Tackling Grief in the Everyday Things
Like any other self-respecting Irish woman, I’ve made an immeasurable amount of tea in my lifetime. My particular tea-drug of choice? Barry’s Gold Label. Giant mug, two and a half sugars (which would change depending on the size of aforementioned mug, obviously), low fat milk (full-fat is just white soup), leave the teabag in, and there you have it. Home-made Prozac in a cup.
I’m a creature of habit, like most of us. Although the basic formula for my perfect cup of tea never changes, it can be a completely different experience, depending on context. A cup o’ scald is simply a blank canvas upon which the drinker can project their feelings. Good or bad, tea is a constant presence whenever someone needs a buffer between them and the real world, for better or for worse.
Toast is an invaluable sidekick in these instances. It makes honest people of us when we are asked the question “Have you eaten today?” I’m not particularly fussy about the type of toast I get in any specific situation, however my staple diet when I’m stressed t’feck is two slices of Old Mr Brennan’s finest white bread, covered in peanut butter. Can’t beat it.
When I sat down to write about the mystical properties of a good cup of tea, my mind was racing with possibilities. I was all set to write a piece that listed the different types of tea one could have in any given year; the Hangover cup, the Routine Everyday cup, the Fry-Up tea (this is a legal requirement when applying for Irish citizenship. People have been deported for even THINKING about suggesting a cold drink, or worse – coffee, to go with your full Irish breakfast). The list was fairly substantial. We Irish sure know how to attach symbolism and superstition to the smallest of things…
However, as the days went on, there were two particularly memorable cups of tea which dominated my waking moments and memories in the last five years or so. These are the ones I want to write about. The first, and most universally identifiable, is of course The Comfort Tea.
Made in times of crisis, either by yourself or by others for you, Comfort Tea can, in the right moment, have a far more calming effect than any prescription drug. By making it yourself, you’re seeking comfort in consistency. You know that even in the midst of the most soul-destroying shit-storm, you can still have the same awesome hot beverage you had on your last good day. There’s a hope that the taste somehow trigger your brain chemistry into remembering how it reacts when life is pleasant and enjoyable; so that maybe, just maybe, it will kick back into feeling good again. In that moment, a seemingly innocuous hot beverage made in a moment of pain can tether you once again to the flow of the outside world, and let you know that ‘this’ too shall pass.
Comfort Tea made by someone else and given to you can mean all that and so much more. Sure, it probably won’t be the same. There might be too much milk, or not enough sugar, but the warmth behind the gesture makes it taste fantastic. It is more profound; it tells you that you are not alone in your moment of hell. It tastes of companionship, of the knowledge that all beyond our control can chop and change, but there will always be friendship. It can invite you into the sacred inner recesses of someone’s sanctuary – their home. It’s the first thing a friend will offer you when you arrive at their house, and it speaks to your soul, saying “I am home, and now, so are you.”
But in my world, there is also another type of tea. It’s a cup of tea I will never make again. Its absence kicks me in the heart every time I think about it. Even thinking about it now as I type, I am transported back to just over two years ago, to the last few times I ever made it. It never occurred to me that of all the finite things we are granted in the world, the making of a cup of tea for my mother would end as soon as it did.
The beauty of that tea lay in its sameness. If I was a creature of habit, then my mother was the Goddess unto which all us creatures dedicated our habit. Her tea and toast ritual never varied, particularly in the last two years of her time on this earth as her health declined. Two slices of wholemeal toast, scraping of Flora, and a banana sliced almost academically thin, and arranged on each piece in three rows of three. Nine banana pieces on each piece of toast. Military precision required, and the duty was mine. I loved the satisfaction of slicing the banana evenly, but hated the Flora with a passion. It made me retch. It was a long-running joke between me and her, that she was the only person on the earth who I would suffer through buttering hot toast for. I maintain to this day that this unequivocally qualifies me as The Best Daughter In The World, although there’s been no official confirmation from The World as of the time of writing.
My mom, although one of the most formidable, magnificent and spiritually tenacious woman to ever grace the planet, had the worst taste in tea ON THE PLANET. I’m not speaking out of turn, her hot beverage of choice was a bone of contention at family hangouts, and the butt of many a joke. Decaf tea in a small cup, no sugar, drop of low-fat milk. Liquid insipidness. It always fascinated me how she could enjoy such a weakling of a drink, but she’d just smile at me sarcastically and tell me to get over it. I swear, as I type this, I can hear her doing it right now.
I haven’t made that cup of tea, or that military-precision banana toast since January of 2013. One cold, unforgiving day, my mom’s poor beleaguered body began to give up a years-long battle with a myriad of health problems, and she went into hospital, where on Feb 7th 2013, my sisters and my brother-in-law said our final goodbyes.
The days that followed were a blur, ironically mostly consisting of tea and toast and every other edible thing going, as is the Irish way in cases of grief and loss. As we all milled around our grossly overcrowded kitchen, noticing that extra kettles had been brought in, we knew our mom was a woman who was going to leave a vacuum in the world that would never be filled. Yet, among all the platitudes and compliments being paid to her indomitable spirit, her courage in the face of adversity, her strength as a woman and a single mother, I look back now and think; all I want to do is make her that stupidly weak tea and perfectly presented banana on toast just one more time.
Even five years on, when I hear the switch go off on the kettle and I celebrate my own little tea ritual, I feel guilty for not making her one as well. Instead, I give a wee nod to her in my mind every time. I will never get to make her tea again, but she always joins me for mine.