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CONNECTIONS | MAGAZINE

My mom’s dumplings were the perfect therapy as I underwent chemo

Her recipe has gotten me through some of my darkest days.

Dumplings the author made for the Chinese New Year in 2019 following her mom's recipe.From Zaiyi Jiang

‘My dear, what do you have for lunch today?’ the nurse asked me as she was getting me settled in the chemotherapy infusion area. “My mom’s homemade dumplings!” I responded. The nurse grinned, surely guessing I was relieved to say farewell to the dry chicken sandwiches offered in the hospital cafeteria.

I opened my lunch box. Inside, more than a dozen dumplings were artfully positioned. The aroma of shrimp mixed with chives and ground pork instantly filled the air, replacing the strong odor of saline that had flushed my IV line.

As my infusion began, I bit into a dumpling. The wrappers made from scratch were soft and chewy, while the fillings were flavorful and springy. I took another bite and another. A couple of minutes later, I finished them all with a contented smile.

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Beginning with that chilly noon in early 2018, when Boston was covered with heavy snow, my mom’s homemade dumplings became my go-to dish whenever I would go to the hospital for a new round of treatment. Though the dumplings were easy to pack and convenient to bring, they took a long time to prepare. My mom stayed up late the night before each appointment, chopping chives first and then mixing them with peeled shrimp, ground pork, ginger, soy sauce, salt, pepper, oil, and starch until all the ingredients were blended thoroughly.

The author (wearing baseball cap) with her mother at Harvard Art Museums in the spring of 2018 when she was still in treatment.From Zaiyi Jiang

Instead of purchasing ready-made dumpling wrappers, she’d spend hours making the wrappers herself and inserting the fillings. Before I’d leave for the hospital the next morning, she’d get up early to boil the dumplings, then let them cool down to keep them from sticking to one another in the lunch box.

My mom has always been the best cook. As soon as she learned about my diagnosis four years ago, she flew nearly 7,000 miles over 13 hours from China to Boston to take care of me in a place she’d never been, in a country where she barely spoke the language and knew no one but me. Mama was devastated to see me struggling in pain and fear, but she never showed her vulnerability. Taciturn yet tough, she’d spent years looking after her husband, my dad, before he passed away, burying her grief deep inside while cooking all her love into countless healthy and delicious meals for me.

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While most people associate chemotherapy with all types of dreadful side effects like nausea, fatigue, and hair loss, my painful memories about the treatment itself seem blurry. In retrospect, the infusion area of the hospital to me was less about scary tubes and horrifying drugs than a place filled with the appetizing aroma of my mom’s homemade dumplings.

By the time my mother went back to China a couple of months later, I was approaching the end of my treatment. Moving forward, I knew there would no longer be a person by my side who could always turn ordinary ingredients into something delectable. As I attempted to navigate my life back to normal, I told myself: Maybe it’s time to make dumplings on my own.

And so I have. Since 2019, I’ve been wrapping dumplings each Chinese New Year’s Eve, following Mama’s recipe. I don’t know when she will be able to eat one of the dumplings I’ve made — the pandemic makes everything, including international travel, more complicated than ever. But one thing is certain: When Chinese New Year, my fourth in a row without her company, rolls around, I will make some dumplings. Because by doing so, at least my mom and I, though geographically far apart, will be sharing and savoring the same taste once again.

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Zaiyi Jiang is a graduate student in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.