Chores were never a big part of my childhood. I often wished they were, and even asked my parents to assign me tasks. When I was eight or nine, I asked my parents if I could wash the dishes every night after dinner. I asked them for 1 yuan (approximately 16 cents) per session; no more, no less. They offered me more— what about five yuan?— but I insisted on one. I liked the image of a piggy bank filling up, a coin a day, nice whole numbers creating the simplest math.
My parents humored me because I was the youngest in the family. I am no longer the youngest, and am only home four months out of the year, in the same house, the same kitchen where I once washed dishes in the evening. The youngest member of the family is now my niece, a large, bumbling baby. She was born in the hot, damp summer of 2014 and now, whenever I am home, it is my new duty to give her her evening bath.
Every night, after all the food has been spooned into the baby’s mouth, I carry her upstairs to the bathroom. I run the bath and undress her, exposing her bulbous belly. I free her soft baby hair from its tiny ponytail. The tendrils float; she has a mullet. I marvel at how fast her hair grows.
The baby loves getting naked and she loves her bath. Maybe she even loves me. Her dimpled hands paw at the water, grab at the rubber seal toy. She calls it a dog in Chinese; she shows it to me. I tried to correct her once but I couldn’t remember the Chinese word for seal. I let her call it a dog.
I soap her silly little hairs, sculpt a mohawk, then two horns out the sides of her head. She looks so cute. I’d really love to take a photo, but I don’t. I try to get her to lift her arms so I can soap them up, but she’s too preoccupied with the dog-seal. Her head is tilted down, cheeks so large they obscure her neck, face scrunched up in concentration.
I’m done, but the baby is not. “Time to go,” I say over and over again, but she ignores me. I haul her out, place her on a towel, pat her dry, and secure her diaper. Finally, the baby is ready; I set her free. She stumbles towards her grandmother, who is lying down in bed. It’s the usual position I see my mother in now.
I was there at the hospital when my niece was born. My mother and I waited in the hallway for a small eternity, listening to the symphony of wailing mothers-to-be. A woman in the labor ward was moaning “Ma ma, ma ma.” My mother was pacing the hallway, trying to hold her laughter in. Later my sister told me that when my mother was at her side she was both crying over my sister’s pain and giggling at the woman’s screams. Typical mom, we said.
I was in New York when I found out my mother was sick. It was April when I got the call from my sister and I was in the throes of final projects and papers. I barely called home during this time.
“She’s refusing treatment,” she said.
I asked her why.
“She says she’s accepted death. She says she’d rather die happy than in pain.”
Typical mom, I thought.
I imagined my sister, the fresh 7 month baby in her lap, a burgeoning life force. How her belly must still be loose and powdery from the birth. She was crying when she called me, her face slightly pixellated, her voice emanating from a small device I held in my hand. She had to carry this weight; see it, touch it, hear it. All I had were six thousand pixels and a measly speaker.
I wanted to help, but imagined the impossibility of talking to my mother. I’d turn to English out of desperation, she’d get frustrated, then I’d give up, like we normally do. She was still so stubborn, and so was I.
So I bathe the baby instead. Night after night, I pour the milky water over her head, anointing her sweet energy. At dinner, my mother sits at the table, her head bald and smooth as she spoons soup into her mouth. She eats only a little. Everything she does is little. Sometimes, when I am unable to sleep, I hear her slippers shuffle from the bed to the bathroom, back and forth. I wonder when exactly this pattern started. I count down each round, heavy day, the chemo accumulating like coins. One by one, dropped into the bank.