Failing (#294)

My Chinese-American father-in-law harangued me weekly until I got pregnant. He believed my sole purpose in life, as wife to the Number One Son, was to bear him a grandson.

Once Baby D was born, Jay’s health deteriorated. Physical ailments led to mental issues. By the time Baby D was four, Jay was in a wheelchair and not always lucid.

As if he had only been holding on to complete his purpose in life—a grandson.

My mother-in-law, Sunny, was younger than Jay. Even so, she had trouble caring for Jay at home. During one of our visits to Hawaii, when I picked Jay up off the floor for the third time and put him back in bed, I told Andy his family needed to think about putting Jay in an assisted living facility.

“Your Dad isn’t that big, but your mom isn’t getting any younger. How is she going to manage without us?”

“I don’t know. No one wants to talk about it.”

Andy’s older sister is a doctor. Her specialty is geriatrics. Yet when I pointed out that Jay was a lot for her mother to cope with and suggested moving him to a home, Betty burst into tears and said, “Oh, Autumn, no!”

Sunny refused to even consider the idea. “Too expensive,” she said.

“Not if you sell the rental house,” I argued.

“There’s too many taxes,” Sunny said.

I steeled myself and asked, “What if you sell both houses and move near us? We could help and your sister is nearby.”

“No, no, I will stay here and be fine.”

Sunny, of course, wasn’t fine. She had her own medical issues cropping up now that she was in her sixties. When she needed various surgeries, one of her kids had to fly 3-5,000 miles to take care of Jay. Same thing when Popo, Sunny’s mother, had a stroke, and Sunny needed to care for Popo.

Guess which of the three children always had to fly out in an emergency?

My husband. We were the closest, with the most flights from LA to Hawaii. Andy had the most stable job, with plenty of PTO. But mainly, Andy had me—the stay-at-home-mom who could, of course, always put her writing on hold to manage the one kid and everything else for a few weeks. His sister, married to another doctor and with two kids, was either on call or her husband was on call. Andy’s brother had a new baby (and then another new baby) while he and his wife worked in tech in San Jose.

For years, all of Andy’s vacation time went to trips to Hawaii. All our extra money went for his flights to Hawaii.

When he ran out of vacation, Andy took some Paid Family Leave (thank you, California!). It wasn’t his full salary, but we got by.

I got bitter. Single parenting The Boy Who Wouldn’t Nap, especially during Spring Break and Summer vacation, was mentally and physically exhausting. When, inevitably, I got injured while trying to walk 2 big dogs and chase Baby D on his bike, I had to keep going. I powered through baths on bloody knees, walks with back spasms, and several delightful noroviruses.

Plus, Baby D hated my cooking and missed his dad. He had no compunctions about telling me this hourly.

In vain did I remind my husband that he was now the unofficial Chinese-American Patriarch. “Just take charge! Put your foot down! Tell your mom she needs to move or move your dad into assisted living!”

Andy could not. He had spent too long deferring to the wishes to his parents. Which was, as always, hard for me to wrap my head around. Not once have my sibs and I shied away from battle with any parental unit—especially not when we thought our cause was just. (As it always was!)

But Andy would not argue with his mother, not even when Jay’s physical abilities deteriorated to the point where he needed a feeding tube. Despite Jay’s earlier instructions NOT to prolong his life, Sunny had one inserted. By then, Jay could no longer speak to protest.

I ranted to Andy about how wrong it was. Jay was stubborn and opinionated. He enjoyed laying down the law. Maybe, because of our skirmishes over everything from cheesecake to screwdrivers, I was the only one who could see how much Jay would have hated being overruled. Or maybe I empathized because I was the only family member who could fully relate to the old man’s bossy, judgmental personality.

Andy agreed that his father would not want to be kept alive, but had no idea where Jay’s old instructions were. Even if he had had them, he would never have fought his mother over his father’s care.

So I ranted to my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister, an oncologist who deals with hospice issues daily.

“I know,” she sighed. “There are so many times when I have to explain to the grandchildren who can’t bear to let grandma go that there are things worse than death. Sometimes, you have to take them into the room and let them see the suffering. But to go against someone’s explicit wishes when they are no longer in their right mind? If only he’d been in assisted living! Or the hospital! They would have already had his wishes on file.”

“I know,” I ground out.

“Disregarding them is monstrous. Listen, if I ever lose my mind to dementia, you take me out, okay? I’ll be sure and leave you some morphine or a shot of potassium to make it quick.”

“I will,” I promised. “And you’ll do the same?”

“Don’t worry. If it comes down to it, I’ll kill all y’all.”

More comforting words were never spoken.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

21 thoughts on “Failing (#294)”

  1. Such a profound post. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to be responsible for the well-being of an elderly relative, and that was without a child to look after, too. You got to the crux of it though. After you see and understand a few realities about age-related physical and mental decline, you know that those are comforting words.

  2. It’s a no win situation. As prudent parents who save all their lives, you wouldn’t want to sell the house – your prime asset – for it to be burnt away with care home fees.

    Also as someone who has lived with their partner most their life – their loss is effectively ending your life. So you can see why Sunny will accept struggling and suffering with Jay’s issues until the very end.

    1. You are correct–I sometimes feel my in-laws would rather sell their souls than any property. The property actually went into a family trust in order to protect it, though, in case Jay needed full-time care. Yet no one would ever admit he needed full-time care.

      I would disagree that losing a partner would effectively end your life. (It certainly did not end my stepfather’s when my mother died.) Sunny always said she wanted to travel. Jay did not want to travel. I think Sunny should get her chance to live for herself for once.

  3. Wow. This is a heavy post, but something I can relate to very much (although from a different relationship perspective). Thanks for sharing.

