Mid-Winter Tea

My colleague and I were having lunch today at a favorite local Thai restaurant a short walk from our office. We both ordered jasmine tea, enjoying sipping over lunch and conversation. It was a simple, lovely moment in the midst of a work day. I had forgotten my phone in my office, so I was more relaxed than usual, blissfully unaware of what email may be filling my inbox. It felt good to be even temporarily untethered.

There is something so civilized about sipping tea. I was thinking about this tonight when a story suddenly came to mind about another mid-winter tea sipping.

I was living and working in Buffalo that never-ending winter. Snow piled up, inches at a time and day after day. I was so bored of my snow boots, so tired of the same sweaters and pants. I had a favorite dress that I liked to wear with mid-calf “granny boots” that had a mid-sized heel in a curvy shape. These were not winter boots, not Buffalo winter boots at any rate. But, I wore them anyhow and justified to myself that I was mostly in the office all day. It had snowed all night, and it kept snowing all day.

I worked for Hospice at the time, on the bereavement counseling team. We saw clients for community counseling in the office, and went out to make home visits for families that had been served through Hospice. On this day, I arrived to a pile of messages from several clients who were wanting to reschedule. As I reviewed my roster, I realized my one scheduled, remaining afternoon appointment was a home visit with a Hospice bereavement client, who had been the caregiver for her sister who had died a month earlier. I looked at my shoes and realized I was ill prepared for home visits on a snowy day.

I called my client, to let her know the office was open, but I had cancellations and I could come earlier than planned if she would like. I was secretly hoping she might reschedule, too. But, instead she said she was especially looking forward to the visit since she had fallen and broken her leg just after the funeral, and hadn’t been able to get out. In my mind, she sounded lonely, and my selfishness emptied into professional compassion. I said I would be there early afternoon. She warned me her steps had not been shoveled.

I thought about going home and changing, but she lived on the other side of the city. So, I set out for her house in the blowing snow and slippery roads. I arrived at her address to see what looked like an igloo piled up in front of her door. I wished I had a shovel, or at least, real boots. As I climbed the mountain of ice and snow to her front door, I felt a disconcerting slip of my footing and a sharp “crack” as I looked down to see the heel snapped off my fancy boots.

In action films and commercials for super-powered chewing gum, the brave heroine would snap off her other heel and boldly go forward to conquer the snow drift. In real life, your bare heel is exposed to ice and snow while the faux leather hangs off your shoe like a pathetic tail which will not rip off under any amount of pulling. I scooted myself to the door with a freezing cold foot, using the other heel like an ice-pick, and made it into her entry-way. She lived on the second floor and said to come upstairs and knock on her door.

I clomped up, and wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible. I had visions of an elderly, shut-in woman with a broken leg…a vision that filled my mind with sympathy and neediness. The woman who answered the door was strong, radiant, wearing an ankle cast but carrying a steeping pot of tea. She embraced me like an old friend, even though our contact had only been through mail and phone until that point. I said I would take off my boots and she waved that idea away, “come right in, no need, no worries…keep your feet warm!” I tried to hobble in without drawing attention to my predicament. We walked through her kitchen to her living room.

There, she had set up for us an exquisite tea, in delicate, paper-thin china cups that the green tea made radiant with warmth. She smiled from ear to ear, “I could only imagine what you had to do to get here. It means so much to me. We can talk all about my sister later, but first, let’s have tea.” She went on to tell me of the years of her service as an army nurse. She geographically situated her tea cups and teapots (and tea leaves) from far-reaching corners of Asia, gifts she had sent to her sister over the years, as it was in her sister’s home that she was currently residing, and in which we were presently visiting. We sipped and talked about life and travel and culture like old friends.

My client was a magnificent human being who had lived a fascinating life. She had moved here to care for her sister, decided to stay on a while longer after her accident to settle her sister’s estate, and would soon return to her own home, friends, and community in another state. She knew if we didn’t meet today, the meeting would likely never happen. She was craving closure with her caregiving, her time in this community, her life here. It was incredibly unexpected; she was hosting me as a guest of honor when I thought I was coming to serve her needs. We both had empathized with the other’s predicament, instead of our own. We eventually spoke of her sister, and I listened to her stories, her memories, her caregiving, her missed conversations and “what ifs” and pangs of grief about their relationship over the years. We covered a month of counseling visits over pots of tea that mid-winter afternoon. Were it not for my cancellations, I would never have had the luxury of time I could offer, or enjoy, that day. The afternoon passed, and the sun began to fade. We suddenly realized our visit needed to close.

At the same time, we both noticed my broken boot. She looked and said, “oh no! That happened getting to me!” I had tried to hide it, and I tried to brush it off again now. Finally, we just laughed. “I am a country girl who lives in snow country and I should have known better than to wear these today!” She found an old pair of boots…wrong size, but workable…in a closet. I gladly accepted the gift in order to climb the snowbank, and I thanked her for her tea and hospitality, as she thanked me for listening and companioning her journey.

In retrospect, I should have thanked her for a mid-winter afternoon of world travels that melted the snow and warmed my spirit. But, I could see on her face that we had both received gifts: time, listening, human connection. In fact, I think we were both graciously bestowed gifts by the Universe that day. Sometimes, one intersection of a person into your life can leave a truly lasting impression.

A small point of light, over shared mid-winter tea, was shining brightly on both our paths that cold winter day.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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