In January 2006, my mother-in-law, Florence, called from her apartment in Manhattan. “I just got a call from the doctor’s office,” she said in an odd, slightly exasperated voice, “and now they’re telling me that I have acute
.” Just two months earlier, Florence had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, but true to her indomitable personality, she’d gone through surgery and radiation without a complaint. The last I’d heard, everything was fine, and she was back on the NewYork art scene, thinking about writing a second book.
My stomach tightened. Florence looked sixty but was about to turn seventy-five. “That can’t be right, Florence, it must be a mistake,” I said aloud, stupidly. “Let me get Jed on the phone, and he’ll figure out what’s going on. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
Everything wasn’t all right. A week after our conversation, Florence had checked into New York Presbyterian Hospital and was starting chemotherapy. After hours of agonizing research and third and fourth opinions, Jed had helped Florence choose a less harsh arsenic-based treatment plan that wouldn’t make her as sick. Florence always listened to Jed. As she liked to tell Sophia and Lulu, she had adored him from the moment he was born, one month premature. “He was jaundiced and all yellow and looked like a wrinkled old man,” she used to laugh. “But I thought he was perfect.” Jed and Florence had a lot in common. He shared his mother’s aesthetic sensibilities and eye for good proportions. Everyone said he was her spitting image, and that was always meant as a compliment.
My mother-in-law was gorgeous when she was young. In her college yearbook, she looks like Rita Hayworth. Even at fifty, which is how old she was when I first met her, she turned heads at parties. She was also witty and charming, but definitely judgmental. You could always tell which outfits she found tacky, which dishes too rich, which people too eager. Once I came downstairs in a new suit, and Florence’s face brightened. “You look terrific, Amy,” she said warmly. “You’re putting yourself together so much better these days.”
Florence was an unusual combination. She was fascinated by grotesque objects and always said that “pretty” things bored her. She had an amazing eye, and had made some money in the 1970s by investing in works by relatively unknown modern artists. These artists—among them Robert Arneson and Sam Gilliam—all eventually got discovered, and Florence’s purchases skyrocketed in value. Florence never envied anyone, and could be strangely insensitive to people who envied her. She didn’t mind being alone; she prized her independence and had turned down offers of second marriage from many rich and successful men. Although she liked stylish clothes and art gallery openings, her favorite things in the world were swimming in Crystal Lake (where she had spent every summer as a child), making dinner for old friends, and most of all, being with her granddaughters Sophia and Lulu, who, at Florence’s request, had always called her “Popo.”
Florence made it into remission by March, after six weeks of chemotherapy. By then, she was a frail shadow of herself—I remember how small she looked against the white hospital pillows, like a 75% photocopy reduction of herself—but she still had all her hair, a decent appetite, and the same buoyant personality. She was ecstatic about being discharged.
Jed and I knew the remission was only temporary. The doctors had repeatedly warned us that Florence’s prognosis was poor. Her leukemia was aggressive and would almost certainly relapse within six months to a year. Because of her age, there was no possibility of a bone marrow transplant—in short, no possibility of a cure. But Florence didn’t understand her disease and had no idea how hopeless things were. Jed tried a few times to explain the situation, but Florence was always stubbornly obtuse and upbeat, and nothing seemed to sink in. “Oh, dear—I’m going to have to spend a lot of time at the gym when this is all over,” she’d say surreally. “My muscle tone’s all gone.”
In the immediate term, we had to decide what to do with Florence. Living on her own was out of the question: She was too weak to walk and needed frequent blood transfusions. And she really didn’t have much family she could turn to. By her choice she had almost no contact with her ex-husband, Sy, and her daughter lived much farther away.
I proposed what seemed the obvious solution: Florence would come live with us in New Haven. My mother’s elderly parents lived with us in Indiana when I was little. My father’s mother lived with my uncle in Chicago until she died at the age of eighty-seven. I’ve always assumed that I would take in my parents if the need arose. This is the Chinese way.
To my astonishment, Jed was reluctant. There was no question of his devotion to Florence. But he reminded me that I had often had trouble with Florence and gotten angry at her; that she and I had wildly different views about child-rearing; that we both had strong personalities; and that, even ill, Florence was unlikely to keep her views to herself. He asked me to imagine what it would be like if Lulu and I got into one of our raging, thrashing fights and Florence felt the need to intervene on behalf of her granddaughter.
Jed was right of course. Florence and I got along great for years—she introduced me to the world of modern art, and I used to love accompanying her to museum and gallery events—but we started having conflicts after Sophia was born. In fact, it was through butting heads with Florence that I first became aware of some of the deep differences between Chinese and (at least one variant of) Western parenting. Above all, Florence had taste. She was a connoisseur of art, food, and wine. She liked luxurious fabrics and dark chocolate. Whenever we returned from travels, she always asked the girls about the colors and smells they’d encountered. Another thing Florence had definite taste about was childhood. She believed that childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery, and experience.
