“Wo yao xizao, Ti Ti. Wo yao xizao Ti Ti.” (I want a bath, Ti Ti, I want a bath, Ti Ti.) Such simple words, but yet when they ring in my ears as they often do these days, my heart is seized with sadness and regret. I have many memories of Xiao Gou and her impish face, but the most common one is this; her pleading for a bath to relieve the constant burning of her bottom area because of the injuries she sustained in a tragic accident that also claimed her tiny leg, her family and her home.
I met Xiao Gou in the children’s hospital where she had spent over a year recuperating in the Intensive Care unit. Elizabeth, a fellow volunteer, and I were there visiting a child who we had sponsored for heart surgery. Across the room we spotted the 4-year-old child sitting on the nurse’s desk, coloring a picture. As we began to interact with her, the nurse returned with some chicken feet for Xiao Gou to nibble on. It was obvious that the nurses had quite a fondness for the tiny girl and she for them. We could immediately understand why, as Xiao Gou began to enamor us with her sassy sense of humor and her intelligence. She was able to name colors and despite probably never having any contact with foreigners, she was very open and engaging with us. We both wanted to know more about her and the circumstances that had brought her there.
Through our mangled attempts at Mandarin, we were able to extract some information about her. We learned that she had been brought to the hospital by her parents after she was hit by a car. The doctors did not expect her to make it through the surgery but they worked on her anyway, amputating her leg all the way up past her buttocks. While Xiao Gou recovered, her parents desperately worked to raise the funds needed to pay her mounting hospital bills. Her mother even appeared on a local television news piece, pleading for assistance to help her daughter. As we left the hospital that day, I felt a sense of sadness yet relief that she at least had her parents to help her through the tragedy and her recovery.
Weeks later, we returned to the hospital intensive care unit and were surprised to find Xiao Gou’s bed empty. We asked if she had been discharged and were shocked when the nurse explained to us that Xiao Gou had been abandoned by her parents and turned over to the orphanage.
“What orphanage?” I asked? I could hardly believe the dramatic turn her life had taken. We were told it was the orphanage that we worked in and I asked the nurse to write down Xiao Gou’s name in Chinese characters so that I could ask the director about her.
The next day with paper in hand, I skipped my usual route to the infant room and went straight to the director’s office. I showed her the name and asked her if that child was living there. She confirmed that Xiao Gou was indeed now living in the institute but her name had been changed to Sheng Rui. [When pronounced sounded similar to Sun Ray so we began to refer to her as Sunshine.] I asked to see her and though reluctant, the director led me to the one room I hoped she would not be in.
The room housed severely developmentally and mentally delayed children. In the cold, barren room were children with Down’s syndrome, dwarfism, mental retardation and other disabilities. Also residing there were mildly physically disabled children who appeared to be mentally ill but I believed had simply retreated into a shell of self-preservation in order to cope with their circumstances. The children lived in the room twenty-four hours a day with no creative or interactive diversions to engage their interest. I was disgusted to find that once again, the ancient Chinese stigma of not being outwardly perfect had resulted in Sheng Rui being sentenced to life with no parole behind the walls of injustice.
When we arrived at the room, I could not find her tiny face in the rows of children sitting on their wooden chairs. I was distracted by the utter desperation I sensed, the repetitive rocking of some children, the staring eyes, and the sparse surroundings devoid of color and life. Director Yao pointed Sheng Rui out to me and I was outraged by her appearance. Sheng Rui’s hair had been chopped off as short as possible and all of her sassiness and personality we had once witnessed was absent. If not for recognizing her amputated leg, I would have passed her by without recognition.
I bent down in front of Sheng Rui and attempted to interact with her. She finally lifted her head and met my eyes, showing me the absolute sorrow there that I had not seen at our last meeting. In those beautiful, dark eyes I saw there was no doubt her spirit had been crushed. I wondered what sort of abuse she had already encountered from those bigger than she in that area that reeked with a pervasive cloud of madness.
Feeling the mother lion inside me come alive, I demanded to know why Sheng Rui was not in the downstairs rooms with the other children. The director was speechless as I began ranting to her that Sheng Rui was a very intelligent little girl. We debated back and forth about her while she listened intently and by the time we left the room, I had a promise from the director that Sheng Rui would be moved downstairs and be allowed to attend the orphanage school.
There is no other way to describe what happened in those moments; other than to say that our hearts connected in a way that happens when your infant child is placed on your chest that first moment you meet. I hadn’t known her long—but I loved her. Instantly.
Sheng Rui once again became Xiao Gou and I became her biggest advocate. Xiao Gou visited my home many times and the other children at the orphanage would tell her, “Here comes your mama” when they’d see me come through the gates. I advocated for her surgeries and most of all for her to be treated with dignity and respect. With someone to shower her with attention and concern, Xiao Gou’s sassy personality once again surfaced and she was such a joy. The day came when I had to leave China and I was too heartbroken about ending our relationship to even tell her goodbye. I regret that decision and have vowed to continue to try to help her. I know she has gone through so much since I’ve left. The latest update is that her family finally came back for her and took her far away to their hometown. Unfortunately, that didn’t last and Xiao Gou was once again abandoned and now lives in another orphanage—one that is small and doesn’t have foreign volunteers or the benefit of donations to make is an easier place. I think of Xiao Gou constantly and the memories we made. But what about now? Who sees her? Who hears her voice and advocates for her right to dignity?
Together we can continue to help her.
You or your child can join the Mei Mei Club today. “Sisters Helping Sisters”
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