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.
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.