Green Leaves, that’s going to be the title of a new book I am writing – it’s a collection of tall tales, reminisces, and stories of people who have come into my orbit over the years here in Chengdu.
And the origin of the name Green Leaves has its history in the pleasure I had in knowing the bravest girl in the world.
Zhu Jia Li was a lovely 16-year-old girl from a town outside of Chengdu – Dujiangyan – which is the town where the famous irrigation system was finished being built in 256 BC by a father and son team who labored over a period of several decades.
Coincidentally, and I digress from the main story, this irrigation system, which is still in operation today, is considered why Chengdu people are so laid back and so keen on fun – when the mighty Min River was tamed the water was diverted over the Chengdu Basin plains and created the ideal growing conditions where you only had to look at the ground and crops would grow – Sichuan overnight became the rice bowl of China and if you were the happy farmer here you had the time and the money to take things easy.
The farm, just outside Dujiangyan where Zhu Jian Li lived was right downstream from the irrigation system itself and was a fertile and productive piece of ground.
An only child, Zhu Jian Li was blessed with a happy, friendly and more importantly a kind character and she was the most popular girl in the entire school. She had the reputation of always being the one who would help others. At times she would give her lunch to students who were not able to afford to eat and at other times she was the one who would spend time with slow students and help them with her homework.
She was class president and was voted the most popular girl in the school.
One day at school she tripped down the stairs. Silly girl she thought – she should be more careful and never thought anything off it. A few days later she tripped again and was feeling a bit light-headed and fainted. Her heart rate was three times normal she was immediately sent to see the school nurse.
The nurse sent her to the local hospital who in turn sent her to Chengdu to the main hospital.
After the inevitable round of tests and more tests the news couldn’t have been any worse – she was one of the thousands of adolescents in China who contract leukemia and she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of this tragic and terrible disease. Some would say that the overuse of pesticides may behind this epidemic and some would say it is the pollution.
She tried hard to stay at school – she refused point blank to hold any thought in her head other than she was going to beat this and she was going to come back to school. But time and the ravages of the disease saw her rapidly slip into a condition where she couldn’t stay out of hospital any longer and was sent into Chengdu proper to the Sichuan Provincial Hospital, where she was put in a leukemia ward in a shared room with three other girls who were suffering the same disease.
Her classmates were devastated and they rallied around her parents and family to do what they could to raise money for her treatment. In China if you don’t pay for the treatment you don’t get treated and if you run out of money then you run out of a bed and you have to go home.
Her parents soon ran through all of their savings and relatives and friend’s contributions were not enough to keep paying the hospital fees and pretty soon they were facing the prospect of taking her home and hoping for the best.
Her classmates were towers of strength and kept going out every evening and every weekend – travelling by bus the 1 hour into Chengdu and carrying a bucket with posters of Zhu Jia Lia and asking for money from strangers – anything to raise the money to keep her in the hospital for what could be lifesaving treatment.
Meanwhile in the hospital Zhu Jia Li’s character shone throughout the entire ward – she was the one who never gave up, she was the one who kept everyone entertained, from her room laughter beamed out almost the entire time she was awake. She would not allow any sadness or crying in her room – she had to keep everyone happy and upbeat as they (the girls in her room) went through the often painful and always uncomfortable treatment.
One by one the girls in her room passed away. Over time a total of 11 girls died in her little room of four beds and as each one left and another girl replaced her it was Zhu Jia Li who comforted and helped the scared and frightened girls facing such an uncertain and difficult future.
One day a friend of mine, call Elisa, happened upon the tribe of girls with buckets collecting money and asked what was going on and what they were doing. Elisa had what some people would call an abrasive character covering up an incredibly soft and kind heart.
Elisa leapt into action and promised that she would help these young girls raise money for Zhu Jia Li’s treatment. Every single day when her classes at Sichuan University were finished she would take the bus across town and go and visit Zhu Jia Li and keep her company and try and raise her spirits.
She came to us (my wife and I) and asked if we could help raise money for her treatment and so started a relationship that taught me more about courage and bravery than I could have ever imagined.
We used out networks and our relationships and we begged, cajoled and downright beat people into making a contribution and over a couple of months we raised a more than a hundred thousand dollars and were able to keep the hospital payment card topped up as she went through more and more aggressive treatment more and more options ran out.
This little girl lost more and more weight until one day the doctor, who loved this little girl so much, came to us and said that there was nothing more than the hospital could do for her and her only chance was in the best leukemia hospital in Beijing.
That meant uprooting her and her parents and sending them to this hospital which had the promise of better treatment, more chances and the hope of a remission if not an absolute cure.
The night before she went we held a fund raiser at the local Irish bar – the Shamrock – and pretty much the whole expat community turned out to join in the biddings, the games, the donation buckets and help and support wherever they could.
