A Normal Child
One of Mai’s greatest fears was to have a child with a birth defect — a cleft lip, Down syndrome. She never expected to suffer the opposite predicament.
The birth of her baby, Ami, went without complications. She was cleaned by the midwife, wrapped in a blanket, and placed in Mai’s arms. This was, no doubt, the happiest day of Mai’s life; she was cradling someone who’d been inside her. Someone who’d been part of her body. Someone she’d been eager to meet for eight months.
This marvelous moment was disrupted by an observation: Ami was watching her. It wasn’t a curious or charming stare. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, as if she were peering right into her soul.
Mai communicated this concern to the obstetrician.
“I don’t see anything wrong,” he said, squinting at Ami. Turning to Mai, he said, “Maybe you’re just tired. Please rest some more.”
She frowned. Was it common to hallucinate after giving birth?
When Mai left Miyazaki Ob-Gyn Clinic, she returned to her parents’ home in Meguro to stay for a month. How strange, sleeping on her childhood bed with her kid.
Mai blinked at Ami, then cradled her against her bosom. A mother. She was officially a mother. This bubble of bliss burst immediately.
Didn’t babies say their first words between 10 or 14 months of age?
Mai lowered Ami on the bed and googled on her phone, When do babies start saying Mama and Papa? The first result told her the answer: six months.
There was no way Ami could —
“You… are… Mama.”
Had Mai misheard? “Can you repeat that?”
Ami pointed her chubby finger at Mai. “You are Mama.”
Mouth agape, Mai googled, At what age do babies say their first sentence? The second result stated that it occurred between 18 months and two years.
Mai held Ami aboved her head. “You are a baby genius!”
It’d be smart to check, though.
“She’s a perfectly normal child.” The pediatrician laid Ami back onto the examination table.
Mai placed her hand on Ami’s head. “But she’s gifted, right? That’s why she can talk.”
“Can she?” He loomed over Ami. “Could you say something to me?”
Ami extended her finger toward him. “Bah, bah, bah.”
Mai held Ami before the pediatrician. “Come on, say, ‘You are a doctor.’”
“Bah, bah, bah.”
Mai left the hospital with her cheeks burning.
As she was putting Mai into her Mazda, Ami said, “Sorry, Mama.”
Eyes widened, Mai blurted, “Why didn’t you speak to the doctor?”
“Didn’t want him think Mai is not normal.”
Ami rested her hand on Mai’s head, beaming.
Mai wasn’t normal — she was amazing.
Ami’s linguistic abilities matured so fast there were no words to describe it.
One year later, she could name every item in the apartment. She’d point at them and say, “This is a table. This is a sofa. This is a laptop.”
Another year later, she could talk like a four-year-old. “I’m hungry, Mama. What are we going to eat today?”
Mai couldn’t be prouder of her daughter. She was a blessing from Mother Nature.
But Father Time would change her mind.
“Mama, where’s Papa?” Ami asked, pointing at a father pushing his daughter on the swing.
Mai had told her that there had never been a Papa. That she’d been cloned from one of Mai’s cells in a laboratory. Ami must’ve figured out that story was rubbish.
“You’re already two, so it’s time for you to know the truth.” Mai sat her at the top of the slide. “Your father didn’t want a baby. So he left Mama as soon as he found out she was pregnant.”
“You didn’t make him responsible?”
“I couldn’t. He left the country. To Guatemala.”
“Did that make you hate him?”
“Of course. But you know, I’m also thankful to him.” Mai held Ami in front of her. “He gave me the best gift I’ve ever received in my life.”
Which was more important than her own life.
Mai was opening her laptop when Ami spoke. Mai was still half-asleep, so she only caught a quarter of what she’d said. Luckily, Ami repeated it a second time.
“Mama, you didn’t stir the natto.”
Mai stepped to the high chair and looked down at Ami’s breakfast. Ami was right. She’d forgotten to stir it, make it sticky.
“Mama, you thought it’d be okay not to stir it, right?”
Mai stared at her motionless and emotionless eyes. She was correct again. But…
“Sorry, sorry.” Mai picked up Ami’s chopsticks and stirred the natto until her arm numbed. “I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal.”
“But, Mama, natto is healthier when you stir it. Don’t you want me to be healthier?”
Mai bit her lower lip before dropping down on her knees. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was sleepy. I wasn’t thinking well.”
“It’s okay, Mama.” Ami patted Mai’s head with her tiny hand. “It’s not wrong to make mistakes.”
Mai had already spent several seconds trying to stick the key into her apartment’s keyhole. Had the keyhole shrunk? Or the key grown in size? After struggling some more, she finally managed to open the door. She heaved out a sigh and stepped inside. Being at home had never felt so goo —
“Mama, why did you come back so late?”
Mai stopped in the middle of the hallway. Ami was standing before her, her arms latched together like two mating snakes.
“It’s only six,” Mai said. “Besides, you’re smart enough to stay alone.”
“But Mama, you stink of alcohol.”
Mai had never drunk at home — or returned drunk — so it was impossible for Ami to know how alcohol smelled like. Anyhow, that wasn’t the main issue.
“I just drank a little… a little too much. But it’s because I’ve been too stressed lately.”
