The first time I went to the outpatient infusion center the nurse who checked me in took my blood pressure, recorded my weight, then smiled. “Your lucky, you’re just in time for the tea ladies.” Sure enough, just as I settled into the reclining chair a volunteer rolled a tea cart loaded with choices in front of me. My worry about how difficult my veins were for a nurse to stick evaporated as the “Tea Lady” poured me a cup of steaming mint tea and handed me a cookie.
That was twelve years ago.
For the next ten years I made regular trips in for infusions of clotting factor. I scheduled my appointments for mid-afternoon when the Tea Ladies would be there. When I discovered that I would no longer need infusions of clotting factor, I told the nurse, “I’m going to be a Tea Lady.”
“You don’t need to come back any more. Just enjoy your freedom,” she replied.
When I had fully recovered from transplant surgery, I told a friend I was volunteering once a week at the Cancer Center, she asked, “Doing what?”
“Serving tea,” I replied.
“Your grandmother would be so pleased!” she exclaimed.
The thought had not occurred to me. I had not known my grandmother at all. I had only seen her once briefly when I was five years old, but I was very familiar with the country farmhouse in Canada where she had raised her ten children. There the tea kettle sat steaming on the wood stove. It was ready to make tea all day. Although the china cabinet in the dining room was battered with wear, the fine English bone china cups and saucers behind the glass doors glinted. Some of the fragile fluted edges had gold rims that sparkled when the sunlight came through the dining room windows. All the cups had paintings of delicate pink, or yellow, or blue petals, and trailing leaves. These treasures were not kept for special occasions, but were pulled out and used whenever a cup of tea was served. My mother had learned to brew a pot of tea for guests from her mother. In turn my mother had taught me by her example. Steeped in tea by my mother’s hospitality, I had watched as every person who entered our home was offered a cup of tea. Tea was just how we welcomed people.
Now each Tuesday afternoon I take the empty carafe to the coffee shop to be filled while we arrange the cart. Then I fill the electric kettle and click the tab to set it boiling. I open the cabinet to check the tea supply on the cart. The cart should have a generous sampling of teas, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, decaffeinated tea, herbal teas and, green tea. As I do this my team mate arranges the tray of cookies and cupcakes donated by two local bakeries. She has an artistic sensibility and the platter looks scrumptious.
I double check. Are there enough packets of sugar and a variety of sugar substitutes, napkins and, stirrers? Despite the checking and re-checking there seems to always be one thing we forget. One week we forgot the single-serve cups of half and half. If we forget or run out of something, one of us dashes back to the supply room.
When the cart is loaded we head towards the Cancer Center elevator, “Let’s not forget to pick up the coffee this time,” my team mate chuckles as I round the corner pushing the cart. We both look forward to seeing the faces of outpatients and their companions relax and smile as we come into view.
“When you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for, when nobody needs you, that’s when I think life is over.”
― Audrey Hepburn