Her shoulders are hunched as she takes each knock-kneed baby step toward the kitchenette, using her french-manicured and liver-spotted hands to steady herself on any furniture she passes along the way. I offer to help, but no. She won’t allow it. I sit back and send an email to work that I’ll be late this morning.
She fills a plastic measuring cup from the water cooler and takes a cautious three steps over to empty it into the kettle. Then she steps back to the dispenser and repeats it. Then again.
There is a hot water lever on the dispenser, but it’s the kind that requires you push down a red button while pulling on the lever – too difficult for her frail, arthritic hands.
I smile as I watched her struggle. There’s no point in offering to help again. I’ll only irritate her.
While the kettle heats, she spoons some of the herbs into the hollowed out gourd and inserts the metal straw with the built-in filter. She pulls the tall thermos out from under the counter and spoons in a touch of sweetener.
When the kettle is finished, she pours the heated water into the thermos. She returns to the sofa in the sitting area, this time using the walker on wheels to rest the thermos while she carries the gourd in one hand.
She sits beside me and pours the water over the leaves, setting the thermos down on the floor before handing me the gourd.
I say nothing, and take a few sips. Memories of generations of childhoods brought up drinkingmate (mah-teh) in the morning erupt onto my tastebuds. The warm liquid soothes my throat, still healing from a week of high winds and higher stress.
“I haven’t even eaten breakfast today,” she tells me as I drink. “But I got up at six this morning to drink mate.”
I finish up the liquid in the gourd and hand it back to her. She refills it and returns it to me. “Did you eat?” she asks me.
“I had a protein shake on the way here.”
“A protein shake? That’s not breakfast,” she tells me.
“And what did you have?” I remind her.
She sighs. “I don’t have an appetite, with everything going on.” My grandfather, he was moved back to the hospital again last night after he woke up agitated in the nursing home, confiscated a wheelchair and somehow made his way out to the street before the attendants were able to bring him back inside. Unable to sedate him at the home, they sent him back to where he could remain under medicated observation.
I nod and take another sip. When the sound of the air pulling through the straw comes through, I hand her back the gourd. She fills it again and returns it to me.
This is the ritual she has every morning, rain or shine, every day of her life. Usually with him, but for the last two days he’s been gone, after a few falls had the doctors concerned about his low energy levels.
She serves him. And without him there, she’s frightened.
I reach over and take her hand, fingering the diamond ring on the intricate golden band that I claimed for myself when I was ten years old. “I like that ring, bubbe,” I’d said. “I want you to leave it to me in your will.”
All my cousins are boys and none of them would have wanted it, but I wanted to be sure that would end up mine.
She sets the thermos down on the floor. I take another sip. “It’s so good, bubbe.”
That’s part of the ritual with mate. One does not acknowledge it until they’re finished. That is when they say thank you to the person in charge of filling it and passing it on to the next drinker to indicate they don’t want any more.
“No, but I’ll serve it now,” I say.
I finish out the water that’s left in the thermos as we sit and chat. At one point, she forgets enough to have regained her appetite and fixes herself a bowl of cereal. Corn flakes. She offers me some.
“I’m okay, bubbe. I need to get to work, actually.”
“Ok, Ok. Go. Go. Don’t make problems for yourself. I’m fine,” she says.
She is, and she’s not. My grandfather retired decades ago from his job, but her job had always been to take care of him. She never really considered retirement. She never considered having to live a day of her life without him.
My widowed heart sinks as I recall those first few days. It won’t be easy for her.
In many ways she’s been in a 24/7 dynamic her whole life.