Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

My first memory is of a little black thermos. 

You packed it for me every day for my preschool lunch. I never saw you dig the spatula into the rice cooker or lay pork and broccoli onto the pan. There is no memory of you delicately unscrewing the cap, separating the two layers, then filling them- rice on the bottom, meats, and vegetables on top. I did not think about it back then; there was no capacity in my consciousness for something as trivial as that. All I knew was that it appeared every morning in my purple lunchbox and then sat clean beside the sink after I brought it home. 

It turned into lunch money soon after that. A check was handed to me each morning on the way to elementary school, along with a stern warning to not lose it. I would cash it in at school, then eat the soggy chicken tenders and stale chicken sandwiches. I did not think about the meaningless scrap paper or the money you worked for encapsulated within your cursive handwriting. All I thought about was swallowing unpleasant, greasy food that did not have the heart entangled within your recipes. 

When I was in middle school, you stopped cooking as often. The task was delegated to my dad: the only chore that was his sole responsibility. There was nothing graceful about the way he cooked: pots and pans clanging on the stovetop, and knives thudding forcefully against thick slabs of wood. His methods were disorienting; I had gotten so used to the way you maneuvered around the kitchen, liquid hands dancing along plastic handles, every movement gentle but firm. You were in control when you cooked, with every ingredient obeying your commands and every utensil manipulated by your rough fingertips. My dad let the food cook for him. This change was abrupt and undesirable. I never thought about how taxing it was for you to arrive home from work every day and then prepare dinner for a family of five. I never thought about how you felt your connection to home faltering and how your Beijing dishes no longer tasted the same to you. All I did was crave the richness of the flavors you created, the enchanting tastes that I could not continue to savor on my tongue. 

There were a lot of things I never thought about back then, and there are too many things I wallow on now. 

You grew up in a big city; we visited when I was in fourth grade. 

I remember wandering around the complicated streets, the sidewalks that occupied miles of cement. I imagined you exploring every inch of the area, determined to map out its entirety. I saw your teenage self enveloped in rows of towering buildings, surrounded by acres of empty space and wondered if you ever suffocated in the loneliness. 

It was not until much later that I realized that there was nothing more isolating than where you are now, an unfamiliar suburbia filled with nothing but passing faces and the overwhelming lack of your own normality. It was a sacrifice you made for me, and I am forever indebted to you, even if it is against both of our wills. It is a tantalizing curse you cast on me, and I fear that it has planted a resounding resentment inside of me. 

I know you miss your parents impossibly, repeatedly planning trips home that never come to fruition. Once, as I quietly crept up the stairs to my room, I saw you cry for them. It was vulnerable, private, and painful, and there was nothing for me to do except turn my head and attempt to erase the image from my mind. It never disappeared; I can still picture it if I close my eyes. The scene has festered like a gruesome wound, and every recollection is another finger twisting into raw flesh. You never disclose your sorrow when you speak with them. They ask you about your life and you simply pretend that you like it here.

I wonder if that is our fate: exchanging hellos over the phone every month or so, me forcing my kids to engage in polite small talk with their grandma, and unsaid words that will never be unraveled. 

I now have twenty years of reflection contained in a pit that resides in my stomach. 

I am not sure if I have ever known you happy. There are smile lines aligned with your eyes, so I know you must have been once. Maybe it was when you were young, but I cannot begin to imagine you as a child. I wonder if you laughed with your parents, if you skipped all the way to school, or if you had your own lunchbox swinging along with every step you took. There are so many stories you have told me about your past, but none of them have ever completed the picture of you. 

Once, I looked through your weathered photo album and stroked the lining of every page. There was a casual smile painted on your face in every single plastic slot. Your cheeks held a bright, hopeful glow and your long hair hung past your shoulders in straight black locks. Your face carried the same features as you now, however, you were completely unrecognizable to me. It is completely ridiculous, but that day was the first time I truly saw you as a real person. I could not comprehend then how you grew to have a permanent crease on your forehead and tired, sagging shoulders, and a wistful gaze behind your eyes that never seemed to dissipate. I sat there numbly for a few minutes, folded the book shut, and cried. Was I what faded your effortless smile, the one that struggles to grace your face now? It was too much to put on myself – I knew that then, but I let the tears fall onto the leather binding anyway. I convince myself now that it does not matter; those pictures depict the most beautiful person I have ever seen, and now years later, nothing has changed. 

You still dye your gray hair black, even though I argue there is no need to. There is nothing shameful about aging, even if I can feel your years falling away from within my grasp. I relay the comments my friends make on how pretty you are, but you dismiss them with a scoff and insist that they are just being polite. It is a stab in the stomach every time you deny your own beauty, every time you claim your stomach is too large, every time you declare your complexion is gray and sallow. There is nothing I can say that can change your mind, so I have given up on saying anything at all. 

I can remember every single horrible thing I have ever said to you; I hope desperately that you have forgotten them all. You tell me your memory is going anyway, and I can see it when you leave your keys in the fridge or toss uneaten food into the garbage. You tell me unrelentingly that the day will come soon, when you will leave this plane of existence and I will no longer need you. I could delve into a multitude of possibilities for my future, and none of them proposes a time when you are not necessary for my survival. 

I fear mortality, but only when it is yours. You complain daily that your muscles are tense and your bones ache, and there is nothing I can do except dig my palms into your shoulders and wish you could feel young again. Sometimes I wonder if my desires are selfish, if making you happy is the only way to repay my debts. It does not matter, I think, as long as you are here. 

It was just Mother’s Day, and gifting you something is like achingly colliding into invisible barriers. What could I possibly give to someone who wants nothing, but needs something I will never be able to provide? 

If I could turn back time, where I am four years old again and you are packing me lunch, will you finally be satisfied with what I have given you? If your glow is returned to your face, if your hair is sleek and dark again, if your years of effort and strife are erased? 

Or do I have to take you back to when you were four years old and your mom was packing you lunch? If you ran along the roads of your hometown, if that bright, toothy smile shaped the contour of your face, if the touch of innocence and carefreeness still reverberated through your body? If I did not exist in your universe yet? Will that be enough?

I cannot turn back time, so I must accept the fact that once again, you will receive nothing but a gift punctured with unsaid words and merciless, all-consuming emotions.

Tracy Li is in her fourth year at Michigan State University, majoring in Mathematics and Secondary Education. She is a social media assistant for the Michigan State chapter. While her major is not aligned with writing, she has a deep passion for it, particularly in the form of creative writing. In her spare time, she enjoys crocheting, painting, and embroidering.