by Maya McKendall
"It's a girl."
Li Fan tensed as she heard the three words that would follow her for the rest of her life.
Suddenly, the cream-colored walls seemed to grow thicker. The intoxicating aroma of bleach smelled stronger. The nauseous shade of green on her bed sheets danced around her vision.
She was sure her husband would be irrefutably enraged when he found out his offspring was a girl. There was no denying it. Any father would be crushed.
Fan felt the instinctive discouragement that came when breeding a girl, but she shrugged her doubts off nonchalantly.
" I shouldn't care, this is my baby," Fan thought with a sigh.
She was interrupted from her deliberation when the doctor cleared his throat.
"I just finished taking general measurements on the- girl," spite edged in every word he muttered.
He placed Fan's baby in her outstretched arms as if it were ridden with disease. Once settled, the child curled its delicate, porcelain fingers around her pinky and let out a small sneeze.
" Chánɡ mìnɡ bǎi suì 1," Fan responded with a small laugh. The baby peered at her through a pair of wide chocolate eyes, still adjusting to life outside the interior of her mother’s womb.
The doctor's face sported a look of pure distaste as he beckoned the woman to get up. "Back to the ward with you."
Fan heaved as she sat up in bed. Suddenly, the tiredness in her felt like a worm, slowly but deliberately draining her life. A tasteless, insipid flavor hung dry in her mouth as she longed for the taste of liquid water. "Can I not stay here for a few more minutes?"
The doctor reaffirmed a steady "no" and before she knew it, Fan had showered, put on clothes and was escorted out of the lackluster hospital room on her way to the ward.
The hallway had as much personality as the rest of the hospital. The floor was slate gray and the walls dove. The artificial light felt blinding to Fan after the darkening gloom in the delivery unit, almost enough to bring on a migraine.
Underneath Fan's grasp, the baby's eyes were squeezed into thin slits. She played with a tuft of her sparse, black hair.
When the group finally reached the multi-person ward packed with about thirty beds, Fan and her baby were directed to one of the nearest beds. Her face contorted into one of skepticism as the doctor pivoted toward the exit. "You're not going to tell me anything?"
"What do you mean?" The doctor interrogated rotating back around.
"Do you have any advice for new parents or something?" Fan muttered, realizing how juvenile the statement sounded. After all, the hospital's negligent employees most likely wouldn't have any sagacity to spare.
He snorted and let out a cruel mocking laugh. "I have four words: adoption is an option." With that, he departed the ward without another syllable.
Fan was unperturbed by the utterance and gazed down lovingly at the baby in her clutches. "I guess it's just you and me now."
She couldn't help grinning at the bundle as its face glowed and its miniature fingers grasped her's and held on tight. Somehow, Fan felt like the baby knew she needed joy in the midst of this tribulation. Fan brought the bundle closer to her chest and whispered, "I will never let you go, I promise. Even if it comes to the point of death."
And that was a pledge Fan knew she would keep.
The four-year-old recoiled as she heard her father’s vociferation reverberate throughout the house. Before she could compose herself, she could already perceive his clamorous footsteps treading across the loose floorboards.
Within a matter of a few moments, his lean, towering physique was looming over the appalled Chenxi. “Chenxi, why aren’t you doing those worksheets I laid out for you?”
The girl’s gaze traveled downward and she began scrutinizing over one of the chipped buttons on her shirt’s collar utilizing her pointer finger and thumb. But her father bent down and seized her chin in his coarse palms, causing a complaint to utter from the child’s lips. “What did I tell you about eye contact?”
Chenxi remained mute, her large, glassy eyes watering over as a perplexed expression crossed her facial features. Once again, she shifted her sight towards the same pendulous button and her father was compelled to snatch her plump face into his hands, mercilessly compressing her cheeks. “ Báichī 2,” he muttered, pushing the terrified girl away with his hand. “You probably don’t even know what that means.”
After wobbling up on her young legs, she finally turned her eyes on her father, lips trembling and shoulders heaving with emotion. Her dark lashes brimmed heavy with tears, threatening to spill. A lone tear traced down her cheek, and just like that, the floodgates broke loose. Tears made wet tracks down her face and dripped from her stubbled chin. Clear snot streaked across her cheeks as she took the back of her hand and smeared it over her nose. Her mouth opened, shivering as she mumbled the phrase, “I’m sorry” continuously.
