Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I remember visiting my British mother years ago in the hospital after she had suffered a stroke. Her speech was badly slurred and the doctors said she would never walk again. (She did, she was very obstinate.) During that visit, an aide brought her a cup of tea. My mother loved tea. She had it at every meal, in the late afternoon, and at night. It seemed to revive her and give her strength to face the rest of the day.

She took a sip from the Styrofoam cup and immediately spat it out. “What’s this?” she slurred. I told her it was a cup of tea with lemon, just as she liked it. “It’s horrible!” she grimaced and pushed the cup towards me.

I doubt that either Gourmet magazine or the Food Channel have ever done a feature extolling the culinary delights of hospital food. But a cup of tea? How badly can you screw that up? Pour boiling water on bag. Serve.

Immediately following a stroke, people often seem to change. They lose interest in things that used to fascinate them, they forget how to do things at which they used to excel. They seem to have a personality change. This is sometimes a temporary phase and they return to their same old selves over time. For others, there are permanent changes. It’s as if the stroke, much like electro-shock therapy, erases parts of their nature.

So I wondered if it were possible for a person to forget that they like something. If the stroke is like pulling up the clear overlay on an etch-a-sketch, wiping everything clean, perhaps the victim literally returns to a fresh palette. According to the Stroke Association of the U.K., loss of taste, or dysgeusia, is one of the less common after-effects of a stroke. “What happens with taste processing is that the taste buds in the tongue send messages about specific categories of taste along nerve pathways up to the brain, ending in an area called the taste zone in the sensory part of the brain. It may be that a stroke can affect either the taste zone, or the areas of the brain through which the taste pathways have to go.”

When my mother sipped that cup of tea and found it repugnant, could that have been her true reaction to the taste of tea rather than something that she had been indoctrinated to like during the bleak, rain soaked years of her young adulthood in industrial, war-ravaged Manchester, England?

We’ve all heard of acquired tastes. Beer and caviar are said to be acquired tastes. For me, vegetables are something for which I have yet to acquire a taste. Is tea an acquired taste? Most people seem to think so. Many people can only drink tea if it is sweetened with sugar or tempered with lemon or milk. Some gradually wean themselves from the additives and eventually learn to love a strong cup of unadulterated tea. Even in tea drinking capitols like Japan and China, generally only adults voluntarily drink tea.

Recovery from a stroke involves various types of therapy such as  physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Patients must learn to reconnect neural pathways that have been damaged or to learn new ways of doing things utilizing the parts of their bodies that have not been damaged. Some skills must be relearned. I suspect that some tastes may also be re-acquired.

The last time I saw my mother I was visiting her in her home. She had defied the experts and was living independently on her own. Despite not having the use of the right side of her body she served tea as it should be served – in a trusted ceramic pot covered by a knitted tea cozy on, what else? a tea cart. There was fine china, lemons in a Wedgewood dish, silver tea spoons, an some dry biscuits.

She poured my cup first, then hers. She awkwardly squeezed a lemon wedge with one hand. It was high ceremony. She held her cup lovingly and closed her eyes as she took the first sip. It obviously was heavenly. The etch-a-sketch in my mother’s mind was fully drawn in once again.

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