiously coated with grease. A swipe of beaten egg painted on with a kitchen brush will bring the crust to a golden brown when baked. I am ready for the home stretch. An hour at 350 degrees and my bread, for better or for worse, will be done.

I consider what I expect when, in an hour, I pull open the oven door and slide out the loaf pan. It will smell remarkable certainly; I can already catch whiffs in the few minutes it has been in the oven. Since it did successfully rise, it should not be flat as a pancake. Since I think I overdid it a little in the food processor, it may not, regrettably, have a airy interior. And I wonder, will this recipe have that slightly sweet aftertaste of store-bought white bread, or will it have a dense, salty taste from the soda, perhaps better dipped into a bowl of soup than smeared with jam?

The bread bakes, and already I am planning my next loaf. A different recipe that includes a spin of honey at the very end or maybe a handful of hearty wheat flour dropped in for texture. I realize that it doesn’t really matter how this loaf turns out. I have watched and waited. I have, to my surprise, enjoyed the process: my hands on the dough, the rise and fall of the loaf, the heat of the oven, the smell of the bread. Because it is in the doing that I find the patience for bread.

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