“Come now,” her father susurrated, retrieving a pre-used, balled-up tissue from off a table close in proximity. “We wouldn’t want your mother finding out. Fan wouldn’t be thrilled with the way I’ve been treating you.”
Currently, Chenxi’s mother was absent from the mayhem, out purchasing clothes and food for her little ‘Chen Chen’. She was out a lot lately, leaving her father plenty of time to give her worksheets to complete (although they were never completed).
Chenxi permitted him to wipe her discouraged appearance with the tissue, attempting to clear her expression of any indication of sadness. “Remember, this is our little secret, understand?”
The toddler nodded carelessly and at that minute an instantaneous knock was heard at the small, wooden door. Hurriedly wiping her face of the lingering snot, Jiahao shoved the wadded material in the trash and opened the door with a noisy creak.
At the entrance stood Fan, her long raven hair cascading down her shoulders as she held two fabric shopping bags. One was filled to the brim with food, and the other carried an assortment of clothing.
“ Māmā 3!” Chenxi cried rushing past her father and throwing her face into her mother’s shirt. “Chen Chen!” her mother exclaimed, relinquishing the bags and swooping her daughter into her extended arms. “Were you good for your dad?”
Chenxi rotated on her heels in her father’s direction and he returned a placid glare. “She refused to do her worksheets and tried to take books off the shelf multiple times.”
“Chen Chen, is this true?” her mother asked, embellishing her countenance which generated a lopsided grin from her daughter. She nodded and buried her face deeper into her mother’s clothing, inhaling the fresh scent of her perfume. “Jiahao, you know maybe she really wants to read one of those books.”
“But the age recommendation is years older than she is,” her husband sputtered indignantly. “She would never be able to read anything as intricate as those textbooks.”
“Yes, but you’re always worried about her excelling in math and science. Maybe she’s more into Language Arts. Ever took the time to ask her?”
“No, but have you ever taken the time to ask her? You go out so much buying stuff for her, that I’m constantly the one on babysitting duty. I guess you don’t know my job coincides with the time I spend here.”
The pair broke off into an elaborate confrontation and Chenxi took the opportunity to escape to her parents’ room, the uproar too much for her sensitive ears to take. Once there, she rested on their bed and squeezed her eyes shut. Her dad’s booming voice seemed to vibrate the walls. It was soon followed by her mother’s shrill tone, electrifying the air. Pulling her head underneath the pillow, she waited for the storm to cease.
Just a typical day at the Guo house.
“Wake up, Chenxi. I have something I want to show you.”
Chenxi awoke to her mother’s soft voice, her words barely audible as the toddler rubbed her shuttering eyelids open. The fatigue gradually drained from her limbs and she realized it was nighttime from the stream of moonlight filtering through the curtains. She surveyed her mother, baring a look of disdain, and her mother let out a jovial laugh.
“Don’t look at me like that, Chen Chen. I’ve had an epiphany.”
The young woman left the room for a time, but her daughter, unable to stay irritated with her mother, glued her gaze on the door, apprehensively waiting for her arrival. Her return brought great excitement from Chenxi, but her mother hushed her with a gesture towards her father, who slept in the same room as the two.
She splayed her body across the sections of the bed that weren’t occupied by Jiahao, Chenxi settling comfortably next to her. Fan finally revealed to her the items she retrieved on her excursion, two books, one hardback and much thicker than the other.
Chenxi probed her disconcertedly, interrogating her with a battalion of pokes from her pointer finger as her mother flipped to her desired page in the hardback publication. “Autism,” she read aloud, “is a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors.”
She set the book down, her lower lip quivering as she exerted great force in attempting to voice her next observation. Her eyes were windows, every ounce of pain and gentleness and love she had for her child was reflected in her deep gaze.
“I’m definitely not a doctor,” she started, with each word her throat clogged with sorrow. “But I did some research on this disorder. I’m not saying you have it, but some of these symptoms you seem to have such as the trouble with communication, repetitive behavior, eye contact issues-”
She paused. “Chenxi, I want you to know this- I’m not sure if you have it or not, and I’m definitely not going to the hospital to find out, but regardless I love you the same, understand?”
