When China fired a volley of ballistic missiles into the Taiwan Straits, and scrambled nuclear-capable bombers into the Taiwan Air Defense Zone, threatening to turn the island into a sea of fire, probably just saber rattling but with the volatile Chinese government you just never know, that’s when my father-in-law who lived three houses down from us booked a flight back to Taipei, because according to my wife Julia, who steadfastly refused to drive him to SFO, he was risking this annihilation for a woman.
I said to Julia, let him have his happiness. And Julia responded, He built this whole life with Mom. The house. The jewelry. And now he’s going to give it all to her. Of course I figured it wasn’t just the material things, but it was that he opened his heart to someone new, which in Julia’s mind meant he was evicting the former resident of his heart to do so. I didn’t get to spend much time with Julia’s mom before she died of pancreatic cancer, so young at age 59, but I do remember her mom slept on the floor in baby Millie’s room, or rather, stayed awake all night bouncing Millie on her knee in the nursery glider as Millie wailed and wailed, while she defrosted plastic yellow sacs of Julia’s breast milk, and wiped Millie’s poop off her back after the diaper blowouts, me and Julia sleeping across the hall with our door closed so we could go to work the next day with clear heads. And I remember how Julia said that there’s nobody in this world she loved more than her mother, before adding, except you, and I said it’s OK to love your mother more than me.
A week later, I drove to SFO to pick up my father-in-law, after cleaning out the back of my old car to make room for two passengers. As I waited for them at baggage claim, I half-expected some young skinny girl with a too-high leather skirt, that’s what Julia had been preparing me for. Instead, next to my father-in-law was a tall, handsome lady with silver hair. She wore a pantsuit, and smart thin-framed glasses. When she saw me, she gave me this huge smile. After I introduced myself, she shook my hand, and said in heavily accented English, How do you do?
That weekend, despite Julia’s protests, I took them on a tour to all the usual sights—the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street. They spoke softly to each other, and I wished I could understand Taiwanese, but then I thought me not understanding gave them a kind of freedom. They never touched each other, even when gazing together from scenic lookouts across the wind-tossed waters of the bay. So at the Marin Headlands, I decided to stay in the car, while they walked the cliff-hugging trails alone together.
In the years before her parents immigrated to the US, Julia and I went to Taipei to visit them. We were in our pre-married courtship phase, sticky like flypaper, but Julia said touching in front of her parents wasn’t allowed. We slept in separate bedrooms in their home, even though we’d been living together in San Francisco for months.
I pulled up to my father-in-law’s house, and went to the trunk to retrieve their bags filled with souvenirs from the city. He sprinted around the car so he could open the passenger door for his companion. They thanked me over and over, waving goodbye before disappearing into the foyer. Through the windows with the shades drawn, the light went on in my father-in-law’s bedroom, just one light.