Content warning: The following story contains references to someone losing a parent to cancer, which may be triggering for some readers.
"Nothing More," Stacy Oliver-Sikorski
I stand in my kitchen, feet bare and hair pulled into a tight ponytail, watching as the timer on the microwave counts down to zero. Warm, sweet air fills my lungs as I pull the oven door open, reaching for the aluminum Bundt pan and placing it on a wire cooling rack. I pace the floor tiles around the granite topped island waiting the requisite ten minutes before inverting the cake pan over the wire rack and saying a silent prayer that the cake will slide out easily.
I learned to bake at my mother’s side, though if I’m being honest, I learned only through the happenstance of being present. I didn’t ask questions or take notes; I barely acknowledged what she was doing as I chattered incessantly to her about school, friends, and books. When I called her in June 2008 to ask what would happen if I substituted lemon juice for all the liquid in a cupcake recipe that I found, she said, “Well, you would have lemon cupcakes. Is that what you want?” It was.
Weeks later, she called me at work to tell me that her recently developed pain and accompanying limp weren’t the result of a herniated disc as she’d assumed. Instead, it was an effect of lung cancer – small cell carcinoma, specifically -- that was already metastasized to her bones. She told me not to come home for the surgery she was going to have to replace her femur with a titanium rod, that the six-hour drive wasn’t worth it. I went anyway.
I spent too long deciding whether to tell my supervisor about my mom’s declining health. I was new to my job – we both were, as part of a new housing and residence life program – and I was afraid of being perceived as weak or unwilling to fully commit to my new role. I crumbled and told her only because it became obvious I was going to be making the drive to my mother’s house on a regular basis and would need help managing my on-call responsibilities. And then I had to tell the next four supervisors over the subsequent three years in that same job. Each showed varying levels of empathy and understanding in their responses; only one could be described as kind. I don’t think any were intentionally unkind; they simply didn’t know where to place this emotionally charged situation at a place that was run purely as a business. And because many of them supervised me for short periods of time – weeks or months – there was no inherent relationship or trust. Balance wasn’t a concept I could pursue or adequately advocate for at a time when I most needed it and so I settled for living askew.
It was a hard place to work, a place where few people assumed positive intent and often worked strategically against each other rather than toward a common goal. Being new and unused to such a divisive work environment, I lacked stability and self-confidence. Watching my mother’s health rapidly change from hundreds of miles away, I lacked control. And so I spent three years feeling adrift, never able to find a place where I was sure of myself or the future.
After my mom died in June 2011, I found that place. I found it in my kitchen. Baking became my refuge and the kitchen was the place where I started to once again build confidence and control. Things in the kitchen made sense in a way that my personal life and work life didn’t. I understood why eggs are best beaten into a recipe at room temperature. Measuring flour by weight rather than by volume was logical. Piping meringue into sweet, crisp kisses on baking sheets was a methodical form of art. I scoured the Internet for recipes and for the answers to my questions that my mom was no longer able to provide. And I took the products of my labor to work, where I shared them with colleagues and students, a baked sweetness to balance the raw bitterness.
It’s been more than five years since my mother died and I left that job. For me, grieving and healing meant leaving and moving a physical place. Since then, there have been new kitchens, each better than the last. And while they look different, they remain the place where I feel most myself and most centered. Each time I open the oven door and feel the heat rush over my face as I lean in to examine my latest creation, I pause to breathe deeply and say a silent prayer.
About the art:
Stacy's story resonated with me in a number of ways. Walking a fine line in a new role while balancing a stressful family dynamic is a challenge I have faced this year with the loss of my grandmother to lung cancer.
Her experience at work is also significant, and echoes many others I've heard in my short time within our shared field. Reading Stacy's story reminded me of a song that I'd recently heard: Nothing More, by the Alternate Routes.
"We are how we treat each other and nothing more."
It was such a simple statement that captured so much. It means empathy. It means focusing on the people first. It means thinking before acting, considering the human impact, and seeing beyond the "business" of our purpose. When you work with people, regardless of the "bottom line," empathy and compassion will always win out.
I'm so glad Stacy shared her story, because it sheds light on the human side of our work. Yes, we empathize with students daily (and sometimes we feel too much for and with them). But that compassion deserves to be extended to ourselves and our colleagues, especially in these difficult and uncertain times in our nation We are adults, and we are the caregivers more often than not. But we also need to be empowered to seek support, ask for help, and when all else fails, trust ourselves to find a better place.