"He's at Susan's."
"Mom is going to be staying elsewhere for a bit, but we'll go visit her tonight"
"Where is she staying? Why isn't she here?"
"She had to go to the doctor's and they just want to keep an eye on her for a while. Don't worry, she's okay."
"Oh, okay. Can we get ice cream on the way home?"
I grew up in Tempe, Arizona; a suburb of Phoenix that hovered around 100-150k residents crammed into about 40 square miles of suburban living. We had a cute white house with blue trim, cacti growing in the (mostly lava rock) front yard, and grass desperately trying to survive in the back. My friends and I walked to school on our own, played in the streets, and ran through the alleys to escape to each other's homes. It was the quintessential middle-class American Dream: Tupperware parties, scraped knees, ice cream trucks and homemade cakes with frosting so thick it covered any potential imperfections.
I was in Virginia, spending the summer with my grandparents. Suddenly, I was popped on an airplane and left the green, lush world of endless cookies and everything I wanted for dinner. I arrived hours later to my dad standing and looking haggard in the dry desert airport. My initial confusion of my father's arrival alone quickly evaporated in my quest for ice cream.
And that was it. I suddenly returned for unknown reasons, and life went on. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and then my mom was back home. Wearing her favorite yellow dress, and letting me sit on the counter and frost the lopsided "welcome home" cake she made.
It wasn't until years later that I discovered what had happened. We were teenagers living in a townhouse in Indiana with our dad, our parents had divorced years before. One night, my brother screamed, and ran into my room. He had nightmares pretty frequently from about the age of 10. He jumped into bed crying, completely losing it.
"Why would mom do that?"
"I remember. I remember the shot and the blood. There was so much blood. I was home..."
And the pieces fell together. The new shower, my mom's stay with the doctors. My mother had tried to kill herself while I was on vacation and my little brother was taking a nap. She used my dad's handgun and tried shooting herself in the bathroom. The months that she was away, that we'd visit her in her "apartment" were all staged. The hospital had her in the psych ward, and she was allowed to move to one of the other rooms when visitors came so no one knew the truth. With about 18% of all adults suffering from mental illness, and only 41% ever seeking help, it wasn't surprising to find that no one talked about it for years. It was just another piece of life where the truth was hidden, smothered in thick layers like the cakes of our childhood.