On November 15, 2018, my husband Rafe and I had our last cups of tea together in front of our cast iron wood-burning stove as the late Autumn sun slanted through the windows of our cabin on the east fork of the Hood River. Diagnosed ten days before with Stage 4 lung cancer–that conspicuous consumer of human life–had raided Rafe’s spine and his brain. Our conversation as we drank six steeps of Doke Black Fusion was a process of repetition and patience.
Like most “lasts,” we didn’t realize it was the last until the morning of the 16th when it was obvious that Rafe could neither walk downstairs nor follow the steps to make tea. Over the next seven days, tea kept me glued together, allowed me to bond with the hospice nurses, and provided me an avenue for expressing gratitude.
Hospice put Rafe on a regimen of pain and anti-anxiety medications which I administered every two hours. An ever-changing cocktail of opioids, barbituates, and valium; the singular goal is a pain-free exit. Tea bags–thank heavens there are so many good choices these days–became my go-to as I sleep-walked through the transitions. When one of the hospice nurses would come to observe, I took the time to brew whole-leaf.
The three hospice nurses who spent scores of hours observing and caring for us preferred green tea over black and loved Doke Silver Needles. The neighbors–who came by four times every day for over a week–did not think much of matcha genmaicha, but loved Harmutty.
Rafe passed–eighteen tortuous days after his diagnosis–on November 23, 2018. The neighbors, the hospice nurse, and I sat around our round dining room table and drank pot after pot of tea while we waited for Smart Cremation to arrive. The circumstances were hardly tea party light, but the tea and the process of brewing whole leaf occupied the sound waves in a respectful way. Rafe would have loved it.
After the fact, tea provided me a vehicle for expressing gratitude to the many people who helped. One of my colleagues, Tammy–who made a late-night run for phenobarbitol at the pharmacy–revealed that she loves strong black tea with lots of milk. Lochan gold was the perfect gift. For the neighbors who came over four times every day–and loved Harmutty–a tetsubin, cups, thermometer, and a 100 grams of Harmutty was delightful for them.
Tea was a treasured ritual for over ten years of my husband’s life. It provided a daily bond of serving and savoring. Tea provided transition and reflection as Rafe passed to that mystery that awaits all of us, and tea was the perfect vehicle for expressing gratitude for the empathy and service of many people.