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mama, it's me [feature]

to mothers and daughters

On our second visit, Xiao Li tells us of a breakthrough: If you knot the top corners of the blanket around the first metal bar on each side of the bed, lao lao won’t get up at night. The contraption is simple: she tries to sit up, the blanket holds her down. With such little room between the mattress and the blanket to gather enough energy, another attempt is worth too much effort, especially at such an ungodly hour, and so the contraption buys silence for another few hours. Let us all rest for just one night, she says, god knows we need it.

It’s my first winter break since starting college and I’m with my mother in her hometown, Jiangyou, a city I barely know. We’re there to visit her mother, my lao lao. On paper, she’s been hospitalized for a broken hip bone, but as she takes my mother’s hand on our first visit, pausing as if confronted by something new, mouth slightly open with surprise, we know it is something more. She feels each of my mother’s fingers with the curiosity of a child discovering the world for the first time, and my mother leans as close as she can to the pillow, whispering, “Mama, it’s me, hong-er.” The nickname falls off her tongue like a plea, hushed and frantic. Lao lao doesn’t look her directly in the eyes, but even from my place at the end of the bed, I feel a reckoning— undeniably warm against the January chill of the hospital room.


My mother spends the rest of the visit talking to lao lao in a baby voice. There is something about the affected nature of her tone, the dumbed-down immaturity of each syllable, that I cannot shake.

China has “one of the fastest-aging societies in the world” and a deep-seated culture of intergenerational households. Despite government efforts to increase the birth rate by adopting a three-child policy in 2022, incorporating reproductive technology into medical insurance, and providing an array of other incentives, the population continues to age. The underbelly of this trend is a dementia crisis, which ripples through medical, social, and familial spheres. The insurance system for long-term elderly care is overwhelmed and rarely accommodates dementia cases; patients are relegated outside of professional care and left to their families. Caring for someone with dementia is deeply personal, emotionally visceral. I know lao lao’s symptoms and my mother’s helplessness are shared by millions of others, but their struggle, over the course of years, is no less isolated.

Lao lao’s caregiver, Xiao Li, a woman a little over 40, is cheery, brutally honest. She was referred to my mother after the previous caregiver backed out, and I learned that this informal hiring process underlies a care system that functions much like patchwork—some of the other caregivers in the ward are provided by the hospital, some privately found, some relatives of the patient themselves. Xiao Li, my mother tells me, is a gem. When she sticks out her hands to show us how she’s been cleaning lao lao, I notice that her fingers swell around her knuckles like sausage. She’s the only person lao lao knows by name and face, and so she translates her emotions to us: Bao bao is hungry, bao bao is getting sleepy, bao bao is so happy to meet you, she’s been waiting all day. 

Bao is Chinese for baby, sweetheart. As an adjective, it means precious, something possessing the rarity of a jewel. Duplicated as bao bao, the characters become a term of endearment. I know the sound distinctly in my mother’s voice, its echoes dot the memories of my childhood. Sometime during middle school, she switched to “Elena” after I became self-conscious about the unabashed intimacy of the term—hearing it again years later, in such a different context, is jarring. I imagine lao lao’s life stretching out as one giant arch, its trajectory paralleling the mysterious bend of the train track outside of her apartment complex when it is steeped in early morning fog. The end, obscured by distance, bending to meet the beginning. I wonder if this is the universe’s backward way of offering one last form of compensation, as if to say: You’ve been through so much, it’s only right that we return this gentleness to you.

On the taxi ride from the hospital, my mother laughs, “Did you see the nurse walk in and think Xiao Li was her daughter? If I were a stranger, I would think that too, really.” We sink into awkward silence. As the bustle of Jiangyou rushes by in the window, I picture the family trees I’ve drawn during previous visits to the city collapsing in on themselves, leaving behind nothing but a stump, rings upon rings hugging one another. And there, in the center of our many orbits, is my mother. Remember, I considered asking her, when I had all my suitcases packed for college, and you told me that to be your daughter is to be your little girl forever? What about that?


The next time we visit, Xiao Li teaches us what the best thing to say is when lao lao is having a bad day: You look so pretty today. Remember fifth grade, when they called you the prettiest girl in class? Watch her smile and nod. The first time you see the sparkle in her eyes, she says, you’ll feel like something half-forgotten inside you has finally healed. Help her smooth out her hair when the male doctor, or the handsome visitor from next door, comes in to say good morning. If she begins rubbing at the moles on her right cheek, let her.

