Tea is a constant. Perfumed jasmine tea when sitting quietly with old friends from Hawaii, or when noisily eating and laughing with those friends over dim sum, the little cups leaving small earth-colored circles on the round glass tabletops. Spicy ginger tea when I have the sniffles, or when, newly pregnant, I spun through the throes of morning sickness. Good, mellow Earl Grey tea, leaves floating loose in an infuser that itself floats in my favorite mug, for gentle mornings at home. Crappy black tea in a bag comforts like a no-nonsense British nanny, a bracing buck-up-now at a diner after a break-up, on a plane that’s taking me away from someone I love, in the waiting room at a hospice care center.
Today, right now, my cup of crappy black tea is readying me for a life without my father. Today, sipped from a styrofoam cup in an airplane, it is telling me that I can walk one foot at a time into the toweringly thunderous silence coming from the space in my life. I thought I was ready for this loss, and the tea is telling me that while of course that was naive, it is okay to be naive, that I have never yet been in this world as a daughter with no parents to call or make proud or disappoint and so of course everything feels like my skin is brand-new. Each bitter sip reassures me that loss isn’t something anyone ought to be good at, that you can’t practice for it, so there’s no way I can experience this that is either failure or success. That that is a good lesson to take with me into every experience--nothing in real life, from making a cup of tea to keeping vigil at your dying father’s bedside, is either an unmitigated success or an unmitigated failure.
It was my father’s wife telling us that he was refusing cups of tea that made my sister and I know that he was withdrawing from life. There was never a time--not in the bleakness after our mother’s death or the raucous celebration of his first visit with Kamal; not morning or night; not before a meal or after a meal; not in a drippingly humid, oven-hot Tampa summer day or a brisk Manhattan winter evening--when Daddy didn’t want a cup of tea. He’d refused food on and off pretty frequently since his heart surgery nine years before; his appetite had been waning for years, and he wasn’t the most consistent or avid drinker of cold beverages--but tea had been even more of a constant for him than for me. He is why we drink tea; he is a little bit present in every cup.
There is nothing I can say, nothing more I can do, to let my father know I am glad I got to be his daughter. There is no way to take back the times we didn’t agree; no way to relive the times we did. What I can do is linger over my tea, remembering the way that he looked at my sister and I while he lay in the hospice bed: with unmistakable, unshakable love. With tenderness. A look I’d never seen on his face but recognized instantly, because I’d always known it was there, all the time, underneath everything else. I can remember the way my whole life with him distilled sharply down to that love as I sat with him, that the forgiveness I’ve been working towards for so long and feared I’d never find suddenly came so easily, so cleanly. That everything between us was love, that we were any father and daughter and every father and daughter, but that we were most importantly, most especially, finally, us.