(#6 in the Annie series)
We began our Wednesday when Wendy came to pick us up in the same clean van that took us to get Annie two days before. There was a different driver, but he drove with the same carrying-precious-cargo finesse as the first driver. Wendy had learned that we needed to go back to the Civil Affairs Center to retake Annie and Nikki’s family portrait. The first one was done against a red background, which seemed very China-ish to me. Apparently, it was supposed to be done against a white background.
This did not thrill Nikki, but the paperwork was still in progress—we had a couple of days before Annie’s Chinese passport and visa came through—so she wisely did not want to rock that boat. But we also had appointments that morning to visit the two facilities that have housed Annie since she was given up when she was about a year old—the Butterfly House hospice where she spent her first three years and The Lighthouse, the ICC orphanage, where she has spent her most recent three years. Wendy was most apologetic for adding another stop to the agenda, but it wasn’t her fault, we assured her.
So after changing and feeding and dressing Annie earlier than any of us wanted, we met Wendy and the van driver and obediently returned to the same third floor office where Annie and Nikki’s first portrait was taken. Mother and daughter posed against a white background for a second family portrait with me, the documentarian, taking photos of their photo shoot.
We bid Wendy farewell for the moment, and then the nice van driver took us the Butterfly House, which is in the same building as the Welfare Center, the Chinese orphanage as well as convalescent and old folks’ home. Lyn Gould and her husband Alan and helpers have transformed one of the floors into a bright, welcoming space that receives ill or dying children. Lyn is an English nurse, and she has brought the idea of palliative care to a place that typically doesn’t offer such services. Though Butterfly House has relocated to a new floor since Annie was a resident and Nikki volunteered there, it felt familiar to them both. This was where they met in 2010, not long after Annie was brought in, though only one of them remembers this.
Unfortunately, Lyn and her other nurse, Katie Hill, both of whom are Nikki’s good friends, were in England during our visit. Still a few kind women showed us around, and we got to see some of the butterflies currently in residence. One, a little five-month-old girl, laid very still with a feeding tube the size of a rice noodle snaking into one nostril. Another, a four-year-old boy with a heart condition, played happily on the floor with a young volunteer from England. And without anyone saying so, I knew that if these children were here, they were not expected to live long.
But neither was Annie when she was brought here in 2010, small and starving, bound up with her spastic muscles. Lyn and Katie and Chinese nannies and volunteers saved Annie, and it was meaningful to see where she’d come from. Not all their butterflies survive (that’s why it’s called Butterfly Children’s Hospice), and Annie is a huge success story.
I watched her carefully to see if she recognized some of the adults who gathered round her chair, exclaiming over how much she’d grown. She grinned her fabulous Annie grin, and it seemed that she did. Her photo is still on a bulletin board—a much smaller Annie, a chubbier Annie with big cheeks and longer hair. (Nikki doesn’t love Annie’s current haircut, which sticks straight up; neither does Lucy, who asked The Lighthouse staff not to cut Annie’s hair, but they did. It leans toward the punk, as if she’s rocking an early David Bowie look.) In the photos she looked happy, flashing the same bright smile, and she seemed delighted to see the people there now, who were equally happy to see her. It’s a happy place, the Butterfly House.
We couldn’t stay long since we had an 11 a.m. appointment at The Lighthouse, Annie’s most recent home. We went to retrieve more medication, since she’d come with none and Lucy was not given much. The idea was that Nikki would receive a month’s worth since she wasn’t sure when she could see a pediatrician once they returned to Sacramento. But we also wanted to see more examples of the physical therapy Annie had gotten, and Lucy invited us for lunch. Nikki told Annie where we were going and that she could also say goodbye to her friends.
That may have been our biggest mistake.
Lucy and other staff members met us at the front door, as excited to see Annie as she clearly was to see them. The Lighthouse building is an older facility, not nearly as bright and lively as The Butterfly House, but clearly staffed with people who love these kids, each of whom has a disability. On the second floor we got to see the computer room where Lucy holds class, crammed with wheelchairs and kids on perhaps eight older computers. One girl in a chair had control of only her chin to operate the computer. “She used to have more movement,” Lucy told us later, “but now she’s like this.”
This broke our hearts, but it made clear what happens to kids who don’t have the benefit of ongoing professional physical therapy and treatment. They deteriorate, and if they’re not adopted, they stay at The Lighthouse as adults or transfer to the Welfare Center. It’s a dismal life. That’s why Lucy told Nikki there’s nothing for Annie in China, that she needs to come to California to have a hope of a better life, of more mobility, to go to school, to learn English and perhaps go to college, become a professional one day.
