February 2, 2010
In 1976, Dad had a fatal heart attack. Like a proper grieving family, we sobbed through the funeral. Soon after, we learned he had cheated on Mom. That’s when the real grieving began. For decades, mourning left me with low expectations for true relationship happiness. But I think I’m finally okay now..
Imagine, it’s taken me 34 years to get past the sorry legacy of my parents. Oh, they were just terrible at being husband and wife — which means they weren’t the greatest parents either. At dinner, they argued rather than talked. I was always afraid to say something that would set one of them off. If only they would get divorced, I used to think to myself.
Then Dad’s death removed the male combatant from the picture. He was 70 at the time; Mom was 58, I was 19 and my sister was 17. The unfamiliar quiet in our reconfigured, all-female household only lasted until the afternoon that Mom decided to clean out the desk Dad kept in our Chinatown apartment. I found her sitting there with the top right drawer pulled wide open. In the very back of it was a bundle of old letters.
My teary-eyed mother handed me some to read. The entire stack was from a married Chinese lady, a good friend of theirs. They were both so fond of her because she had been their matchmaker. I can’t imagine my mom’s horror at finding these pages which brought to life an affectionate, on-going correspondence between my father and their friend. This woman was an elegant, pretty artist who lived in Asia. Every once in a while, she’d fly into town and drop by for a delightful visit with us. The letters were filled with intimate chatter about how glad she was to see my dad again and how she looked forward to their next rendezvous. Nothing race-y. But still…
There’s more. Mom also found a stack of Dad’s diaries. My father, who was the son of a poor Chinese widow from Saigon, had attended university in Paris on scholarship. So the journals were written in fluent Chinese, English, Vietnamese and French. I’ve blocked out most of what I read – multiple entries about the various beautiful women whom he admired, dreamed about and longed for. (Mom was not mentioned much.)
While I flipped through this shocking paperwork, my mom sat there in a state of fury and grief from which she never recovered. As for me, I was completely grossed by my Buddha-bellied, old father. Mom eventually destroyed Dad’s forlorn love stash. We each soldiered on like nothing had happened. Ever the dutiful Chinese widow, she wore head-to-toe black for more than a year. While she never stopped longing for male companionship, she refused to date. (“Having a man is a prestige,” she once said.) Instead, Mom became completely dependent on her children.
And me? Shortly after Dad died, I walked away from a suffocating, no-chemistry relationship I had with a Chinatown boyfriend. Two years later, at 21, I met my future husband. Thanks to what Mom taught me, I was excellently trained to see only what I wanted to see. My trophy husband was everything Dad wasn’t: Charming, handsome – and not Asian.
But this month, I realized that I’ve healed. Recently, I started dating Asian men. This tells me that the nasty spells from my youth have been broken. No longer do I see Asian men as my father. I can now interact with an entire race of men as…men. They’re no longer scary reminders of my father and what he’d done to my mother.
But still, I wonder…did my dad actually have side chicks?
The other day, I lunched with my divorce lawyer and his wife in hopes of getting an answer. Interestingly, these dear friends had very different opinions. She and I both felt that Dad betrayed Mom by saving those letters practically in plain sight, keeping them where he could touch them, caress them, read them and hold them. We think he might’ve had other affairs too.
My attorney, however, stuck to the law. We had no proof, he said. There’s only one fact we can be sure of. “Your father wanted your mother to find the letters,” he said. “He didn’t mean to hurt you or your sister. But he wanted to stick it to your mother. That was his rage.”
<Sigh.> Yeah, I know.
I’ve been wanting to blog about this episode for a very long time. But I just couldn’t find the words — until tonight. At this moment, my mom lies on her deathbed in hospice, drugged up on morphine and anti-depressants. Over the last few years of her dementia, she’s gone from venting about my dad’s affair to criticizing him for being a poor provider. Mercifully, she eventually forgot that she was ever married. Last summer, she confessed that she didn’t remember what he looked like.
I don’t blame her for forgetting. Even I’ve wanted to obliterate their troubling and confusing relationship. When I was younger, there was no way to understand their private hells. But now, I’m 53. My dad was 50 when I was born. My mom was 58 when he died. This 50-something connection between the three of us gives me a new compassion for them. While it’s considered a terrible thing when children are caught between their parents and forced to play peacemaker, it’s a role I feel compelled to take on now.
At last, I see that my parents were each incredible romantics — married to partners they were never in love with. They only married because they each feared being alone. Hooking up was their last shot at wedded bliss. Unfortunately, they failed at it. Trust me, there’s nothing more lonely and depressing than sleeping every night next to a person you can’t connect with intimately. If that wasn’t terrible enough, there was their isolation as immigrants in America, a new home thousands of miles from the embrace of family they loved and trusted.
So as my mom prepares to leave this world, I am here to finally set things right between my folks. If there is a message they have for us, it is this: Treasure and fight for the life you have. No matter what, it’s a gift. Maybe you’re in a lousy marriage. Or maybe you’re living with parents who have a lousy marriage. No matter what, don’t let circumstances stop you from nurturing the joy of being you.
I write this after my daughter and I just finished crying a lot. One of the things I told my Princess tonight is that we must now do something special for Grandma: we must go on and have all the fun that she never had. Let’s celebrate the joie de vivre that eluded both Grandma and Grandpa.
As I sign off, I want to share the picture that Mom took when I was one years old. She draped me in a black shawl in front of a photograph of her deceased parents.
Funny, how I feel like that baby again. My unexplored life lies ahead. Now that I’ve found myself post-divorce, I am in a state of renaissance.
So tonight, we near the end.
Tonight, we approach a new beginning.