I set down my travel mug filled with Bengal Spice Tea on her side table and moved a small chair over to the edge of Veronica’s bed. Her new bed adjusted to help her sit up as it was now too hard to move her to the chair. The days of using a walker or wheelchair to enjoy the outdoor gardens are long past. We used to talk together but those days are nearly gone as well. She is having a hard time moving her finger along the letter chart to spell out words so we mostly watch TV together.
We watch cooking shows. I can’t conceive of why. Veronica hasn’t been able to eat for a while. The last soft loaf of bread I brought in for her was given away because her swallowing had become more difficult. She depends completely on the stomach tube now. But we’d still watch the cooking shows. I’d laugh and tell her she must think I needed help cooking. Her eyes would laugh with me.
You can tell a lot from someone’s eyes. Her room phone would ring and her eyes would dart toward the phone asking me to pick it up. I’d answer it and then hold it up to her ear so she could hear her mom talk to her. Her eyes would flicker in response to her mom’s words. They’d tear up and, even though I couldn’t understand the language being spoken on the phone, I knew her mom was saying how much she loved her. Calling her precious.
She could tell me to change the channel with her eyes too. I’d go for trial and error until her eyes said it was the correct channel. Sometimes she just gave up because I couldn’t figure it out. If Keith Urban was on, it was always the right channel. She loved his songs. She and her husband had recorded themselves singing his songs back when she was well and they were together. She didn’t hold the fact that he couldn’t handle her illness against him. She told me he did his best. Magda, her sister would stop by too. She’d talk enough for all of us. I would rarely find a pause long enough to comment. Her English was broken but her stories of the old country were fascinating and I’d sip my tea and listen. I could tell Veronica sometimes didn’t agree with the way her sister was telling a story – but she couldn’t verbally correct her. She’d just comment with her eyes.
I miss those tea times. Her mom welcomed me at her daughter’s funeral. I don’t see her, Todd or Magda any more but that’s OK. I learned so much about grace in that chair beside Veronica’s bed when her eyes could still speak.
Today, I’m having a cup of sweet chai as that’s what I used to drink with Hope when we were kids together. Hope, Laura (my twin), and I would call ourselves Dare Devils 1, 2, and 3. We’d challenge each other to do new things. We’d try to fly off the chicken coop roof with pillow cases for parachutes. We’d plan sleep outs in car pits, tree houses, or on the shelf in the wood shop. We’d powder the cement hallway floors and slide with our stocking feet or haul cardboard out to the hill and slide down the dry grass as fast as we could go.
One of our favorite adventures was the swing that Dad put up in the huge avocado tree. That tree was so tall that even Dad couldn’t reach the first branch from the ground. We would find holes in the bark for footholds and grab onto vines that grew around the tree like a gnarly sweater. We’d climb up to the ledge that was wide enough to fit a good 6 people and wait there for a friend to pass the swing up to us. Then we’d jump on and sail out of that tree, turning the swing on the way back so the empty rope would be available for the next person to jump and join us. I still remember the joyful fear of leaping off that ledge, the roughness of the rope as I caught it, the thrill of the upswing on the other side. I remember the look of determination on Hope’s face as she leapt from the tree to join me on the swing. You get to know someone when you jump out of trees with them.
On the day I met Hope’s two siblings, I thought Amy was the oldest because Andrew was quite a bit shorter and didn’t talk as clearly. Hope told me that Andrew just seemed younger because he had Down Syndrome but that he was the most amazing brother ever . She said this last part a bit fiercely with her hand on her hip as if daring me to challenge her. I knew better – this was Hope after all. It’s funny how a moment that I believed insignificant at the time would still be so clear in my mind. I can feel the sun reflecting off the tennis court we were standing on. I can see the breeze blowing Amy’s straight, fine, brown hair. I can picture Andrew’s almond eyes and freckles.
Now I’m the one with the metaphorical hand on my hip. I find myself daring anyone to doubt that Seth, our youngest who has Down Syndrome, is any less than amazing. You should meet us for coffee some morning and you’ll find that it’s true. Not that we weren’t thrown for a loop at Seth’s arrival – but that story will take more than this cup of chai to tell. For now, I’ll just take one more sip then take the leap and swing out on a new adventure with Hope.
“I’ll meet you for coffee…”
We all know that’s not what I mean. We almost never meet for the coffee. Sometimes we don’t even drink coffee at these coffee meetings because it’s the New Year and we are on some cleanse or something. But I have totally fallen in love with coffee times.
If you draw the continent of Africa and put a dot smack dab in the middle, you won’t be far from where I grew up. We went back to visit because I wanted my husband, Jeff, to feel the spongy grass under his feet at the airstrip and bounce over what passes as a dirt road. I wanted to climb over barb wire fences and walk through the cow pastures to market with him. But I never expected that there, in the middle of Africa, we’d discover the value of meeting for coffee.
There, you see, people just stop by. Abruhamu’s face was deeply lined when I was a child but when he stopped by for coffee he looked exactly the same as he always had even though I now had children of my own. He shook his finger at me telling me I was a daughter of Africa but I didn’t come back enough and I didn’t know the language well enough and I didn’t eat enough.
I didn’t know the language well but I did know enough to hear the welcome in that reprimanding finger and those half accusing words. He was yelling at me, but not for what I was doing – for the fact that I hadn’t done it sooner. So I sipped my tea in the smoky kitchen and watched him shuffle to a wooden chair. When he was settled, I brought over his cup and he put in so much sugar I knew it’d never dissolve. He sighed as he took a sweet sip then settled in to tell me his stories – stories of my dad as a kid, stories of his kids and their kids, stories no one else could tell in quite the same way.
When Jeff and I got back to New York, memories of connectedness over coffee fresh in our minds, we went out and bought 2 beautiful mugs. We planned on starting our own tradition of coffee times together. We still have our coffee times but now it looks a little different. Now our 4 teenagers join us in the early morning. Over coffee, we usually discover we have forgotten some school event, or are short one vehicle to get someone to work. Now we mock each other, argue, and laugh together- but we make it happen. Because we realize it’s not about the coffee –it’s about the meeting.