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.

Hand-Me-Downs & Halloween (#266)

There were two great things about being taller than my older sister by age five.

  • She couldn’t beat me up anymore.
  • I didn’t have to wear her hand-me-downs.

Instead, I got a new dress for the first day of kindergarten. My parents actually asked what color I wanted. I wore that dress at least twice a week until my growth spurts made it into a crop top. Continue reading Hand-Me-Downs & Halloween (#266)

Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)

My husband had Chinese-American parents. Mine were white, uptight, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant/ Atheist.

Andy was expected to obey his parents without question. If his parents said his curfew was 10 PM, Andy was home at 10 PM. If Andy’s father wanted to sit on the couch and watch TV, Andy could forget about participating in Little League or any other sport.

I was expected to obey, but not without question. My mom was an attorney. Dinner table discussions in her house ranged from abortion to capital punishment. Everyone was encouraged to express their own opinions and defend them. If I could present a good argument for a curfew change or pierced ears, these items might be considered. (Lost on curfew, won on pierced ears.) Continue reading Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)

Salute to Stupidity (#256)

Growing up in Washington, D.C. means no other Independence Day celebration will live up to your childhood memories. For a relentlessly political, cynical city, they throw a heck of a party.

Photo by Ron Engle

First, there’s the National Independence Day Parade. This ain’t no small, hometown parade where the local horses and fire trucks are the stars of the show. This is A Historical Spectacle. There are hundreds of Uncle Sams (some  in balloon form or on stilts). Bewigged Founding Fathers abound, as do Paul Revere impersonators. Military bands–past and present–are pressed into service, sweating in wool uniforms and 100 degree heat. My sisters and I once counted seventy-five Betsy Rosses. (We would’ve liked some Deborah Sampsons better, but we cheered what female historical figures we could get.) Continue reading Salute to Stupidity (#256)

To Coddle, or Not to Coddle? (#246)

I’ve never been fragile. Born into a large family of semi-feral children, I learned to guard my food and my stuffed animals early. I mowed lawns, lifted weights, and fought dirty with siblings when necessary (also when unnecessary).

Sympathy and coddling were in short supply. Like most young women, I powered through feeling like crap when I had cramps, headaches, and nausea.

The “I can endure misery” mindset was helpful when I was pregnant. I continued working out and playing volleyball, since the endorphins helped me not puke all the time. I still walked my rescue dogs for miles. My only concession to pregnancy was lighter weights and no squats.

This astounded people.

Continue reading To Coddle, or Not to Coddle? (#246)

The Dogs of Christmas (#242)

When I was a little girl, my mother organized caroling and a party on Christmas Eve. We sang our way around the block in Washington D.C. We were met with universal delight. Those were magical times

My Ex-Stepmother carried on the tradition in the suburbs of D.C. and then New England.

Until I dated a guy from rural Tennessee over the holiday season, I never thought some people might find caroling…odd.

Continue reading The Dogs of Christmas (#242)

Snapped (#241)

My ex-debutante mother trained my siblings and me to be good hosts. She also trained us to be good guests. We brought bread and butter gifts. We found something to compliment in every home. We ate whatever food was placed in front of us without complaint and insisted on helping with the dishes. 

We were groomed to make social occasions run smoothly, with nary a scene. White Anglo Saxon Protestants (i.e., WASPs) with social pretensions avoid conflict and HATE scenes. They are a symbol of ugliness and failure. 

And so common.

Continue reading Snapped (#241)

Houseguest vs. Hostess (#240)

A woman’s home is her castle. Until her father-in-law shows up.

I’m white woman raised by a former debutante. My racist Southern grandma ran a charm school. As liberated as my mother tried to be, she was still stuck on Rules of Acceptable Female Behavior.

One such rule was “Be an Exemplary Hostess.” When friends came over, they got first pick of snacks, toys, and sleeping bags. They chose the games we played.

When my parents entertained, we children took coats. We handed around hors d’ oeuvres. We got adults drinks. If there was a shortage of chairs, we offered our seats to adults and took the floor. We cleared the table and did the dishes, too. My mother took immense pride in the praise guests heaped upon her for her adorable little helpers.

She shared their praise with us. And since we were many, and desperate for attention, we got a little warped.

Continue reading Houseguest vs. Hostess (#240)

Sex, Sorrow, and Costco (#239)

I was raised by a liberated woman and a man who believed his daughters should mow lawns, change tires, and have the same curfew as their older brother.

My sisters and I crushed in academics no less than my brother. We were better singers, better dancers, and better athletes. Also more popular. (Sorry, Big Bro!)

NASA came to my schools seeking women astronauts. They told us women had better reflexes than men, handled G-forces better than men, and coped better in close quarters better than men and please could we girls consider being astronauts?

I never understood why a person should be more valued because they were born with a penis. I mean, having a penis means you’re kind of fragile and likely to die earlier than a woman.

Continue reading Sex, Sorrow, and Costco (#239)

They’re Coming (#238)

When my white family reunites, we plan. A year in advance, a cascade of emails about wedding beach houses, Christmas in New Hampshire, or running a 10K at Thanksgiving begin.

And then there’s my husband’s Chinese-American family. Near the end of October, Andy said, “So we haven’t seen my parents in a while.”

“Yes,” I agreed, smiling. And then stopped smiling. “Wait. Are you saying to want to go see them? Before your brother’s wedding next summer?” (Yes, Denny was finally getting married! But that’s another post.)

“Well…” Continue reading They’re Coming (#238)