The young girl stared at her with her unchanging, authentic confused glare.
Fan emitted another laugh. “But I was doing some research on autism and found out that most children with the disease have the talent for remembering details. This attribute plays a bad role by causing some of them to stress out over the smallest of problems. Fortunately, multiple parents of children with autism reported their careful attention to detail may also be the basis of why a number of them are savants.”
Fan then pulled out the second book she obtained, a paperback entitled Hǎo Dìqiú 4 by Sai Zhenzhu. “I noticed you eyeing this book the other day so I thought you might want to read it with me.”
Chenxi clapped vigorously as her mother cracked open the book, but was silenced by her mother who once again motioned to her father, still sound asleep.
Finally, the pair plunged into the prose, Chenxi’s mother initiating by reading the first chapter aloud to her engrossed daughter. Every once and awhile, Fan would sneak a glance at Chenxi, who’s conscientious gaze was trained on the pages of the novel, its snowy whiteness speckled with a flurry of words written in black ink.
Although the phrases were still foreign to her budding tongue, they piqued her interest as the toddler felt a strange, new feeling. A feeling that wasn’t conjured by the numerous worksheets her father distributed. She finally felt a strange desire to learn and grasp this alien concept called reading. When her mother completed the portion, she took it upon herself to ask to read the subsequent section.
“Of course!” Fan answered effervescently, handing the book to her.
So the duo navigated their way through the Hǎo Dìqiú, Fan correcting Chenxi’s pronunciation the few times she was mistaken. But despite her young age, the toddler could accurately identify the majority of the terms by simply sounding the word out. Definitions for unknown words were also established with the aide of the dictionary.
“Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a yoo- union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no-” she gazed up questioningly at her mother, confused with the word she had encountered.
“Articulate,” Fan said.
“He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect-” “Sympathy.”
“Sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over…”
The two continued until streaks of gold were strewn throughout the sky, never growing faint of each other’s company.
“Look, Chenxi,” Fan cradled her child in one hand and jerked the curtains aside with the other. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The room ignited in a brilliant burst of color. The blush of scarlet dominated the heavens, giving way to a rose pink following a vivid tangerine. A silver mist began to settle over the city, adding to the ethereal glow. Then, the scene dissipated as rapid as it had come, without any warning or announcement.
“You see that, Chenxi? That’s what you were named after- the beauty of the morning.”
Fan looked down at her child, but to her dismay, she had fallen fast asleep. A smile crept onto her face, the same smile she bore in the delivery unit after seeing her child for the first time. “My little Chen Chen.”
With that, Fan let out a content sigh as she witnessed the rare beauty of the morning sun dawning on a new day. A new horizon that would change the rest of her and her daughter’s life.
The mother-daughter team maintained their schedule, reserving two out of the seven days of the week for their night classes. Chenxi breezed through Hǎo Dìqiu and Fan greatly praised her for her reading abilities. Afterward, Fan unearthed another tattered novel off the bookshelf and the process repeated.
A dilemma that transpired while reading was the vocabulary. Often Chenxi confronted terms she didn’t know the meanings of. Of course the dictionary would help, but the girl still needed a way to gather all of her definitions for recollection. This all changed on her 6th birthday, a few months before the developing girl would go to school.
“Okay, Chenxi,” her father had said as the family assembled around the wooden dining set. “Since today is your birthday, your mother and I have both purchased gifts for you.”
He handed her a massive present, sloppily encased in red wrapping paper. His frequently dismal face morphed into a genuine grin as she effortlessly tore the paper off of the product, exerting more effort in attempting to hold the large item in her tiny grasp. Unsurprisingly, it was a textbook loaded with all types of math equations. “Happy birthday, Chenxi.”
The child almost felt bad for resenting the gift, but she made sure to obscure her dislike with a mirthful facade.
Next, was her mother’s turn. She also granted her daughter what appeared to be a small book, also sheltered in a crimson paper. “Happy birthday, Chen Chen.”
She ripped apart the material and gasped at the object.
A journal. A stunning, leather bound journal crammed with hundreds of new, crisp white pages.