Annie ate it all up—literally—as one of the Chinese care-ers (as they’re called) fed her a heaping bowl of rice and showed Nikki a more helpful feeding technique. We were also shown specifically what kinds of exercises they’d been giving Annie daily and the standing frame she was placed in to let her be truly vertical for a few hours each day. Because she has no head control (though Lucy said Annie used to until recently) and she can’t sit up unaided, Annie was doomed to a horizontal life until a couple of volunteers several years ago raised the money to buy her special wheelchair.
Nikki got more medications from a nurse downstairs just before we left, and many people—staff and kids—crowded around to say goodbye to Annie. She smiled, but as we wheeled her outside and Nikki and the van driver lifted her chair into the van, Annie set up a howl of protest. And we immediately understood: She thought she was going home to The Lighthouse, not home with Nikki. All the preparation the good people at The Lighthouse had done to get Annie used to the idea of adoption was gone in an instant.
It was a tense ride, major rage spilling out of this small, thin person the whole way. By the time we got her back to the hotel, Annie was still howling, red in the face and truly pissed. I imagined her thinking that she’d been double-crossed by these two foreign ladies, and she was not to be mollified. Nikki laid Annie on the bed and sat with her, talking, trying to calm her, to no avail.
Nikki and I looked at each other with oh, shit, what have we done looks as a child we barely knew sobbed out her broken heart in front of us. The rage turned to pure sadness and back to outrage again. It was painful to listen to. And it went on and on and on. I wanted to crawl into a corner and cry myself, and I was pretty sure Nikki did, too.
After almost two hours of nonstop Annie wailing, Nikki asked me to go to the super market (two words here, in English, on the green neon sign on the top of it) and buy some candy for Wendy, our translator. Wendy was the one who took me to the super market Monday to pick up some Annie supplies we needed—diapers, yogurt, juice—and has been so super helpful that we wanted to give her a gift. (We hadn’t thought to bring one from home.) Lucy had suggested chocolate, so I went in search of something nice. It was a relief to leave that room packed with sorrow and upset, get into the hot elevator and let the furnace of a Changsha afternoon hit me in the face.
Before I went outside, though, I found a place to sit just off the lobby on one of the stairs that leads down to the dining room. Shaking and distraught, I just had to hear Dick’s voice. We’ve been gone seven days, and I hadn’t called him, though we’d been corresponding through texts and emails. I had signed up for an international phone plan for $30, but it also cost a buck a minute. That’s not why I hadn’t called. I didn’t want to sound like I was whining. I chose to make this trip, after all. I knew it would have its challenges.
I figured it would be about 12:30 p.m. in Sacramento, and I dialed Dick’s number, hoping he’d be there. He answered on the third ring, and just hearing his “hello” made me cry. He is my rock and cheerleader, and while I know he’d been cheering us on from afar, it was not the same as talking to him daily. And I’d had some trouble sending texts and emails to him for reasons neither Nikki nor I could fathom. I turned the phone off and on a lot, hoping to rejigger the thing into connecting with China Mobile. It doesn’t always work. It’s China, Nikki reminds me.
“Janis!’ he exclaimed.
“Dickie!” I hollered back. “Is it OK to call you now?”
“Sure,” he said. “What time is is there?”
“3:30 p.m. Thursday the 22nd,” I said. “What time is it there?”
“It’s 12:30 a.m. Wednesday,” he said.
I had not done the math right—California is 15 hours behind China time—but it didn’t matter. Dick, my lifeline, was there. I could hardly talk for the sobbing. I poured out the difficulties of our day and cried, and he said all the right things, especially EGBOK: everything’s gonna be OK. I remembered my little card he’d made for me with a cracked egg bearing a Band-Aid with the EGBOK inscription on it. I was carrying it in my little tummy pack with my passport. If I ever needed an EGBOKing, it was today.
“I know it’s just a hard day, and it’s gonna get better,” I told him between tears, “but Nikki and I are just so tired and feeling it, and she’s miserable. Annie’s sobbing out her little broken heart, and we wonder if we’ve made it worse by taking her back to see her friends. But we got some good information at The Lighthouse—better positions for feeding Annie and physical therapy stuff and her medications.”
I went on and on, and he listened, and I cried some more and began to feel the heaviness in my heart lift, and that made me cry more because how lucky am I to have this amazing man loving me and supporting this wild notion from so far away? Way lucky.
So I talked for a good half hour (“It’s gonna be an expensive phone call,” he said. “I don’t care,” I said, and I didn’t. This is therapy, after all, and a buck a minute is cheap therapy), And after we hung up, I dried my tears and went back up the stairs and down another set of stairs into the lobby and out into the walloping heat of a Changsha summer afternoon.
