Cup of Tea



Before the diagnosis, I had started asking why. Why couldn’t she remember our intimate conversations?  Why wasn’t she listening?  Why did she believe the housekeeper had stolen her wedding ring?  Why couldn’t she remember the names of the grandchildren’s friends when she’d met them so many times? Why couldn’t she follow the conversation? Why was my address so difficult to retain?

After the diagnosis, I started asking what could be done. Was there a cure? Should she do more puzzles, learn a language, take longer walks, play more Scrabble?

I asked my high school boyfriend, now a prominent neurosurgeon, about the drugs and the treatment options. He was kind but firm. “There’s really nothing we can do,” he said. “It’s not worth trying all the drugs. My mother had it too.”

A study in the December 2016 Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging showed that drinking tea frequently is associated with a lower risk of dementia, especially for people who are genetically predisposed to the disease.

Researchers followed 957 older adults, average age 65, who were part of the Singapore Longitudinal Aging Study. Of these, 69% drank tea on a frequent basis. After a five-year period, the researchers found that the tea drinkers had a 50% lower risk of dementia. This is consistent with earlier findings that showed tea consumers scored higher on various cognitive tests.

So I went to Whole Foods and stocked up on tea. I told my mother, who was still living on her own in a one-bedroom apartment, that she should drink two cups a day of green tea or black tea or anything with antioxidants. I remember how she nodded, compliantly. She’d somehow lived on instant coffee with Sweet ‘n’ Low for decades. Now she would drink more tea, less coffee. She could do some crossword puzzles while drinking tea.

That day, I thought tea was the answer we’d been looking for.







1. Fire Island

Konrad Fiedler Point O' Woods, an exclusive community on Fire Island. 7/8/2008
photo: Konrad Fiedler / New York Sun


Beautiful Lisa, the folk-singer mother’s helper whose bikini tops and cut-offs drove my father wild, rode me around Seaview on the bar of the bicycle, gaining speed, bubbling with laughter, as we navigated the bumpy path that led to the beach.  My long  sandy hair was knotted underneath in a secret hive that Lisa untangled with patience and a silver puzzle ring on her finger. My freckled legs dangled too close to the spokes — and one day my foot got churned up inside.

I remember my mother’s firing Lisa at the top of the dunes, a Winston dangling from her angry lips. “Pack up, that’s it,” she said to her, as she carried me down the long path to the dock and eventually to the ambulance boat that would take us to the clinic in Bayshore. I remember feeling bad for Lisa. Her cries and whispers to her own mother on the phone filled the upstairs of the big rental house.  It belonged to the writer Herman Wouk, and had oversized beds, fishing tackle, shutters at the windows, and sat a short walk from the edge of the ocean.

The other day, when I visited my mother in the board and care where she lives, I showed her my ankle and asked if she remembered what happened with Lisa and me and the bike. I pulled away the strap of my sandal and showed her the stringy scar that crossed zig-zagged across the bone. “Do you remember that summer in Fire Island?” I asked.

Do you remember the day you told me I’d have to start walking on my bad ankle or “I’d never walk again.” She had scared me with that one, but it worked. Soon enough, I was up on my feet, putting weight on my ankle.

I asked her if she remembered any of the summers on Fire Island, all the drinking and wife-swapping that she revealed when I’d been graduated from college and was asking questions about who my parents were.

She had said it was predatory out there. The husbands, who worked in the city,  took the train out to the island on Friday afternoon, leaving the wives and children in comfortable beach houses having fun. Pat said she got chased around by dad’s friends who’d had too much Scotch, or didn’t have sensual wives.  But she learned how to manage it.

I asked if she remembered swimming out too far one morning and being rescued by the lifeguard who was from Peru. Or how my day camp counselor got us off the trampoline to watch an early lunar landing. I wondered if she remembered the ocean itself,  or what it means to swim. Or  if she could recall Lisa’s face of anguish and remorse, or how fast that accident happened.

I rolled up my pant leg and asked her to look  again at my ankle. Instead, she looked at me, rocked in her chair, and tapped her fingers against the built-in plastic tray where her food is placed three times per day. Maybe she was trying to think of the word for no.