“But you work from home.”
“That’s why! Because I’m in the house all the time. And because the money is barely enough for us.”
“And you’re trying to solve that with alcohol?”
Tears flooded Mai’s eyes, but they wouldn’t grant her any mercy from Ami.
“And I can smell something else, Mama.” She toddled until her nose touched Mai’s summer dress. “A man.”
Mai gawked. “How do you — ?”
“It’s a strong smell.”
“I-I haven’t been with a man in a long time. I need love.”
“My love’s not enough?”
“It’s differen — ”
“Maybe you want to have another baby? With this man?”
“I don’t — ”
“Mothers shouldn’t — ”
When Mai came back to her senses, her palm stung, while Ami’s cheek displayed the color of cooked shrimp and her eyes showed the shock of a cornered rabbit.
No, way. Mai had never done this before — but she had now.
She carried Ami into the bedroom and onto the bed. Then she stroked her heated cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Mai muttered, pressing her head against the edge of the bed. “I’ve been trying very hard. And all I get from you are complaints and criticism. You’ve never been thankful or expressed affection to me. Not that I’m expecting that — but it’d be nice if you did it now and then.”
What the heck was Mai doing? Why was she talking to her daughter as if she were her husband? As if she were an adult?
“I’m sorry.” She rose and grabbed Ami’s arm. “I’ve been acting like a fool.”
Ami kept staring at the ceiling like a corpse on an autopsy table.
Mai should take her to the hospital.
“She passed all the nonverbal tests.” The pediatrician stepped away from the examination table. “So it seems like she just doesn’t want to talk — but that’s not very unusual for a two-year-old. Especially after…”
Mai covered her face. “I didn’t mean to slap her.”
“Listen, I’m a pediatrician, not a psychologist. And I’m sorry if I’m crossing the professional boundaries with this. But I suggest you don’t overthink things too much. That kind of stress can affect you mentally. Distort your perception of reality. And that could be detrimental to the development of your child.”
Mai peeked at him from behind her hands. “You’re saying that I’m being a bad mother, right?”
“I’m implying that you can be a better one. And you will.”
When Mai was putting Ami into the car, Mai said, “I’m sorry for hitting you. Are you angry with me? Do you hate me?”
Ami stared at her without a single blink.
Mai rubbed her damp eyes.
She must become a better mother.
A voice inside Mai told her, Ami will never speak again. Will never speak to you again. Another assured, Everything will be okay. Will go back as before.
Neither of those was the correct answer.
“Mama, I realized something.”
Mai stopped pushing Ami and circled the swing to grip her shoulders.
She couldn’t believe it.
Ami had finally spoken again.
“What did you realize?” Mai asked when the shock waned.
Pointing at a mother and her son going down the slide, Ami said, “That you’re both my Mama and Papa.”
Mai perched her chin on her head.
Ami had returned to normality — or at least to the normal Ami.
“Mama, this natto is very tasty.”
Mai ambled to Ami’s chair and wiped her mouth with a tissue. “It’s because I stirred it this time!”
As the weeks passed, Ami had not only reverted to the old Ami but had also become kinder and easier to please.
Wait, so that meant this wasn’t exactly the old Ami?
“Did I stir it well?” Mai asked.
“Yes, very well!”
“Did you know that natto is healthy?”
“Yes, very, very healthy!”
No need to worry. It was normal for a two-year-old to talk like this.
Three weeks later, she changed her mind.
“Mama, you seeing that man?”
Mai let go of the doorknob and spun around. “What man?” Her heart rattled against her chest. Was it a thief? A ghost?
“You not seeing that man?”
It took Mai a few seconds to pinpoint what Ami was getting at. “I stopped going out with that man.” She gave her a mama bear hug. “You’re more important to me, so I chose you over him.”
Ami embraced her back. “So where you going?”
“I’m meeting a friend. She’s a woman. We’re going to have coffee together.”
Mai rose to her feet. She should cancel her meetup and schedule an appointment.
“Are her linguistic skills deteriorating?” Ami asked the pediatrician.
“Well” — he stepped back from the examination table — “she speaks like a normal two-year-old.”
“She’s not a normal two-year-old!” Ami clutched his arm. “And she’s not behaving normally.”
Mai gave him a low bow. If only she could apologize to Ami.
But perhaps it was too late.
Mai was sitting at the top of the slide, watching Ami pretend to be swimming at the foot of the slide.
Ami… where was her old baby Ami?
Mai buried her face in her arms. Perhaps she’d never see her staring fixedly at her. Perhaps she’d never see her pointing at objects and saying their names. Perhaps she’d never hear her complain about natto. Perhaps she’d never hear her scold her for getting drunk and smelling of a man. Perhaps —
Mai pushed herself down the slide and placed her hands on Ami’s shoulders. “Sorry, I was letting you play by yourself. I wasn’t keeping an eye on you. I was being careless. I was being a terrible mother. Right?”
Ami extended her little arms forward. Then, with a bright smile, she said, “Mama, I love you.”
Mai gaped, her body completely still except for her thudding heart. Snapping out of her trance, she hugged Ami’s tiny head until it disappeared in her embrace.
Finally. Ami had become a normal child.