It's Monday evening. My mom, my dad, and I are sitting at the dinner table with our eyes trained on the computer screen in front of us.
I say hello in Chinese: “Nǐmen hǎo!”
"Āi!" my grandma replies.
I see my mom's three older sisters and my grandma eating brunch in Tianjin, China. We're eating dinner in Redmond, Washington. They tease us for eating Costco dumplings and flaunt their own homemade ones.
So many of us live far away from the people we love. It's hard to stay connected, and family illness can make the situation even harder.
We only get to see them in person twice a year, so my mom, Guoping Ma, says Skype is the next best thing.
"Sitting in front of the screen, it's as if we're just sitting next to each other," she says. "Of course, you can't touch each other, right? But it's so close."
We Skype three nights a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Through the computer screen, my third-oldest aunt takes out an oxygen machine and hooks it up to grandma. My mom's eyebrows furrow.
Grandma has been bedridden for almost seventeen years — practically since I was born. Every day she struggles with back problems, osteoporosis, a heart condition, and a number of other health problems.
It's a dangerous situation, but my mom can't really help. It's her sisters who take care of grandma, and my mom feels guilty. Through these Skype calls, she wants them to know she cares.
"If they don't see me show up, they don't see me, there might be some misconceptions or assumptions that I don't care, and that's a very uncomfortable feeling," she says.
My parents came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in 1993. My mom wrote letters home every week because grandma didn't have a phone. It was tough, but it was a sacrifice that grandma supported.
"I am a hundred percent sure she wouldn't be happy if I were to move back, even though she craved to be close, to see her children," my mom says. "But she also sees that as constraining [us]."
My mom felt comfortable leaving her family because everyone was pretty healthy then. At the time, mom thought she would only stay in America for five or six years. But at the end of those six years, my parents both found jobs, and I was born. It became clear we were settling down here.
Mom tried to bring grandma and my second-oldest aunt to the United States, but my aunt was denied a visa. That hope was dashed.
Then grandma's health took a downturn, and she became bedridden. We couldn't move back, and they couldn't move here, so we had to rely on technology to stay connected.
Thankfully by 2004, we were able to start video calling.
At first, we video called mom's family every night, even on weekends. On Friday, we also call dad's family since they also live in Tianjin, China. (Recently we cut back to three days a week.)
Grandma relies on these Skype calls. She keeps a small calendar on the bed and counts the days by it so she knows when we will call. She loves how it feels like we're face-to-face. She says it's just as good.
Being able to stay in contact with grandma as her health declines is so important to mom. Her dad died suddenly when she was sixteen, and she wasn't around.
"As my mom's getting older and older, I almost feel that every time I talk to her, that's one less opportunity maybe down the road," my mom tells me.
The fact that grandma is still alive is thanks to my mom's three sisters, who live together with grandma and have taken care of her for seventeen years.
"If not for them, I am one hundred percent [ sure that grandma] would have been long gone," she says.
That's why this whole situation became much harder last year, when my second-oldest aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She has been in chemotherapy, so my two remaining aunts are now taking care of my grandma and my aunt. For my mom, it's been unbearable to watch them struggle like this.
"I don't know how many times I cried," she says. "I knew that [my sister] was in such pain. I just want to make her feel better."
My mom has taken video calls from her sisters at two or three in the morning when they needed to cry with her. She gives them medical advice and financial support whenever they need it.
"There were times when they were all breaking down," my dad, Siyuan Liu, tells me. "But those were important moments for all of them to get through it together."
But sometimes, for all of my mom's efforts, it's just not enough. Like when, during a Skype call, grandma suddenly feels pain or has a shortness of breath, and my aunts rush to help her.
"When you are witnessing an emergency situation, you just feel so helpless," my mom says. "What do you do? There's nothing I can do, right? Those are the moments you feel that Skype doesn't help at all. Only being physically there would be helpful."
That's why, after I head off to college, my mom wants to visit her mom and her sisters more often.
Through all this, my mom knows there's no real solution to grandma's illness. The only question left is when grandma will leave us. But my mom says there's no point in stressing over when people will be gone.
"While they're here, do something for them," she says.
But now, it's almost time for our call to end — for my family's faces to disappear from the screen.
My mom says goodbye. “Zàijiàn!”
“Bye-bye ba,” my third-oldest aunt says.
Until the next call.
This story was created with production support from Mary Heisey and edited by Jenny Asarnow. Music: "That's Alright" by Podington Bear, "Recruitment Gong (Instrumental)" by BOPD, "This Time" by GYVUS, "In Bloom" by Mo Anando, and "Relinquish" by Podington Bear. The RadioActive theme song is by Patrick Liu and Abay Estifanos.