(What I wouldn’t learn until later is that Annie eventually calmed down, and Nikki said they’d had a good talk, Nikki explaining what was going to happen—including rides on trains and an airplane—selling the whole concept of coming to live in California directly from mama to daughter. And Annie seemed to understand, Nikki said, so that by the time I came back to the room, they were both smiling and playing one of the games on the iPad together.)
As I made my way to the grocery store, about five city blocks away, I felt a little lighter for the talking. I reminded myself to pay attention, that the big danger is crossing the street—traffic is crazy and pedestrians do not have the right of way here—but Nikki had shown me how to cross the big street in two shorter sections, taking refuge under an overpass jammed with parked cars. I was in search of unrefrigerated yogurt we could take with us the next day on the train to Guangzhou and chocolate we could leave behind for Wendy. China does not have fancy chocolate, but Nikki suggested that I might find Almond Roca or Dove’s.
I crossed the big street in two sections and then across another side street (“cross when other people do,” Nikki had advised, and I did) and made my way across a corner parking lot jammed with well-used motorbikes. It looked as if they might be for rent. On every corner men sit on motorbikes, a mini taxi service, ready to ride people to destinations.
I went up the store’s concrete steps (no ramp) and pushed through the long, thick, vertical strips of plastic that serve as the front door to the store and within three steps found myself in front of a tall air conditioner. I stood there for a little bit, cooling, and then went in search of chocolates. Fairly easily I found the chocolate aisle and there was the Dove’s, so I grabbed a decent-sized container and a kids’ container of M&Ms in one of the cartoon images of the talking candy.
The yogurt, however, proved elusive. I could easily find the refrigerated kind, but Nikki had specified the unrefrigerated version. I located the familiar cartons of milk in all kinds of flavors (again, doesn’t need to be kept cold) and juices, but could not find anything that looked like kids’ yogurt on the shelves. I wandered for a good half hour, even asked a clerk who had no English, and I didn’t know the Chinese word for “yogurt” (should’ve asked Nikki before I left).
I sighed, frustrated by all the products I didn’t recognize, grateful for ones that also had English on them. It had been a tough day. I was not going back without the damn yogurt. I would find a way. It had to be there. And just as I was about to fall back into despair—over a broken-hearted orphan we were about to transport by train and plane back to a strange land, over my own ineptitude—a miracle. A voice in my head I know so well it might be my own, which, in a way, it is after all these years:
Turn around, Toots.
It was Clifford’s voice, my companion spirit, my husband who died in 2001. I feel him often, but it’s rare that I hear him. In, of all places, a Chinese grocery store at the end of a series of aisles looking at what seemed to be large boxes of juice.
I did an about face and there, stacked at the end of an aisle of cookies (Oreo seems to be a universal word), Buzz Lightyear’s goofy face grinned up at me from a large blue box. More juice, I thought, but then I peered more closely and saw Woody and Jessie on the front of the box, too, and the words: “Flavored yogurt for children.” I almost burst into tears right there in the store. I couldn’t tell what flavor it was (we’d heard that Annie likes strawberry), but I didn’t care. Dick had helped earlier; now Clifford and “Toy Story” saved me.
You’ve got a friend in me, indeed.
I hefted one of the big blue boxes with nice plastic handle and walked to the checkout counter, a silly grin spreading across my face. I had the chocolate, two kinds. I had, in my wandering a found a pair of child’s nail clippers for Nikki to use on Annie (she’d tried my big ones last night, and they didn’t work). I hoped I would understand how much to pay. And I walked up to a completely open checkout stand, a woman watching me as I unloaded my little blue bag that Nikki had gotten the day before when she purchased new clothes and sandals for Annie.
It came to 131.7 RMB (renminbi, Chinese currency), less than $20. I hauled out 131 RMB and proudly presented it to the checker, who pointed to the .7 on the screen. I found another single RMB and gave it to her and got back 30 cents in three small bills worth 10 cents each. Success!
I put my purchases in my bag (apparently they don’t do that for you) and walked through the long, vertical plastic flaps back into the afternoon heat, feeling triumphant. I could feel both a thankyouthankyouthankyou and an EGBOK rising in my throat. And there on the hot, busy street I said them aloud several times with great gratitude.
And without even trying, as I walked, I sang to myself, channeling a little Randy Newman:
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me
By the time I got back to the room, Annie and Nikki had had a good talk, Nikki said, and they were smiling at each other again. Peace had been restored.
And later that evening before bedtime we took a selfie, all three of us, relieved that the storm had passed, knowing that when that rough road comes, we can call on our companion spirits and reassure each other (sing it with me):
You’ve got a friend in me.