I carry my mother up the hostel stairs, feeling her shallow breaths hitting my cheek. She is childlike in my arms and I bend my knees to create a space between her head and the stairwell. My feet shift anxiously but she does not seem to notice. She is there again, in the place that no amount of “I love you”s or “Everything is going to be okay”s can penetrate. Yet I still offer those words, murmuring them into her hair. We carefully maneuver through the doorframe and onto the squeaky bed. “Hilton, eat your heart out,” I joke. The air of the room tastes stale. I open up a window and the mountains glare back, their grandiosity eclipsed by our circumstance.

I had stared out that same window last summer in absolute awe. Beyond the tops of houses was the Lin’an mountain range of eastern China, which encircled the entire village. At the edge of the river, children dipped their toes while their mothers rinsed out clothing. My mother and I watched until the roaring water became white noise. It was the break from the city we had both longed for. Inside the hostel, my family ate at a round table with the staff, laughing and sharing stories. My mother was her happiest then. We would share amused glances across the table as if passing notes in secrecy.

When I returned a year later, little had changed about the hostel, but I could feel the uneasiness clinging to the air like wet laundry on a thin line. There was no mention of my mother’s sudden sickness or the premise of this trip as rehabilitation rather than leisure. On the first night back, my mother’s empty chair was glaring amid the bustle of dinner. I felt tears well up—the shapes of the hostel workers swirling in my peripheral. I removed myself from the table and ran upstairs to my mother’s room.

My grandmother sat at the edge of my mother’s bed, spoon-feeding her porridge. My mother saw me and her face contorted in embarrassment, but even in my distress, I do not look away. I had spent the entire year looking away, caught up in the trivialities of relationships, and the pressure of school. How easy it was to ignore the signs—my mother’s insomnia, the yellowing of her hands. Now, seeing how this inexplicable illness weighed on her, I realized how careless I had been with the things that actually mattered. I could bury myself in guilt, but what good would that do? She needed me. I thought back to the waterfall, the children, and the glances across the table. We vibrated on a frequency that nobody could penetrate. She needed that, someone who understood. She needed me.

Love demands balance. It compels strength and embraces vulnerability. I stayed by my mother’s side all summer. Some days were harder than others, but where she fell short, I became strong. Every time she thought she was going to die, I held her until the demons fled. Every time the hostel walls wore her down, I carried her out into the summer air. For years, my mother was my anchor. But to grow up is to realize that nobody plays one role in love. Two years later, sitting at the dinner table, I smile with secret relief as my mother cleans out her plate —“When did I get so fat?” she jokes.

Though there are times I find myself preoccupied once again, stuck in the past or anxious about the future, I am reminded to squeeze out every second, especially the ones with her. Because love imbeds itself in each of these moments. In embracing its malleability, I too, am changed.

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