At Crystal Lake, Florence felt that her granddaughters should be able to swim, walk, and explore wherever they pleased. By contrast, I told them that if they stepped off our front porch, kidnappers would get them. I also told them that the deep parts of the lake had ferocious biting fish. I may have gone overboard, but sometimes being carefree means being careless. Once when Florence was babysitting for us at the lake, I came home to find two-year-old Sophia running around outside by herself with a pair of garden shears as large was she was. I snatched them furiously away. “She was going to cut some wildflowers,” Florence said wistfully.
The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths. I keep a lot of to-do lists and hate massages and Caribbean vacations. Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl—she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments.
Florence liked rebelliousness and moral dilemmas. She also liked psychological complexity. I did too, but not when it was applied to my kids. “Sophia is
of her new sister,” Florence once giggled, shortly after Lulu was born. “She just wants to ship Lulu back where she came from.”
“No, she doesn’t,” I snapped. “Sophia loves her new sister.” I felt that Florence was generating sibling rivalry by looking for it. There are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don’t exist in Asia.
Being Chinese, I almost never had any open confrontations with Florence. When I said “butting heads with Florence” earlier, what I meant was criticizing and railing against her to Jed behind her back. With Florence I was always accommodating and hypocritically good-natured about her many suggestions. So Jed had a point, especially since he’d borne the brunt of the conflict.
But none of that mattered one bit, because Florence was Jed’s mother. For Chinese people, when it comes to parents, nothing is negotiable.Your parents are your parents, you owe everything to them (even if you don’t), and you have to do everything for them (even if it destroys your life).
In early April, Jed checked Florence out of the hospital and brought her to New Haven, where he carried her up to our second floor. Florence was incredibly excited and happy, as if we were all at a resort together. She stayed in our guest room, next to the girls’ bedroom and just down the hall from our master bedroom. We hired a nurse to cook and care for her, and physical therapists were always coming and going. Almost every night, Jed, the girls, and I had dinner with Florence; for the first couple of weeks, it was always in her room because she couldn’t come downstairs. Once, I invited a few of her friends and threw a wine and cheese party in her room. When Florence saw the cheeses I’d picked, she was aghast and sent me out for different ones. Instead of being mad, I was glad that she was still Florence and that good taste ran in my daughters’ genes. I also made a note of which cheeses never to buy again.
Although there were constant scares—Jed had to race Florence to the New Haven hospital at least twice a week—Florence seemed to recover miraculously in our house. She had an enormous appetite and gained weight rapidly. On her birthday, May 3, we were able to all go out to a nice restaurant. Our friends Henry and Marina came with us and couldn’t believe this was the same Florence they’d seen in the hospital six weeks earlier. In a high-necked asymmetrical Issey Miyake jacket, she was glamorous again and didn’t even look sick.
Just a few days later, on May 7, Sophia had her Bat Mitzvah at our house. Earlier that same morning we’d had another crisis, with Jed rushing Florence to the hospital for an emergency blood transfusion. But they made it back on time, and Florence looked fabulous when the eighty guests arrived. After the ceremony, under a perfect blue sky, on tables with white tulips, we served French toast, strawberries, and dim sum—Sophia and Popo had planned the menu—and Jed and I marveled at how much you have to spend to keep things simple and unpretentious.
A week later, Florence decided that she was well enough to go back to her own New York apartment, as long as the nurse went with her. She died in her apartment on May 21, apparently from a stroke that killed her instantly. She had plans to go out for drinks that evening and never knew that her time was limited.
At the funeral, both Sophia and Lulu read short speeches they’d written themselves. Here’s part of what Lulu said:
When Popo was living at my family’s house over the last month, I spent a lot of time with her, whether it was eating lunch together, playing cards with her, or just talking. On two nights, we were left alone together—“babysitting” each other. Even though she was sick and couldn’t walk well, she made me feel not scared at all. She was a very strong person. When I think of Popo, I think of her happy and laughing. She loved to be happy and that made me feel happy too. I’m really going to miss Popo a lot.
And here’s part of what Sophia said:
Popo always wanted intellectual stimulation, full happiness—to get the utmost vitality and thought out of every minute. And I think she got it, right up to the end. I hope someday I can learn to do the same.
When I heard Sophia and Lulu say these words, several things came to mind. I was proud and glad that Jed and I had taken Florence in, the Chinese way, and that the girls had witnessed us doing it. I was also proud and glad that Sophia and Lulu had helped take care of Florence. But with the words “loved to be happy” and “full happiness” ringing in my head, I also wondered whether down the road if I were sick, the girls would take me into their homes and do the same for me—or whether they would opt for happiness and freedom.
Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano- and violin-induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.
But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart—all the grown sons and daughters who can’t stand to be around their parents or don’t even talk to them—I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness. It’s amazing how many older Western parents I’ve met who’ve said, shaking their heads sadly, “As a parent you just can’t win. No matter what you do, your kids will grow up resenting you.”