Her parents were touched and said they wanted to come to the bar to thank everyone for their kindness and their contribution.
When they arrived from the hospital a little girl popped out of the car and despite the firm admonition of the hospital Zhu Jia Li has insisted on coming and thanking everyone personally.
She brought the house down – the bidding wars went crazy – one of her friends had designed some t-shirts and these were auctioned. They went for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
The night belonged to Zhu Jia Li and she danced with all the guys, she laughed and joked and made everyone forget that here was a girl not much more than a child, facing insurmountable odds, who kept us happy and kept us from thinking the unthinkable.
As she was leaving, we knew that tomorrow she would fly away like a little bird and she would start a new and painful treatment and that there was no guarantee that she would come back.
She hugged everyone and to everyone she had a kind word and a smile – even if we could only see her eyes because of the mask she had to wear.
Her parting words to everyone were that she had had the best night of her life and that she would be back to dance again with all the handsome boys.
Beijing was hard for her. She developed a number of infections – fungal, bacterial, viral and her strength ebbed and ebbed.
Every day she would call my wife, Xiaomei, and talk to her for hours. Every day she would promise that she was coming back and that she was going to dance for us and sing for us.
The doctors in Beijing, and in particular, one of the women doctors was really affected by her situation and would also call my wife almost every day with updates and concerns and occasionally hope. The doctor shared all of her fears and joys as she did her best to pull off a miracle and she worked tirelessly because she saw the light in Zhu Jia Li’s heart.
One night at 2am in the morning, we received a call – no, not that call – but it was bad enough. Her card had run out of money and the room fee for THAT day had not been paid and the doctor said the administration department insisted that she had to leave there and then – like at 2am in the middle of the night unless we could top up the card so the room fees could be paid.
Xiaomei was beyond livid and I still remember her cursing the administration department for their cruelty and their disgusting behavior. But to no avail – we had to get up – go to the bank and use the 24-hour ATM and transfer money onto the card and pay the fee. In the morning we discovered that it in fact the card had sufficient money to cover the fees but there was a problem at the hospitals end.
I learned a lesson that night about China and that’s a lesson that I’ll write more about later on because I don’t want to detract from Zhu Ji Li’s story.
Finally, the doctor called us a week or so later and said that they had exhausted their treatment options – that Zhu Jia Li should come home to Chengdu and sit and see if the treatment was going to work.
In fact, she was sparing us – the treatment hadn’t worked and the fungal infection in her lungs was out of control. We knew that
Zhu Jia Li was so excited and couldn’t wait to see us and, of course, all the people who were her support in Chengdu – Elisa was distraught beyond words and knew what we were facing when she came back.
Her flight was booked for the next day and all day Zhu Jia Li practiced a little dance that she said to Xiaomei she was going to dance for her when she got off the plane.
We went to bed as happy as we could be – we would see her in the morning and face whatever it was that needed to be faced. At around 12pm Xiaomei got a text message whose words will remain in my heart forever, and are quite frankly, the most beautiful words I have ever read:
‘Auntie, I tried to give you a cup of water and you gave me the whole ocean; I gave you a handful of green leaves and you gave me the whole spring’.
And at 4am in the morning we got the call that we had dreaded. She never got on that plane. She never did dance with the handsome boys again, and she never did dance for my wife as she arrived in Chengdu. She passed away peacefully and she passed away with a happy smile on her face.
Our tears on that day reflected our inconsolable hearts and we sat numbly as we understood what had just happened.
But Zhu Jia Li dances in our hearts every single day and that’s why my I am calling my next book ‘Green Leaves’.
But my story doesn’t end here. Her ashes were brought back to us in Chengdu and we went to the family’s farm for the internment ceremonies and for a day we talked and laughed and brought out our favourite memories of this courageous, brave little angel. The day was bitter sweet – she was such a tremendous soul and such a positive energy that it was hard to feel sad – in her last days she taught us about love and kindness and she taught us about courage and I am sure that where she is now that her soul is drinking honey mead and dancing in the park.
Every year since Zhu Jia Li passed away her parents visit us at Spring Festival and would bring us a 20-liter container of rape seed oil from their farm and half a side of bacon – enough bacon and oil for almost an entire year. No matter how often we asked that they did not bring us this they still did, year after year – and then, when we moved our studio to another place and my wife lost her phone with their number in it, the visits with the presents came to an end, and that’s how it should be.
Zhu Jia Li’s parents applied for permission to have another child and a year or two after she passed away they were blessed with another daughter.
I keep a photo of Zhu Jia Li close to me all of the time and when I faced with insurmountable odds and when life seems to be hard, I look at her photo and close my eyes and bring that laughter and smile into my heart again and all of a sudden the world seems lighter and the sun just that little bit brighter.
And finally, this story would not be complete until the unbelievable efforts of her classmates was recognized.
The following image was the presentation created by the students to raise money.