Chenxi ran her fingertips along the yellow cover, her breath catching in her throat as she unbound the fastener and flipped it open. Her mother’s loopy and convoluted handwriting was scrawled across the top of the first page. It read,
Happy birthday, Chenxi
And with that, Chenxi began collecting words to go into her journal, enhancing her vocabulary range to the extent that no average six-year-old would.
On her first day of school, she brought the log, a pen tucked underneath the interior of the leather binding so she could quickly scribble down the first unknown word she heard.
“You excited?” her mother had asked.
She shook her head and Fan responded, “You’ll be fine.”
After the school day was over, Chenxi came home bawling her eyes out because reportedly numerous children had ganged up on her over her statement, “Hello, my name is Chenxi and my māmā self-diagnosed me with autism.”
“Chen Chen, we don’t say things like that at school,” her mother told her as she consoled her on their velvet duvet.
“Then what things do we say at school?” Chenxi had mumbled back, cheeks still wet from her outburst.
Fan never took her back.
Instead, the girl was homeschooled by her which also gave Fan the opportunity to teach her daughter some communication skills. As she was being taught, the young woman found Chenxi was well-rounded in nearly all the subjects, but definitely had a preference to the Language Arts. Anything from essays to reflections she could write with ease, along with the help of her journal.
It wasn’t until she turned nine that she stumbled upon the wonderful topic of creative writing. “ Māmā, can kids like me write books?” she asked one day.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, have children with autism ever published books such as Hǎo Dìqiú?”
“Well, I’m sure they have but-”
“That’s all I needed to know,” Chenxi interrupted as she rushed to grab the journal.
Her first book didn’t fare very well. It followed the life of a Chinese maiden who had been granted a scholarship to a university in America. She had done a substantial amount of research on schools in the U.S. and how the teaching methods varied from that of China.
Her second book did even worse. The adolescent novelist attempted to put a spin on traditional Chinese tales.
“Your audience wants something original,” her mother told her. “So give them something original.”
Thus, she was inspired to write her third book and life biography, A Mother’s Love: Coping with Autism. Chenxi had struck gold with this publication, and copies of the book were featured in many stores and shopping centers throughout China, even in the richest areas such as Beijing. Not only did the prose financially improve their budget, but several families from around China came to the Guo household, bringing their children diagnosed with autism.
One example included a family with a young boy named Zhang Chao. His parents reported he had frequent outbreaks, but would generally sputter out arbitrary names along with his episodes. Fan worked with the child for a couple of hours and ascertained the boy had a knack for remembering names. In fact, most of the people he muttered about were celebrities he had seen on television or authors of famous books.
But what Chenxi felt like she was awarded the most was her father’s adoration. After her book became popular, she felt her father revered her more.
Of course it was a surprise to him that she had autism. Any father would be crushed. Yet, he admired her more now that the savant could express herself freely through her writing (although he would have rathered she had skills in mathematics).
It was as if he finally opened his eyes and realized that she was human, too. That just because she was a female and autistic didn’t make her any less civilized than he was. It was if he finally realized the nights she had lingered awake, intending to make her father proud.
But she wished it didn’t have to depend on her mental capacity. If she wouldn’t have turned out talented, what would he have done? Treated her like dirt for the remainder of her life?
Nonetheless, she was still grateful for everything her parents had done, primarily her mother. And to her adulthood, she unrelentingly remembered that one dawn her life had changed for the best and the rare sighting of the morning sun.
Hordes of pedestrians lined up across the street. Numerous parents had brought their children, most baring a disability of some sort.
Fan smiled at the sight of all of them there to support the ribbon-cutting of her Autism Awareness Center located in the heart of Shanghai, China. She couldn’t believe the amount of devotion and persistence it took, but she had finally done it.
She placed a facility dedicated to residents of China with disabilities in one of the most populated cities in the world. Not only was it populated, but most likely filled with who wouldn’t give children with autism a second thought.
But she had. And the love for her caused her daughter to continue pursuing her dreams in America.
Silently rehearsing the lines she put together at the last minute, she skirted along the side of the center, her facility, a pair of huge scissors tucked underneath her armpit.
The crowd erupted into applause at the sight of her and she curteously bowed to the congregation. “Before we begin I want to tell you all a little story…”
1May you live a hundred years, 2idiot, 3mom, 4The Good Earth