Mom and Dad's Story : Chengdu Diary Huang Meihua was at school when the earthquake struck. Her parents were miles away. They walked four days to reach her, with no knowledge of their daughter's fate.
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Mom and Dad's Story

On today's All Things Considered, you'll hear the story of 12-year old Huang Meihua, who lost both her legs in the earthquake after her school collapsed on her. She's an incredibly spirited girl who had us all laughing, even while she was describing the earthquake. You'll have to listen to the story to know why.

Huang Meihua and her parents, father Huang Sheqing and mother Yan Xiaorong. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu/NPR

But there were also moments during our visit that made me want to cry. Those moments came when Meihua's parents, Huang Sheqing and Yan Xiaorong, talked about their long journey back home and their struggle to get Meihua to safety.

Yan and Huang had left their village, and their life as farmers, and were living in Heishui, some distance from Meihua - at least a day of travel under normal circumstances. They had a small shop selling mantou - steamed bread - and other snacks. With the money they earned, they rented a room for Meihua and her grandmother outside her school in the nearest town. They'd hoped a good education would lead to a brighter future for their daughter and for the family.

After the earthquake, it took Meihua's parents four days to walk home. Meihua's dad, Huang Sheqing, who seemed very quiet at first, described the entire journey with barely a pause. It was as if he'd been waiting for the right moment to let everything out. He talked of the terrifying walk over mountain roads that had been wiped out, of the aftershocks, and the huge boulders that tumbled down from above. He described passing dead bodies along the way, one of someone who'd been just ten minutes in front of them. They had news that their village had been flattened, but had no news of their daughter. Meihua's mother Yan Xiaorong told us she believed Meihua was alive. She said if she thought for a moment that her daughter wasn't alive, she couldn't have kept going.

Huang Meihua's mother shows me a photo of Meihua in the hospital, receiving a visit from Wu Bangguo, one of China's top leaders. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu/NPR

When they reached home they were led to a tent in the town square where Meihua had been taken after being rescued from the rubble of her school. Her father cried at the sight of her horrible injuries. Her mother cried. Meihua - according to her parents - did not cry. And she told them not to cry.

There was no transportation out of the mountains, so Meihua's parents made a makeshift stretcher out of bamboo poles. They were determined to walk her out to safety. But to do that, they'd have to climb over five mountains. People told them it'd be impossible even if they weren't carrying anything. They eventually gave up and turned back.

Finally, on May 18, six days after the quake, Meihua was flown to Chengdu by helicopter, along with others who'd been severely injured. There was no room on the helicopter for family. So Meihua's mother hiked the five mountains and slowly made her way to Chengdu. She arrived many days later, and today wonders whether she could have saved Meihua's legs had she gotten there faster.

Huang Meihua and two classmates, who were skipping an athletic competition outside to hang out with her in her room. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu/NPR

So much has changed for this family since the earthquake, and at the same time, so much remains the same. While Meihua's mother stays with her at her new school, her father is back in Heishui most of the time, running the shop. He just happened to be back for a visit. They still talk about her education as being their number one priority. Her sunny personality has gained her many friends at the temporary new school. Classmates come by to wheel her to class. In fact, Meihua's mother told us, it wasn't long after her legs were amputated that Meihua began cracking jokes again. She even had the hospital director laughing.