Are You Okay (#299)

Maybe you have an optimist for a partner. The kind of person who says, when his grandmother has a stroke, “She’s not going to die.”

And she doesn’t.

When his mother has an ovarian mass removed, your husband isn’t worried. “It’s not cancer,” he declares.

The biopsy proves him correct.

While you may agonize over bleeding while pregnant, potential pre-eclampsia, and spiking a fever during labor, your husband does not. “Baby D is going to be fine,” he tells you confidently.

Sure enough, your baby is born ridiculously healthy.

And yet you know catastrophe waits around every corner. When a family member you don’t speak to regularly calls, your first thought is, “Oh, no.” It takes years of practice and therapy to say, “Everything okay?” instead of blurting out, “Who died?”

Maybe this is due to your childhood being more traumatic than your husband’s. Your cousin was killed by a drunk driver. Your parents divorced (messily and repeatedly). Your childhood playmate/ neighbor was murdered. Your mom died when you were fourteen.

Turns out, if tragedy doesn’t fuck you up outright, it will at least beget an expectation of more tragedy.

So when you have a kid? You worry. A lot. You envision every possible disaster.

Even as you’re desperate to enjoy date night, you are That Mom, texting the babysitter an hour after you’ve left the house: “Everything okay?” Because you can’t enjoy anything while envisioning your toddler drowning during bath time (never mind that he knew how to swim by age one because you, of course, were paranoid about him drowning).

You are the parent who is at least five minutes early to every pick up. The one who volunteers in the classroom and watches every coach like a hawk because pedophiles are everywhere.

You’re also the one who knows, when the phone rings at 1 AM, that this time it isn’t an idiot telemarketer. You know it’s the news that your failing father-in-law is dead.

And this time, you’re right.


My Chinese-American father-in-law and I had a contentious relationship. He was blunt and misogynistic. He lacked any of the WASP social graces I’d had drilled into my head. His main concern was that I provide his Number One Son with a Number One Son. After Andy and I married, Jay called me weekly. He never said, “Hello,” just demanded to know where his grandson was. Then he’d hang up on me when I tried to explain the concept of family planning and birth control.

After Jay’s death, I reminisced about those phone calls with Sunny, my mother-in-law.

Sunny chuckled and said, “You know, Jay used to call Andy, too. He’d call every week, maybe every few days. As soon as Andy picked up, Jay would say, ‘You okay?’ Andy would say, ‘Hi, Dad, yeah, what’s up?’ But Jay would hang up once he knew Andy was fine. He was just worried that something would happen to Andy and he’d never know.”

“Huh. I don’t remember that.”

“No, because Jay stopped when Andy married you. Andy wasn’t alone. You were there and he didn’t have to worry anymore.”

Later, I asked Andy, “Hey, did your dad used to call you and then hang up?”

My husband is not an emphatic man, but this time a response practically exploded from his lips: “Oh, my God, yes! All the time! It was so annoying. I never understood why he called if he didn’t want to talk.”

But I did. My father-in-law and his family had escaped the Communist takeover of China—by going to Vietnam. That didn’t work out so well. Jay and the remnants of his family wound up fleeing once more, this time to Hong Kong. Jay spoke five languages, but he refused to speak about his childhood. No one ever knew exactly what he endured.

Whatever the trauma was, it left Jay convinced of future tragedy and compelled him to check on his son regularly. Andy, of course, never understood this—just like he doesn’t understand why I text the babysitter.

So here’s to my father-in-law Jay, for raising my amazing and optimistic husband, in spite of his own scars.

And here’s hoping my son never understands me, either.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

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

26 thoughts on “Are You Okay (#299)”

    1. Possibly. Sometimes I felt like face was more important to him than actual connection. Impossible to say how much was adult residual Aspergers (my armchair diagnosis, take it with a grain of salt, but he was an engineer who perseverated like mad) and how much was a result of childhood trauma. I wish I knew more of his story.

  1. Oh this was emotional for me to read. I’m sorry to hear about losing a loved one, and knowing that Jay had so much faith in you to take care of Andy is extremely touching. Jay trusted you to take care of his son, and that’s no easy badge of honor to earn.

    I think you may have a point about those with a traumatic life tending to be more over protective and paranoid. My mom is over cautious to the point of insanity, but like Jay she was also a refugee with a rough history, so I think your theory holds true.

    My life is not traumatic, but I think my mom’s cautiousness rubbed off on me. Last week I saw a dad allow his kids to free climb up some boulders on a hiking trail, and all I could think about was them falling and cracking open their skull lol.

    1. I know, it is kind of touching that Jay was willing to pass the torch, although I feel like it doesn’t speak very highly of his confidence in his own son!

      Well, I can’t be too cautious with Baby D. He’s contrary, so if I try and limit his rock climbing, it’ll just make him that more determined to crack his head open.

      We use a lot of reverse psychology.

      I’ve never understood people who sky dive or engage in other risky activities. There’s so much danger, why would you go hunt for more?!

      When I was researching studies for this post, I did read about how parents do pass on their own anxieties to their kids. So it’s not surprising that you are more cautious.

  2. Beautiful piece of writing, Autumn, and deep, healing insights. I’ve been following your blog almost from the beginning and got mad with you at every account of your father-in-law’s behaviour. I feel very touched having been made part to this transformation of your relationship with Jay and the memory of him.