When I test it out, lao lao beams. She keeps on looking at a space through the back of my head, where the rain has bruised a land-shaped scab onto the ceiling, but she is glowing, alert, a smile growing on her face. I tell her about how I am enjoying Jiangyou, our lunch plans at the local hotpot joint where all the servers know her by name. She tells me, anxiously, that she can pay. She asks if I have a place to sit. She grabs my hand—there is plenty of money to go around, dinner is on me—and brings it to her face, pausing before touching it to her lips. Then, she is crying. She calls me bao bao over and over again, and it strikes me that we are all children even after we outgrow our childhood, and I tell her, yes, lao lao, of course, when this is over we will eat until we can not fit another bite.

By the middle of the week, Jiangyou gets so cloudy that I begin to feel like the sky is a thumb pressing down on the entire city, its pressure point gathering exactly where my grandmother is resting in the hospital ward. We make a routine out of visiting at noon, the sweet, forgiving period of time when the morning disorientation has worn off and the afternoon fatigue has yet to creep in. She’ll be in a good mood and we’ll have the luxury of talking to her for an entire hour. 

In the hallway, warped by the green sheen of sun passing through plastic-wrapped windows, the caregivers are busy preparing lunch. Everything crescendos in a hum of blenders pureeing rice, pork belly, and overcooked bok choy, patients turning softly in their beds, the medical machinery on auto. The air of the hallway is thick and still. In the corridor, I watch lao lao lie beneath Xiao Li’s nimble hands from afar, and it takes effort to hold onto the fact that the stillness is nothing but a product of the midday lull. 

Later that day, Xiao Li lifts up her blanket briefly to change her diaper, and I catch a glimpse of lao lao’s legs. Each joint aching to bend, the slim, graceful lines of dormant muscle flexing underneath pale skin. Flush against the shape of bone. My mother has always talked about lao lao as a performer. Certain duties came with being deemed the prettiest girl in class: You took center-stage in grade-level performances, you sang, you captivated the stage, beauty and talent and all. There’s a video on my younger sister’s iPad of her and lao lao singing to a classic Chinese song in our living room in Beijing, their silhouettes dancing in perfect unison. Even through the screen, I can picture stages decked red and lit golden six decades ago, lao lao captivating the audience with her poise, the near-magical quality of her body as she flickers between spotlights. Beside me, Xiao Li leans over to my mom, as if to break a secret. 

She whispers, “Did you know? Someone tried to bind your mother’s feet. The toes, they’re folded in, but only halfway. There’s dried pus. I can smell it when I clean her.”

The characters for lao lao are composed of two characters side-by-side: nu, female, on the right, and lao, old, on the left. The male counterpart, lao ye, adopts this character and switches out the second for another that uses the same feminine radical. And with this detail I rationalize my anger—none of it is fair, not when the passage of time is gendered from whatever way you decide to face it. And before girls like lao lao even learned to walk, they were placed on the path with feet that hurt, nothing but pain and pus. The molding is linguistic and anatomical before it is lived. It is not surprising that lao lao has learned to spin and float and dance to propel our worlds, that my mother is the strongest person in my life and lao lao the strongest in hers.

When I look back at lao lao, she is already asleep. The steady rise and fall of her chest is so peaceful, and I forget about the secret until it comes back to me hours later in the form of a bitter image. 

In the remaining hours I spent in the hospital room that month, I learned from Xiao Li that lao lao no longer remembers that she was married to a man she grew to despise, that there was ever any other woman or a divorce so ugly she almost wanted to give up. I learned that the way to lull lao lao to sleep is to play music by her right ear—nothing recent, but anything released during her childhood or adolescence is fair game. She knows them all. You can see it on her face, especially when she is seconds away from slipping into a dream. I learned that she is still as stubborn and as sarcastic as ever, but that she will always remember to call for Xiao Li when she has filled the diaper, and will never try to get up for a second time in one night after she’s been warned once. I learned that she asks for the “two women” when we go too long without visiting, and it fills my mother and I with hope. I tell her “I love you” more times than I’ve ever said it in my life.

My mother takes me on a walk the night before our train back to Shanghai. At every turn, I linger a step behind, listening to her reminisce. We pass the courthouse where lao lao used to work as a judge, the squares in front of malls where she loved to dance with nothing but a speaker put on full blast, and finally the track with the tricky bend, now empty and clear. Under the streetlight, the graying roots that form a slim path along my mother’s head appear golden, struck by some amber glow. Many years ago, she’d call me to sit on the back of the couch, where she’d hunch and instruct me to pluck out the new batch of white hairs she’d collected from the month. Be thorough, she’d say. Make sure you get everything. No, bao bao, it doesn’t hurt at all. There are too many now, and together they halo her in a gorgeous light, and for all I know, she is a girl and we are at the part of the track where she is more of a daughter than anything else. Her hair is dark and long for a moment, then pure white, speckling gray, blowing messy in the wind. Everything unravels ahead of her and around her. I am certain that lao lao is gliding somewhere in the distance, “hong-er” on her lips, their heads turning to find one another.

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