    I have had cultural battles with my mother about my father’s ailing condition. Like Sunny, my mom refuses to put my dad in a care facility (despite complaining about how tired she is taking care of my dad). I got really frustrated and spoke with my aunt (my mom’s sister who is more americanized) about it, and my aunt said to me: “do you know why your mom is so adamant about staying with him?” After guessing wrong a few times, she said one word to me:


    The Asian guilt is so ingrained in my mother. My aunt’s guess is that my mom is dead set on taking care of my dad until his last breath so she can die without regret and know she was a good wife (thanks confucius). I don’t know if it’s the same for Sunny, but man, when my aunt said that it made total sense to me.

    I also gave the suggestion for them BOTH to move near us so that I wouldn’t have to fly to Utah all the time, but of course they didn’t do that either. I am going to try very hard not to become a stubborn old lady (like my mom, argh!!!). I am like Andy, constantly flying to Utah. Luckily I work remote and can do this, but it does get exhausting.

    Best of luck with Jay. It’s so hard with aging parents… I really feel for you and Andy. Hang in there!

    1. Oh, it is ABSOLUTELY the same guilt for Sunny. You nailed it. She once left him while he was hospitalized (for a routine procedure and observation) to attend her niece’s wedding and told me she felt like a monster. And I understand guilt and regret; if she wants to martyr herself, so be it. But I wish she would do it a little closer.

      I wish the same for your mother, too. I am so sorry to hear about your dad’s failing health. That’s not an easy time to live through. Many hugs.

  4. I’ve been trying to get my 90 year old brother and his wife to move into assisted living not because they are severely handicapped but because it would make their life (and mine) so much easier. There would be on site activities and no outdoor work to do. Vans to doc apts. Heck, I want to move there! Alas, they don’t want to leave their run down town house where they live on 3 floors they can’t navigate. My goal in life is not to be like that.

    1. Yes. This is the part I don’t understand. I know it’s one huge hassle to do initially, but after that, life really does get easier. And not having to deal with a yard after age 90 seems like a plus, doesn’t it?

      1. You would think. The thing is that you need to do it while you still have the energy. In my brother’s case, he gets overwhelmed with the thought of moving out of a house he’s lived in for maybe 60 years. They are pack rats.

  5. It’s so hard watching parents get older. Fortunately, mine are in relatively good health at the moment, but it doesn’t help being 1,250 miles away. I’m hoping they’ll move out here in the next year or two (it’s something I believe they are considering, though they would never admit it.)

    Your husband is a saint. As are you.

    1. Thanks. I think if I were a saint I would bitch a little less, though. No option are great. You just gotta push through. There’s no other choice.

      I hope your parents plan well and move soon!

    1. I think if Andy and his dad had any sort of close, emotional bond, it would be harder. But their relationship was very distant–it’s not as tough for him to watch his father decline.

      He was much, much more upset over his grandmother’s stroke.

  6. Oh! I didn’t know that you and Andy had been going through such a hard time with his parents. I’m sorry.

    My mother died rather peacefully at the age of 90. My sister and I had some problems fifteen years earlier moving her out of her house–taking her driver’s license away and cleaning out her multiple closets and shelves. For a few years she blamed us for getting rid of the wrong things. A few years later, we had to move her out of the apartment and into an assisted living facility. This whole downward trajectory is hard on everyone. Fortunately, we lived nearby.

    1. The fact that there were two of you to look out for your mom must have been such a comfort. And it’s nice that you agreed that she needed help, even if she didn’t want it. I think if Andy’s siblings were in agreement, they might have been able to persuade Sunny to do things differently.

      Or maybe no, she’s pretty stubborn.

      Thanks for the kind words. It was rough, but knowing how much worse things can always be generally puts misery in perspective.

  7. I’m sorry to hear about Jay and the hard times you’ve been going through. For Chinese people, sending old people to care homes is a huge no-no. They think it’s the most unfilial thing that can be done. We are having a similar situation in my husband’s family. Grandma is 93 years old and lives with aunty, but in a separate room across the main apartment and she spends most of the day alone. She broke her hip a few years back and lost a lot of mobility. Still, the majority of her children don’t want to send her to a care home (the deepdown reason being that they don’t want to spend any money on her). I think in a home she would at least have some company and be well tended to… meanwhile retarded aunty is sending pics of grandma’s bum when she accidentally pees on the bed. If they ever mention anything about unfilial westerners in the family WeChat group, I may lash all my Chinese swear words at them…

    1. Wow. So sending humiliating pictures is fine, but putting an aging relative in a home is unfilial. That seems very wrong to me, although nursing homes can be terrible places, too.

      1. Yes, there are many horror stories, even in developed countries. I’ve actually never seen a nursing home here in China, no idea how they are. But there must be good (and not cheap) ones too.

  8. Would private care at home work, to give Sunny a break? Because I just got out of a nursing home after a 2- week stay to recover after surgery. And even though I was mostly independent, the care received is quite bad. Medication given hours outside the schedule, no water for as long as 6 hours despite multiple requests, the meals are crappy. My 84-year old room mate with a broken arm and early stages of dementia, would often go hungry because they would put the food in front of her, but not make sure that she can eat with one hand (sugar or milk not added to the coffee and she couldn’t open the little containers; the juice was too far for her reach, the burger was on one bun and the fixings on the other bun and she couldn’t put them together; her fork fell). In 20 minutes they would take the tray without questions. She was a bit heavy so maybe that was their way of getting her to lose some weight.

    1. That sounds terrible, and yes, I am sure Sunny worries about that. She did indeed have to hire some home healthcare workers. Some worked better than others.

      I’m glad you are out and feeling better!

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