    1. Oh, thank you so much! Both for the compliment and for following my blog.

      Jay was infuriating; yet I hated to see him so diminished that he was no longer infuriating. I wasn’t sure if I should share the story of his illness. So I’m very glad to hear you appreciated the journey, even to a bittersweet end.

  3. I wouldn’t have the patience to put up with Jay so I think you were a saint to be as kind to him as you were. He may have meant well, but that’s no excuse for rude behavior when he should have known better. I totally agree with you that when people die often during your childhood it “beget[s] an expectation of more tragedy.” I live with that feeling, too.

    1. Well, I wasn’t always kind (remember the screwdriver!), but, yeah, Jay was pretty hopeless when it came to recognizing his impact on others.

      It helped that mostly Jay was 3,000 miles away.

      I’m sad for you and all of us marked by childhood trauma. I’d like to have more faith that things will turn out okay.

  4. This was a wonderful tribute without glassing over or suger-coating anything, which is tempting when someone passes. I’d like to think Jay would have understood and appreciated that.

    For my family the anxiety that was handed down is around finances. I’m never confident that we’re secure “enough” and have anxiety when my leave balance at work gets to be (what I consider) low. My husband thinks I’m crazy, he loves vacations, but he had a different upbringing and I know how lucky I am to have paid leave if I need it.

    1. Thank you–yes, the admonishment “don’t speak ill of the dead” is deeply ingrained, isn’t it?

      Oh, so much financial anxiety is handed down! And it can be a tremendous source of conflict when partners can’t agree.

      I’m glad you have leave and I don’t blame you for stockpiling it. I so wish we had better leave and maternity leave in this country. Women are always called upon to make sacrifices when it comes to childcare, and COVID is really highlighting that issue.

  5. I will have to quote the great ‘Keanu Reeves’ in this situation when asked about mortality and death, he replied “I know the ones who loved us will miss us”.

    It sounds like you loved him, even with the difference of age, sex, upbringing, knowledge and opinions. Children(DiL counts since you joined his family) honoring their parents after they pass on is something all parents strive for(very very much so for Chinese parents), and it looks like Jay got his wish in this case.

    My daughter knows all about reverse psychology, so now I just try to make sure all her potential screwups aren’t fatal, just embarrassing. Also I limit myself to one very tame ‘I told you so’ after the event, and help her with any cleanup or damage mitigation.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. You are doing amazing with your daughter! I’m aways trying not to lose my temper and stay calm when Baby D drops/ destroys something after I’ve been very clear on using both hands, etc. I only gave him an allowance in order to take it away for stuff he’s broken!

      Love is a strong word, perhaps, but it’s good to know that honoring him is appropriate.

  6. I’m sorry to hear about your father-in-law. My condolences to the family.

    My husband was the cautious one, which makes sense. He was a child during the Japanese invasion and occupation of his home in China. When we took a 5-day trip a few months after our first daughter was born, leaving her with my parents, he was so worried about her that we had to return after three days. He was afraid their dog would hurt the baby. He was the one who saw dangers to our children that I didn’t notice and jumped in to save them.

    I understand Jay’s phone calls. I don’t need to call my married daughters every day. But I worry if I haven’t heard from my single daughter for a day or two.

    1. Oh, Eugene was totally my people. The only person we ever left Baby D with was my Ex-stepmother, and only for two days when he was 2. He had a great time, but of course I worried and called to check up on him regularly.

      It’s funny, I was single and living in Lo Angeles, often alone, for a decade. I think my family only worry-called during earthquakes and fires.

  7. When my phone rings and it’s someone I know, my first thought is also that someone has died, because no one phones me anymore, it’s just Whatsapp and Wechat all the time. This might be a bit strange because I don’t really have any childhood trauma, but I’m also always considering the worst possible outcome, even if it’s super unlikely (like me falling off a window that reaches up to my chest…)

    I liked getting to know Jay a bit more. The way he acted had a reason.

    And the face masks in the background are very cute!

    1. You are the first person to notice the face masks! I feel like I should offer you a prize.

      Some people are just more pessimistic about events than others. It probably means you are a good planner. 🙂

  8. This hit home. I didn’t have anyone as annoying as Jay in my life but I lived through some tragedies starting with the death of my dad when I was 10. My mother lived through the depression and a lot of her feelings were passed through the placenta! I fully understand why older people take sugar packets from diners. Sugar was rationed back then. I carry the worry gene but I draw the line at stealing sugar packets. You did a beautiful job on this eulogy despite your conflicting feelings about him. No matter how well-intentioned he was, I would have had to bop him upside the head!

    1. We all carry an inner Mollie for head-bopping. 🙂

      It’s pretty common for parents, especially mothers, to pass along anxiety.

      Andy’s mom always took extra napkins from restaurants–and so does Andy.

  9. This is beautifully written and I relate to it on so many levels. I haven’t commented in ages because I was signed out since I don’t blog anymore but I still love reading your posts and this really touched me so I had to sign in to say that 🙂

    1. That was so nice of you! And you can comment any time.

      Blogging with a young child is almost impossible. Actually, doing anything with a little one is almost impossible…

      I’m very touched that you signed in just to comment. It’s quite a compliment. Thanks for still reading.

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