I listened and watched intently as the waitress demonstrated the fine art of preparing tea properly. She began by placing a small mesh ball called an infuser into a small porcelain pot adorned with delicate pink and purple flowers. From another larger pot in the same pattern, she slowly poured steaming water over the infuser causing it to bob up and down wildly in its small chamber. She turned her head slightly in my mom’s direction.
“When the loose tea and the water meet,” she explained in a whisper, “the leaves unfurl and unveil their flavorful infusion.” We were to time the infusion so as to not extract the bitter tannins. The variety of tea that my sister, who frequented this place, had selected off the menu called for a three-minute infusion. The little silver hourglass timer in the center of the table (the kind that comes in board games) would help us avoid this apparent tea tragedy. The first waft of the spicy tea aroma passed by and I glanced across the table at my eight-year-old niece, whose enormous blue eyes were fixated on the small silver bowl of sugar cubes sitting in the middle of the table. Understandably, she was waiting for this dull woman to address them.
As the waitress wrapped up her demonstration, she smiled sweetly, instructed us to keep the “cozy” on the pot when we weren’t pouring from it, turned, and was gone. Leaving three of us to smile nervously at each other and one of us to wonder why nothing was mentioned about the sugar.
I surmised from this short demonstration that the British probably never microwaved their water in a stained ceramic mug emblazoned with the phrase “I need donuts now!” Nor did they ever plop a pre-measured teabag into that water for either a minute or twenty, depending on how well behaved their kids were acting. They likely never fished said teabag out with a fork and tried to throw it in the garbage without dripping on the floor. And the last step in their tea preparation most certainly didn’t involve spooning enough refined sugar into the mug to completely mask the lemony Lipton flavor.
Yes, I had learned something new about myself in that enchanting teahouse nestled in historic downtown Decorah, Iowa. I was, in fact, a tea barbarian.
“So….” my mom said in a long drawn out way that meant she was nervous about asking what she was about to ask. She slowly unrolled the set of shiny silver from the napkin in front of her.
“Have you taken any of those pills Dr. Taylor prescribed you?”
I was glad someone was addressing my state of mind and whether or not I was medicating myself to get through the recent traumas that had reigned down upon me. It had been just a month since my daughter’s death. Less than 48 hours ago, I was in a police interrogation room with my husband being accused of inflicting a traumatic head injury to my daughter on the day of her death (we’d later learn the police were bluffing; Sophia had died from SIDS.) My body had started shaking in that room and hadn’t yet stopped. And now here I was, in a tea house eating a chicken salad sandwich with barley salad on the side, holding a fine china teacup in my trembling hands, trying to pretend my biggest worry was about bitter tannins. In fact, I was so anxiety ridden that what I wanted to do was flip over the entire table and watch the fine bone china shower down on us.
“No.” I responded, knowing there would be more questions.
The little orange bottle that Chris had picked up from the pharmacy over the night after Sophia died was still safely tucked inside my purse, unopened. The bottle contained the pills my mom and sister used to knock themselves out on airplanes. The pills that made them fall asleep in their seat before takeoff, with drool running down their chins and we barreled down the runway. The pills that rendered them incapable of filling out their own customs forms or carrying their own luggage.
“I’m really trying not to take them,” I said, my voice quivering as much as my body seemed to be.
“But why not just take one and see what happens?” suggested Padrin.
“I don’t know…I’m just worried that once I start them, I won’t be able to stop.”
And it was true; I was scared. I’d had my run-ins with drug addicts. Well, okay, to be honest I had seen my fair share of “Intervention” episodes on cable TV. Each episode focused on one or two people whose addiction had gotten so out of control that their family needed to confront them and demand they go into treatment. Some had started drugs after their parents divorced or they were abused or had an accident or lost a child, like me. And in almost every show, the addicts agree to go, kick their habit and move out to California by the beach. But most of the time, the final screen flashed an update saying the addict had relapsed and was last seen living on the street or selling their body to get that next hit.
“Well, if you want my opinion,” my mom said, “I think if ever there was a person who needed medication, it’d be you. I think you should start taking them.”
There was a long silence and everyone at the table seemed to be nodding her head in agreement.
And it was as if the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders in that moment. I had been given the permission, by the people I respected most in this world, to admit my weakness. To admit that I needed help. To admit that I had limitations that I could not overcome on my own. I didn’t understand how these pills would help me, exactly, but at least I had the reassurance from my mom and my sister that it was ok.
We finished our meals in silence and then, as my mom slipped her credit card into the billfold the waitress had delivered quietly, I slipped my hand into my purse, unscrewed the small orange bottle, popped a single white pill into my mouth and washed it down with a sip of cold English tea that, in my opinion, needed a lot more sugar.