Published on April 21st, 2021 | by Jenna Devany Waters1
Navigating Loss, with Tea and Empathy
“Mama, is it time for tea yet?” My six-year-old pokes her head into the darkened bedroom, her exaggerated stage whisper creating a lisp in the space recently vacated by her three front teeth.
I tuck a blanket over my son and slip out of the room, adding these teeth to the running tally of objects recently missing from our lives: the tools, the vacuum, half of the cookware, the living room art. The rocking chair, brought to New York from our front porch in Texas, its cushions worn and milk-stained from years of nursing children through sleepless nights; the kids’ dresser, passed down from grandfather to mother to daughter before my wife walked out this spring and took it with her, replacing one inheritance with a legacy of another kind: her absence makes our children the third generation of my family to be abandoned by a parent.
When my grandfather left, my grandmother drank. When my father stormed out, my mother snuck sweets late at night, hoarded ice cream and instant pudding cups and boxes of Vienna fingers which she kept tucked away on high shelves behind unassuming boxes, the better to shield them from greedy eyes and needy hands. They slaked their hunger in secret, filled the spaces vacated by love with substitutes whose promises—of numbness, of satiety—would never be in doubt.
It was their silences I thought of when my wife left. She packed her things while I was out of town, disappeared without a word to our children about where or why she’d gone. I ordered a frenzy of furniture online, called my sisters and begged them to reorganize my apartment, to spare my children the pain of arriving home to the physical manifestation of their abandonment.
My aunt cut through this panic. “Do not change a thing,” she warned. “You can’t fix this for them. They need to see what’s missing. Leave them space to grieve.”
This aunt is my mother’s younger sister. Like me, she grew up in a house cratered by violence: fist holes through the wall, broken cabinets, shattered dishes. She is also the parent of four grown kids, and the only woman in my family who has ever sustained a healthy marriage. I took a deep breath and cancelled my orders.
My eyes track the changed landscape as I follow my daughter to the kitchen, surveying the rooms as if assessing damages after a storm. One table lamp down in the living room; three furniture dollies gone from the hall; the espresso machine and milk frother unmoored, carried off on the retreating waters of my failed marriage. The day before, a quest to change a lightbulb had revealed an entire closet stripped of its contents, including the six-foot ladder I had purchased nine years ago in Chelsea and carried home up three city blocks, two subway lines and four-and-a-half million stairs to our sixth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights.
A Herculean effort of this sort seemed like it should bestow the right of first refusal in a breakup, if nothing else; but what I was learning is that no amount of initiative can secure a relationship. To a ladder, or anything else. Still, it was a big ladder, and a lot of stairs. It is hard to accept this accounting of investment relative to loss.
Some things remain, of course: the beds, the photographs, the piano, the dishes. An accumulation of anniversary gifts, eight years marked by paper, cotton, leather, fruit, wood, iron, copper, bronze. On the ninth year there was no gift; on the tenth, no marriage.
Most notably left behind are the children.
When my own father left, my sisters and I poached our comforts like tiny shadows: cookies snuck from the package, ice cream measured in careful scoops along the tracks of our mother’s spoon. We traced her patterns meticulously, sure that by copying each movement with precision we could evade notice for our midnight transgressions.
My mother mimicked my grandmother this same way, pouring out an even inch from each bottle in the liquor cabinet, letting the swill of stolen warmth tumble through her veins and burn away the edges of her loneliness. One generation after the next, we learned by observation to take up as little space as possible in our own lives; to stay quiet, and seek solace alone, in the dark.
I reach the kitchen to find my daughter beaming, two cups set beside the kettle, the shoebox full of teabags already open on the table. We begin the ritual of selection, thumbing through the colorful array of packets, before choosing the same kind as always: decaf mint with honey for her, vanilla chai with a dash of milk for me. If we baked that week there are cookies, or banana bread, or scones, piled in easy reach under a jaunty glass dome.
We sit together as my mother never did with me, steam rising from our mugs, the weight of the day settling between us. It is a ritual, and a promise: of showing up. Sitting together. Holding space for pain. On the nights that her brother won’t fall asleep, he joins us too, with a sippy cup of chamomile mixed with honey. We take turns noticing our big feelings, practice speaking their names: frustration, sadness, anxiety; compassion, excitement, joy. Anger. Love. Grief.
In school my daughter is learning about the “brain house,” an emotional intelligence curriculum developed by Dr. Hazel Harrison from research in Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole-Brain Child. Between construction projects in the block area and story sessions in the writing nook, her class of five-and-six-year-olds circle on the rug to learn how surges of emotion can trigger their amygdala, blocking off the “staircase” of communication between the upstairs thinking-brain and the downstairs feeling-brain.
We take a cue from her classroom and hang our own brain house on the wall, add a second shoebox to the table and fill it with “tools” to help when we’re upset: a drink of water; quiet time alone; a body scan; a hug. “Take a deep breath, Mama,” my two-year-old learns to say when I am tense. “Your staircase is closed.”
Gradually, the spaces fill. We replace the lamp, the vacuum, the trash can; install an exercise bench where the rocking chair once stood. I buy my first drill, and my own set of tools. My kids make a playlist, and we sing along as we assemble a pair of wardrobes for their clothes, passing the new Phillips head back and forth as we carefully tighten each screw. My daughter’s teeth grow in, and my children learn to draw pictures with one parent, not two. Soon the walls are bursting with dynamic crayon renderings of bike rides, camping trips, scavenger hunts, and tea parties. Our wounds scab over; our family portrait evolves.
We end each night around the table, with tea and empathy, and the hope that my aunt’s advice will prove true: that by leaving room to speak our truth, by acknowledging the hard parts and the beautiful parts in turn, I will model a different way to navigate a broken life, and we will learn to do more than just survive the wreckage. Together, we will build something entirely new.