THE BLOG

Milk and Sugar

08/21/2014 10:19 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

There's a post on Facebook that's been making its rounds. The photo shows an elderly man with glasses and a nice smile, leaning against a railing overlooking the sea. The caption reads, "An Australian man living by a cliff has prevented about 160 suicides in his 50 years of living there by striking up a conversation with people contemplating suicide by going up to them and inviting them to his house for tea."

When I showed it to my husband he frowned.

"How did he come up with these numbers? How does he know that each person would have killed themselves if they hadn't had tea with him?" he wanted to know.

Normally I'd have been as skeptical as he was, inclined to dismiss the whole thing as inaccurate, overly simplistic and emotionally manipulative. But this time I chose to believe it. It didn't matter to me if the man saved 160 lives or one. I guess it's because I believe in kindness and I believe in tea.

When I was a child in South Africa we had tea at four o clock every afternoon. Sometimes tea with cake, sometimes tea with biscuits (cookies), but there was always tea in the living room. Never tea bags, only leaves. They steeped in their pot of boiling water until the brew was Goldilocks perfect -- not too strong, not too weak. We stirred in milk and sugar, and when we took that first sip, leaning back against our cushions, it was easy to believe that all was right with our world.

My mother was sick for much of my childhood, and on the days that she was too ill to join us, I'd lean against my granny and the scent of the tea mingled with her talcum powder.

I have a memory where I'm bundled in a coat, walking with my parents and my little brother on a wild, windswept beach in Cape Town called Blouberg Strand. Although it's early afternoon the sky is dark, the beach deserted. The wind is so strong that it feels as if we've been walking for hours. It starts to rain and we begin to run.

We hold on tight to the iron railing and pull ourselves up the stairs that wind along the side of the cliff until we finally reach the old wooden house that has been converted to a tearoom. We hang up our soggy coats, wipe the rain from our faces, then go sit close to the warmth of the stone fireplace.

A waitress hobbles up to us. She is old and quite deaf and we have to shout our orders to her. TEA AND SCONES! Outside the wind howls and the rain pours and far below the waves bash the rocks, but we drink cup after cup of tea and pile our scones high with butter, jam and whipped cream. The heaviness I carry -- the worry about my mother's illness, my undone homework and the fickleness of friendship -- lifts as I sip my tea and inhale the scent of woodsmoke and my own salty damp hair.

Four decades and a continent away, all my days begin with tea. Strong English Breakfast in bed in the morning while I write in my journal. The tea helps any bad dreams move out of me and onto the paper. Green tea comes later in the day and then Rooibos, that red tea that smells of Africa. Tea time usually calls for something black yet decaffeinated -- maybe Earl Grey or Darjeeling. And before bed, a small blue cup of Chamomile.

Sadly, my husband doesn't drink tea. It is our greatest incompatibility. But he knows how to make me a remarkably good mug of English Breakfast and one birthday he brought home a brightly painted handmade wooden shelf to display my teas. He nailed it to the green kitchen wall and we call it my tea pantry. It's also my medicine chest.

When my daughter comes over, tired and stressed from school and work, the first thing I do after hugging her, is make us both a mug of tea. I set out some cookies on a plate or make us some toast. We sit together and sip and I am grateful beyond words that I am able to offer her this comfort.

My son, who claims to hate tea, would always let me give him hot, fruity tea with honey when he had a cold. Now, when he comes home for a visit he likes me to make him some hot orange tea, which he drinks in the brown mug with the roadrunner etched into it that we bought in a little shop in the desert. Nobody else drinks the orange tea. I keep it just for him.

But back to the Facebook post. It's easy to picture the scene in the kitchen in the house on the cliff:

The older man pours the younger man his tea.

Milk and sugar, son?" he asks.

"Please," the younger man says.

His hands tremble as he reaches for the mug. As he takes his first sip of the hot, familiarly scented liquid, his eyes close and he lets himself lean back into the chair. A pot of geraniums sits on the window ledge and farther down, much farther down, are the rocks and the sea.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.