My daughter came for a meal last night. “Come any time after 6”, I’d said when she phoned the previous evening: “I’ll make your favourite pie.” “Can you bake the rest of the gingerbread dough?” she asked.
I had told her about the gingerbread dough on Sunday. I’d watched an episode of Bake Off in which all the contestants had to produce sugar-free cakes. The most successful ones, it seemed, were those which used agave nectar. It occurred to me I could try baking with this for Dylan.
I removed sugar from Dylan’s diet last year after I identified a possible link with ‘challenging behaviour’. I am increasingly convinced by the connection. I am confident that Dylan is not consuming refined sugar at his new home (where staff have applied the dietary guidelines) and that there is now more consistency in Dylan’s care. The change in him is extraordinary; there have been no episodes of ‘challenging behaviour’ since Dylan moved. It is as if I am getting my son back.
I don’t think the sugar-free diet is the only factor in this (I can think of at least two others) but I’m pretty sure it’s part of it. I love that Dylan’s new home have been so supportive of his sugar-free diet and that there is dialogue between us about how to implement it in a positive way for Dylan. “I wondered about trying to bake something with agave nectar” I said to one of the managers last week. “I saw that episode of Bake Off too”, she said: “Great idea!”
So on Saturday Dylan and I went on an Agave Nectar hunt. Not only did we find it, we were offered a choice of light or dark (I chose light in case Dylan didn’t care for the taste). The shop assistant asked whether I had ever tried birch sugar. This, apparently, is a product used by diabetics as a sugar substitute; very grainy and sparkling white, more like granulated than caster, it is derived 100% from the birch tree. I can’t remember the brand name (I let Dylan take it back with him to the care home) but I think it is a Swedish product.
So on Sunday morning we made gingerbread. “It is an experiment” I said to Dylan as we combined agave nectar, maple syrup and birch sugar: “It might not work”. Dylan was running with high excitement between the kitchen and Fantasia playing in the living room. He was so giddy, some of the quick faces he made on the gingerbread men were hilarious. As he peered into the oven to watch the bake I willed it to be edible…
When we returned to the care home that afternoon, Dylan was clutching his box of gingerbread men. Saying goodbye after the weekend is always hard for me but seeing Dylan trying to charm a care worker to open the box lid made it easier; I drove away feeling calm. Arriving home, however, I was hit by a wave of absence as I opened my front door; the smell of gingerbread hung heavy in the house, thick with cinnamon and cloves and ginger.
Of all the senses, smell is the most powerful but the one which writers draw on least. It is difficult to write smell, we are told. And yet when I run a workshop where I pass around vials of unlabelled substances for students to smell, as the trigger for a piece of writing, the results are often extraordinary. Smell unlocks our deep emotions and enables us to feel things we cannot think or speak. This is Dylan’s language; for him, I imagine, the smell of gingerbread offers an emotional connection to the memory of his Gran bringing some for him. And now, I thought, for me it is the smell of absence.
Unable to settle when I got home from work the next day, I lifted the leftover dough from the fridge and made another batch. I wanted the smell of it in the house: to feel, with my senses, Dylan’s presence, as well as his absence.
“I’ve already done it” I told my daughter. “I baked the rest of it last night. Come and help me eat it.”