I was moved by the beauty of the writing in Susan Ito’s “Rounds” as well as by its subject matter: the centrality of the hospital to her life. The hospital was a place where she worked for years; it is also the place where she met her husband, lost her first child, and, more recently, brought her 92-year-old mother to the emergency room. It’s a profoundly resonant place that deepens in meaning as Ito passes through the different stages of her life. This piece has inspired me to attempt a similar essay, albeit about a less obviously freighted topic, and I’d like to use this short blog assignment to sketch it out.
Like many girls, I passed through a tea party stage as a child, but tea became especially meaningful to me in high school, when my sister would coax me awake in the mornings with a mug of milky-sweet Irish Breakfast. Wherever I go, I would tell myself, as long as there’s tea, I’m home.
In college, my best friend Melissa and I hosted weekly Friday afternoon tea parties for three years, crowding our tiny dorm rooms with china, baked goods, and laughter. Once I moved to New York City after college, my friend Kathy and I hosted annual summer teas under a giant beech tree near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, baking all night beforehand and ending the day with a game of croquet.
In my mid-twenties, I fell in love with Japanese tea ceremony, and with green tea. I studied chanoyu for five years in New York and five intensive weeks in Kyoto. At thirty-four, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of publishing a novel, The Teahouse Fire, set in 1880s Kyoto, the fruit of my long years of tea research and study.
All during my twenties and thirties, the autoimmune arthritis I discuss in my Intima piece, “What She Left Me,” had been sneaking up on me, until it got so bad that I had non-healing stress fractures in both feet. I was put on Humira, which healed my feet, but after I was diagnosed with cancer at 39 and given a 26 percent chance of five-year survival, I was taken off the medication. The cancer hasn’t returned since, but the arthritis came roaring aback with crippling severity. Changing my diet helped. Green tea, I learned, revs up the immune system, which is the last thing a person with an overactive immune system needs: tea was among the pleasures I learned to live without. When I seemed to be doing a bit better, I began drinking tea again, and within a month, I had a new stress fracture.
As my autoimmune condition began to dominate my life—from my severely restricted diet to my mobility scooter—healing and medical research have become a passion for me, so much so that I have begun taking lab science classes with an eye toward physician assistant programs. Last week in organic chemistry, as part of an experiment that involved isolating caffeine through the use of two solvents, I began by dunking a bag of Lipton’s in a tiny beaker of boiling water. The scent of black tea blossomed in my nostrils: straw gold, sweet loam, wet slate. Under the harsh lights of the lab, I was so far from the life I’d imagined for myself. And I was home.
Ellis Avery, the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry, is the only writer to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. Avery edits an urban observations column for Public Books, works one-on-one with writers as a manuscript consultant, and teaches fiction writing at Columbia University. She is currently taking prerequisites to apply to Physician Assistant programs next fall. www.ellisavery.com
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine