It was 5:30am in Hong Kong. The sun was just showing over the crisp edges of the high rises. People were scurrying on the roads, stepping over the litter and unwanted members of society still hidden in the deep shadows of a sinful city. In my comfortable room, I reached high over my head feeling the tension ease from my spine. The unadorned white walls and sparse furnishings felt warm compared to the coldness of the city. A satisfied smile spread over my face. I looked back out and saw that the sun’s rays had climbed half-way down the buildings. It was time to be up. The rest of Hong Kong, and for that matter China, would be awake soon.
Quietly, I sat at my little kitchen table sipping hot tea, my robe gaping in the middle where it never use to. Propped on the chair across from me, I examined my swollen ankles. The sun continued to reach over the long surfaces of the building and I knew Kai would be here when the slender rays touched the streets. I put my mug down with a dulled thud and went to shower.
Clothed in a dress that sat higher on my legs than the last time I put it on and leggings that came to mid-calf, I smiled at the obvious progress of this miracle. Three more weeks, I thought glancing at the small pile of boxes containing gifts that sat in a corner, a soft pink blanket falling over the corner of them. Ai-li Mei would be loved unlike any other Chinese girl. I ran my hand over the top of the small cradle my father had carved and then sent overseas for this little bundle. I smiled again, something I had been doing a lot of lately.
Glancing out the window, I saw that the sun was now illuminating the sidewalks. Kai would be at the door any minute. He had been so supportive. Neither of us meant to have this child, but he was honorable about it. Kai offered marriage as the customs of his country would expect. Being an American and in my 30s, I declined his proposal. A marriage based on an accident would not be a healthy one. I’d raise the child alone or with his help, but not as his wife. He’d seemed relieved and I was surprised that he kept calling, checked on how I was doing, and attended every appointment. This morning, we would attend the last appointment before Ai-li Mei was born. Ai-li Mei. The name we chose for our yet unborn little girl to honor his family.
The door buzzer alerted me to Kai’s arrival. I grabbed my sunglasses and purse from the counter. Stopping at the door, the intercom carried my voice to him, telling him I was headed out to meet him. “Ni hao Kai,” I greeted him happily once on the sidewalk. He smiled at me, looking at the large shape protruding before my usually slender body with an overwhelming amount of joy.
“Ni hao, Angela.” Hands laced together, we began the mile walk to the clinic. Ai-li Mei spun in happy circles. She loved the sound of Kai’s voice. Gently, I placed his hand on my stomach, just below my ribs. “She is playful today,” he said. Rarely could he feel his little girl twirl. It was not often that she danced with such joy. Usually, she tapped out small S.O.S’s from the comfort of her bat-like position. Little signals that I alone shared with her.
The soft green walls of the waiting room looked dirty. The large bodies of pregnant women usually hid the small smudges from little hands that graced the walls in wonder during the busier evening appointments. The furniture looked shabbier too. Not many mothers-to-be made appointments for first thing in the morning. Work took precedence over prenatal care. I sat down on the shallow couch, my weight pushed as far back as possible. Having an American frame was not conducive to the small spaces in Hong Kong. Moments later, the ultrasound technician stumbled over the strange letters of my name and then led us back to her dark, cool room.
I knew the procedure and quickly pulled my long shirt up, tucking it under my generous pregnancy breasts, and slid my leggings down so my hip bones were showing. The warm goo spread across the mountain of my abdomen. Little Ai-li Mei stopped her dance and lay still. The technician slid the magic wand over the roundness of the child folded within my skin. She chatted in Chinese with Kai. I understood some, but my attention was mostly on the grainy figure rippling on the little TV sitting on the counter. She’d grown considerably since I last saw her image five months ago.
Her indentations now represented real features. I could see ten little toes squeezing, her legs coiled into a fetal position, her round bottom pushing into my diaphragm. Her belly was bowed in a way that reminded me of Santa Clause. Little fingers appeared to tap restlessly against her tummy as if she was as impatient wither confinement as I was. I took a deep breath at the thought of holding her so soon. The technician moved the wand further around my stomach toward my back. I looked at the screen again. Nobs stood out indicating we were now looking at her back. They connected together, my eyes following the straight spine she had developed, leading me to her head.
I could see the back of her skull. I wanted to see her face, know if she was smiling, if she could open her eyes, see her happy. Most of this, I knew, would be impossible, but I had felt all of her growth spurts, especially the ones over the last few weeks, and felt as if she was no longer a fetus, but an infant ready to come lie in my arms, alert to the world around her. The technician lingered on her skull. She said something to Kai and left the room.
Kai reached down and took my hand absent-mindedly as he stared at the blank screen. “What is it Kai?” I asked, stirred to see him looking so emotional.
His wet eyes turned to look down at me. “It’s nothing. She just went to get a doctor to help her get a better image of the baby’s head.”
“Why? Won’t Ai-li turn for her first photograph?” I asked. Kai laughed, but it sounded sad instead of happy. “Camera shy, just like me I’m sure.” I said feeling nervous.
The doctor came in the room and introduced herself quickly. Her English, unlike the technician’s, was quite good. She told us that the measurements for the skull were off and that she was going to take some pictures herself. Kai and I sat in silence. Dr. Ching was kind and warm, but she seemed too rushed. My nerves began to jingle as she quietly moved the wand over my geography, quickly snapping pictures, never offering an explanation. Excusing herself, she left the room, promising to be back as soon as she reviewed the printed images.
Slowly, I wiped the goo off and pulled my clothes around me. I wanted to block out the coldness that had suddenly entered the room. Kai pulled me close, his arm over my shoulders and his other hand resting gently on Ai-li. Outside, the sun rose higher in the sky, flushing out dark corners that thought they were safe from its intensity. I thought of the way the sun warmed my skin as Kai and I continued to wait.
Dr. Ching returned and invited us to her office. We followed her through the twisting hallway and were seated in two folding chairs. “I’m sorry,” she said, indicating the chairs we were sitting in. “I don’t usually have patients in my office, but I wanted to talk to you in private.” She took a long deep breath, folding her small yellow-brown hands into each other. Her brown eyes looked at both of us, trying to express something we could not yet understand. She closed them a moment before continuing. “The films show that the baby has grown a significant amount. I am estimating that she weighs 5.7 kilograms. In American, I think that is about 12.5 pounds. Her head accounts for 2.5 kilograms or 5 pounds. I believe most of that is fluid.” She stopped and looked at each of us.
I sat still, not understanding. “What does that mean?”
“Your baby’s head is filled with fluuid. Her brain has not fully developed. She will not likely survive childbirth.” Dr. Ching paused, her hands tight little fists at the edge of her desk. I felt as if I was suffocating. My lungs would not expand, my heart seized, my brain screamed. I sat on the hard metal folding chair dying. Kai sat tall beside me as if he hadn’t heard a word she said. “The two of you need to make very difficult decisions. You need to decide if you want to deliver the baby naturally or have a C-Section. In this situation, I think a C-section would be less traumatizing for all involved.” Dr. Ching paused. “You also need to make decisions about the body. I have a folder of information I am going to send with you when you are ready to leave. You can stay here as long as you need.” She slid a thin folder forward on the desk and then quietly left the room.
Kai and I sat. We didn’t look at each other. The floor and walls felt so much safer. Their blank canvas could not betray emotion. Even the messy desk now posed a threat. The folder sat there and with it a deep gulf of unanswerable questions. Eventually, Kai reached over and touched my elbow. I looked up, unaware of the tears falling down my face nor the shallowness of my breathing. His face was dry, but its paleness told me he was in obvious distress.
Slowly, he rose to his feet, gently pulling me to mine. Kai folded me in his arms. Together, we shuttered, unable to flee the prognosis Dr. Ching had delivered. I don’t know when we left the office, only that the sun had disappeared on the other side of the skyscrapers. Its thin rays were abandoning me as well. We walked back to my apartment where we continued to sit together until the sun disappeared.
Suddenly, Kai spoke. “There is an old Chinese proverb. It says: You are the Master of every situation.” He looked at my disbelieving face. How could he possibly think I was responsible for the situation? I did everything I was told to do. I ate well. I exercised only moderately. I slept when I was tired and listened to the cues my body gave me. I did everything the medical community told me to do; everything! Anger began to build in me. I could feel my face heating up and my hands clenching even though I was still too stunned to speak.
He continued on, approaching me very slowly. “I’ve been thinking about that proverb and how stupid it is since Dr. Cheng told us. We didn’t choose this to happen.” Kai stopped just in front of me. “Only, it’s not stupid. It’s deeply, deeply true. It means that we can’t choose our circumstances, but we can decide how we will behave in every situation.”” He reached for me, my anger settled a little by his words. I allowed him to help me to my unsteady feet again. He wrapped his arms around me, resting one on top of little Ai-li Mei like he had done for the entirety of my pregnancy. “We are the Masters of how we respond to the situation. We can give up and give Ai-li nothing. Or we can keep our promise to her and make sure she is loved unlike any other Chinese girl, even if it is only for a few precious minutes.” He paused a long time, looking intensely in my eyes. “I’ve made my choice to love her fiercely.”
Kai reached up and wiped my tears away; tears of misery mixed with those of promise and hope, tears of a desire to be a mother once again fulfilled, even if for a short time. This was the moment in my life that rushed through my mind as my daughter, Xiaojian, sobbed into my shirt at the loss of her unborn child and Kai stood with a knowing look heavy in his eyes in our home of 27 years.