From ‘Homewrecker’ to Caretaker
She’s tall for a Chinese woman, built like an Olympic volleyball player. Her torso is long, her face wide. Dark pink powder accents her cheekbones.
“Peasant features,” my mother used to say. “Not beautiful, not even pretty!”
My father disagreed.
Twenty-five years ago, he left my mother for this woman, a graduate student in his department — and more than three decades his junior.
She became his wife (I would never call her my stepmother). His house became their house. Though by now, it feels mostly like her house, with her knickknacks and plastic slippers and stacks of papers to grade. I no longer refer to these occasional weekend trips as coming home, with its implied warmth and welcome, but rather going to visit, a wholly different beast.
During a recent visit, she prepared his oatmeal with flax seeds and almonds, and fed it to him one spoonful at a time. In between bites, he mumbled. Often his voice is laced with irritation, though that morning’s confusion felt benign.
“Look who is here,” she said.
I beckoned my two children, who inched forward awkwardly. “Hi Gung-Gung,” said the 6-year-old, and my father opened his eyes.
“Hi Ba, we’re here!” I said.
“Ah, hi, hi!” He nodded with the enthusiasm of a puppy. One hand reached out from under his thick blanket. The children smiled. He couldn’t remember their names.
Twenty-five years ago, my father was a professor of theoretical physics, charismatic, with an agile mind. How did it happen? Did he notice her sitting in the front row of his lectures, always asking the most pertinent questions? Did she come to his office hours, hesitantly at first, accompanied by a classmate, then later, on her own? Was he a Casanova fueled by lust, or was theirs a gradual kinship, sparked by a shared fascination with high-Tc superconductivity? Who made the first move?
Given the power differential, one might have assumed he was the manipulative party, but my mother never saw it that way.
“She comes to this country from mainland; of course she wants his money!” she would often say. “Green card. Gold digger. Your Ba, so stupid, only knows his physics!”
Back then, I sided with my mother out of loyalty. Of course I did. As a daughter, as a young woman, as a feminist. My mother was strong, but this hurt.
My father’s wife returned to scooping oatmeal into his mouth. I sat by his feet. She spoke in a loud, upbeat tone without glancing my way. Over the years, she has never asked for help, ignored my many offers, and now we’re entrenched in a place where it’s less awkward if I don’t offer, and I wonder if I should have tried harder.
My mother is no longer alive, but I still hear her voice: “Homewrecker.”
I don’t fault my father. He was dissatisfied. My parents’ marriage was one I never understood: She nagged, he yelled, they fought, she ignored.
I remember, as a child, watching him pace in endless circles around the house. “Are you working again?” I would ask. “Yep,” he’d say, a huge grin on his face. He loved that thinking was his work. To teach us math he would sit us on his lap, ask us to calculate how many chickens and how many pigs, in a barnyard with 18 legs and six heads.
I can’t fault my mother, either. A practical woman, she worked as a librarian and raised three children, carting us to gymnastics and swimming and piano lessons, always chop-chopping with her silver cleaver in the kitchen while a bone broth simmered on the stove.
The difference between them, I think, was this: My mother never expected a life of happiness or fulfillment; my father did.
Midlife crisis, we thought (though he was pushing 60). It won’t last. Also, ew (she was in her 20s, my age). Today, would my father be presumed a predator? Back then, in the ’90s, there were whispers, snickers, haughty rolls of eyes. Today, surely he would face condemnation. And she, if not a conniving, green-card-coveting gold digger, was naïve at best, a silly young woman, easily duped. Today, perhaps someone would protect her from her own foolishness.
His was a slow decline over many years. First the forgetfulness, pauses, gaps, easy to forgive. Then the same stories, repeated, looping across days, then hours, then minutes, seconds. One morning he lost his way driving to campus on roads he had followed for more than 40 years. A kindhearted undergrad found him panicking, brought him to his office. The term absent-minded professor took on a dark new meaning.
Another time, he called me in a panic. “I was working on my physics, and suddenly I felt so fuzzy, I had no idea where I was. Daughter, are you listening? If I lose my mind, I don’t want to live.”
He started to cry. I didn’t know what to say. My father, like all fathers, was supposed to be invincible.
Still, his deterioration was tempered by a sameness to these weekend visits. We had our rituals: Chinese buffet (she would bring her own tea leaves), Red Lobster for dinner (he would order the surf and turf), the 60-inch television on nonstop, Chinese soap operas or CNN.
We would go for a stroll on the sidewalks of their suburban neighborhood — first, all of us, one child in a stroller; then he, clinging to her arm, the children running ahead; then one of us pushing his wheelchair, blanket on his lap. Now, at 83, he hardly goes out at all. He can’t walk or urinate or eat by himself. She sits him by the window, the shades drawn up on sunny days.
She is cordial, kind to the children. But she doesn’t ask about their school or activities, or whether we have summer plans. I try to engage: “How many classes are you teaching this semester?” “Has it been cold?” “How is his appetite?”
She is polite but unwavering in her reserve. It’s cultural, maybe, but it’s also this: I am my mother’s daughter.
Here’s the thing: She doesn’t seem bitter. Weary, yes. Sometimes her voice grows thin, even sharp.
I can hear my mother’s warning: “Don’t let her fool you.”
But there remains a gentleness to her touch as she reaches to adjust my father’s baseball cap or gray wool socks or the dark glasses on his face.
She could put him in a facility, hire a full-time nurse, a roster of home health aides.
Sometimes, I spy. She holds his hand even when no one else is in the room.
Once, they co-wrote academic papers, discussed politics while eating pistachios in bed, watched early seasons of “The Bachelor.” Once, they would drive two hours just for a dim sum meal, fly off to Asia for a school reunion. It was obvious — but never easy for me to accept — how well her intellect, curiosity and sense of enchantment matched his.
She couldn’t have known he would end up this way.
Around dinnertime, my 8-year-old asked to go to the Chinese buffet, “like always.”
“Like always” will end one day, soon.
It was cumbersome, getting my father into the van, though she has a practiced system: Right foot here, left hand there, up, mind your head! O.K., the seat is here, relax.
Before he relaxed, she was bearing every ounce of his weight.
She could do this, I realize, because he has lost so much. He’s a bag of bones. And her strength has become important, a practical advantage. I keep thinking: How wisely he chose. How lucky I am. If it wasn’t her, it would be me, but as a caregiver I have none of her grace.
“Long time no see!” said the host at the Chinese buffet.
He wore a terry cloth bib. She loaded his plate with spareribs and ginger beef, cracked his king crab legs with her teeth. An hour later, back at the house, she was feeding him leftovers.
“Still hungry, Ba?” I patted his head.
“He has good appetite,” she said, and we smiled as if he were a baby who had just finished his bottle. As we cleared the dishes, he started to mumble again, “Ahh, get out!” The air around him rattled with his annoyance. The demented are rarely grateful. But she is the one who could run away.
She hasn’t. She won’t.
“Open wide,” she said. She flossed his teeth.
I wonder what people think of them now. But society’s assumptions and opinions don’t matter. To them, they never did.
However scorned or unsightly, their marriage has taught me: Don’t be so quick to judge.
She stands tall, proud, resilient. For better or worse, until death do us part.
This is love, undeniably. (I’m sorry, Ma.)
This is love, deep in the trenches, worthy of respect, admiration and gratitude.