Mrs. Li stared at her husband with a soft gaze reflecting the 9-a.m. sunlight beaming through the window.
I pressed the shutter and recorded that heartfelt moment.
Ever since my grandfather stretched out the black and white films under the sun and pointed at the miniatures of myself when I was 6 years old, photography has become a part of my life. I carried my camera to the outskirt of Beijing to grab the trace of a shooting star; I walked around Forbidden City after the first snow of winter to record its serenity; I captured laughter of my friends to freeze the precious moments of our friendship. The world talks to me through the tiny lens and makes me a more mature observer.
Every Wednesday in winter since freshmen year, I have visited the community service center in Windsor to play games and make crafts with elderly people. It always makes me happy to know that my time with them brings them happiness.
After I returned to Beijing during the summer of 2016, I decided to do something for elderly people in my hometown as well. So, I volunteered to take pictures of people in the Beijing Oriental Nursing Home. These residents have everything they need, but lack activities such as morning walks, socializing, Mahjong, and card games, so usually not much else is going on. I wanted to bring them somewhere fun by documenting and showing them their own lives in the nursing home with photos. I brought my camera to life while observing a conversation among a group of elderly people, and listened to an old gentleman singing pop songs from the Mao era.
Half a month later, I printed my pictures and gave a copy to each of the people I photographed. My pictures disrupted the monotonous cycles their lives had become by bringing laughter and tears to all of them.
One day, I was taking photos in the yard, and a lady in green with half-silver hair walked towards me with her husband in a wheelchair. Under the 95-degree heat, she was struggling to push the chair. I squatted on the sidewalk and took a picture. She noticed me and shook my hands after learning that I was a community service volunteer.
She explained that her 88-year-old husband, Mr. Qiao, had suffered from Alzheimer and as a result, he had to stay in a wheelchair. When she noticed that I left my water bottle in the car, Mrs. Li warmheartedly invited my mother and I to her room for a drink.
Her name is Shoufen Li, and she is 83 year old. “We had four children, three of them were boys; I stayed at home to raise the kids. My husband was the only bread earner in the house, and money was tight from time to time. Now it’s the time for me to look after him.” Mrs. Li sighed as she mentioned Mr. Qiao’s Alzheimer, which has forced his own children out of his memory. Worried about her husband’s condition, eight years ago Mrs. Li has moved into the nursing home to take care of him.
When Mrs. Li was giving him a massage on his legs, she casually asked him “is it good?”
I expected Mr. Qiao to nod or smile, but he uttered the first sentence I had ever heard from him: “Good, really good!”
I was surprised and immediately turned my head over to Mrs. Li. Yet the couple just looked into each other’s eyes and grinned and ignored me like an unnoticeable fly on the wall. I snapped a shot of that precious moment.
Besides taking care of her husband, Mrs. Li told me that she had one other concern—her brother, who lived in Shanghai, her only sibling left in the world. In 2014, while calling her brother’s home, she heard that he was not doing well. Soon after that, Mrs. Li completely lost connection with the Shanghai family when their phone number changed.
“My brother treated me so well when we were young. He is my closest relative, and now I can’t find him,” she said with her smile fading.
I couldn’t possibly imagine her pain of not being able to contact her brother. I cried leaving my family for boarding school two years earlier. When I started my high school in Windsor, CT, my tears became my frequent companion. Even though I knew my family was always there, this thought couldn’t ease my helplessness. If I weren’t able to call my mother when I couldn’t fall asleep, I would be very depressed. Because of my own overseas study experience, I could feel the agony that was devouring Mrs. Li. I decided to do something for this lady.
My family gave their full support after I told them that I wished to help find Mrs. Li’s brother. My father told the story to one of his friends in the police department, and this wish spread from Beijing all the way to Shanghai. The local police found out that Ruiqi Li, Mrs. Li’s brother, had died in November, 2015. Even though I did not come across a happy ending, I asked for the contact information of the Shanghai family and thus started texting Mingna Li, Ruiqi Li’s daughter.
At first, they doubted my motive. However, when they learned that I was volunteering at the nursing home where Mrs. Li currently lived, they became intrigued. The family had been looking for Shoufen Li for two years. Mingcheng, Mingna’s brother had even paid a visit to Mrs. Li’s old address, yet he couldn’t find anyone in the house because the couple had moved to the nursing home by then. Ruiqi Li suffered from body function decay during the last several months of his life, the family told me, but he had always wanted to go to find his sister even though he couldn’t even get off the bed.
Mingcheng and Mingna told their mother, Fengqiu Zhang, the news about Shoufen Li, and they asked me for pictures and contact information and got very curious about my tireless effort of finding them. Considering that Mrs. Li and Mr. Qiao couldn’t travel long distance and that it would take too much effort for the entire Shanghai family to come to Beijing, I decided to visit Shanghai so that I could bring everything to the Shanghai family and also take pictures of them to show the photos to Mrs. Li when I returned. The Shanghai family was excited about my visit.
After I arrived, the Shanghai family immediately dived into my photos from the nursing home. They held these photos so tightly, as if they were the key to open the door between themsleves and Mrs. Li. I recorded our conversation with permission so that I could play the recording to Mrs. Li when I returned. Fengqiu had to leave in the middle of our conversation to take pills; she still was unable to recover from the sadness of losing her husband.
As I left their house, holding the letter Mingcheng wrote to Mrs. Li, they thanked me again and again and confirmed with me a time to connect with Mrs. Li and Mr. Qiao through a video chat.
Mingcheng called early in the morning on the day when we confirmed to connect via video chat. He reminded us to ask the nursing home for medicine before our video chat so that the sudden emotional stimulus of seeing her Shanghai family wouldn’t harm Mrs. Li’s health.
I arrived at the nursing home two hours before the reserved time for video chat, asked the nurses for medicine, and handed all the pictures, a letter, and recordings all from Shanghai to the couple.
Tears immediately streamed down Mrs. Li’s face as she heard the voices that she missed so dearly. She wiped her eyes with a tissue, yet the next second she couldn’t help but laugh as she heard them talking about her. As the video chat started, Mrs. Li laughed and laughed. They started speaking Shanghai dialect and asked how everything was for each of the families. As the conversation went on. Mingchang promised her that he would pay a visit as soon as his mother recovered from her husband’s death.
After hanging up with the Shanghai family, Mrs. Li expressed her gratefulness over and over to me. The longings of both the Beijing family and Shanghai family were fulfilled; so was mine.
Wishful knot, also known as the Chinese knot, represents auspice and peace. The knot is usually used as a traditional ornament in Chinese society. My journey tells a story of pulling the cords of love toward each other and making a wishful knot. The two families, like two strands yearning to be tied back again, are finally brought together. Different directions of longings braid and curl into a heart-to-heart conversation: Mrs. Li’s sacrifice resulting from her deep fondness of her husband, the anxiety of both the Shanghai family and the Beijing couple to find each other, and the desire of me to take unexpected initiatives to help reconnect this lost relationship. After all, home is where hearts belong.