When I think about tea I think about Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. I think about Gus the mouse in Cinderella being caught in a tea cup while the evil stepmother starts to pour tea. I think about Chip in Beauty and the Beast. I think about Lost Horizon and Shangri-la where the Buddhists wouldn’t speak until they had finished their tea out of respect. Happy Disney classics and literature. Wonderland and maddness. Imperfection and its sweetness.
But the first thing that comes to mind is my mom, so this one is for her.
The first assignment in poetry class was to write a ‘narrative’ poem. I wanted to write about mom, I wanted to write about the first time I realized she actually had cancer, the moment it hit me, the moment it became real. But I chickened out and turned in an old poem I wrote over the summer that I was confident in and wanted someone to read. I didn’t want that teacher to read about mom yet, too vulnerable, compared to the symbolic poem I turned in in its place. The poem I wanted to write, the narrative, begins in the kitchen. I’m making tea. I wanted to write about the steam swirling and the way the water turns golden and starts to smell like warm roses. I wanted to write about the dust in the air dancing with the light from the window. I wanted to write about how the kitchen was dim and unspectatular and grey, but how that tea was on fire and the only thing with any color that morning. I wanted to write about walking through the dining room and rounding the corner to the living room and stepping into the light. I wanted to write about the perfect mental image of my mother in her glasses with her black hair all scruffled up from sleep, her body wrapped in blankets and a computer propped on her knees. I wanted to write about knowing the light outlining and blazing through fly-away hairs creating a halo effect around her head. I wanted to write about it, because I knew what it sounded like, I could hear morning talk shows playing like white noise in the background as my dad reads the newspaper on the couch across from her. The scrap of newspaper, the din of old mens voices and tired opinions, maybe birds chirp outside, siblings squabbling in different wings of the house echoing into the peripheral. I wanted to write about that image and moment and time because that is what I always saw and always expected and knew perfectly down to the creases in her forehead. I wanted to write about that because that is not what I saw. I didn’t see hair. I don’t know how to say “bald” elegantly and “bald” doesn’t really even cover what she was in that moment either. I was there when they shaved it, I was there when it fell out. I had touched her scalp. I knew. And despite all those moments and dry facts, I still could not add up and assimilate the woman on the couch who had overtaken my mother. It was as if her body was betraying her soul. Some foreign grey shadow hovering, looming over, suffocating her warm auburn light. My mother is like that cup of golden tea, always smelling like roses and cinnamon, burning with the colors of changing leaves in the fall. And I stood there in shock taking in this otherness in our livingroom. The absence. As I processed and the image turned concrete, immediately it began to crumble, my mind refusing to let this image in. Clutching to the tea in the coldness of where my sleepy mothers laughter should have been, that is the only moment when I saw my mother with cancer. It was as if all the years of chemo were distilled in that one scene. In one cup of tea turned cold. Even when sitting with her when she had every possible needle poked into her, even when lying in the ER with rampant phantom pain, even when passing through ghostly hosital hall after hall, she was only “sick,” it was never actually killing her, I wouldn’t let it. And ultimately it didn’t, but on that one morning I saw it, and it was grey and empty and cold and clammy. I push past the wall into the living room and deliver the tea and I see her light return, briefly sparked by quiet thanks and I breathe again.
This is what I think about when I make tea. I think about my mother and amber. Every story, verse, prayer she told and tells my siblings and me, is like being handed perfectly fossilized insects in amber. Trapped butterflies turned into jewels that she gave and gives us with her words and her honey voice. I think about collecting all her amber and piecing it together in mosaics to line the walls of my mind when it gets dark. And there I rest, safely protected by that glow and her love, watching it well up from the tea leaves under hot water, sweetened with honey, occassionally cooled with milk.