Friday, August 31, 2012

Coping with Tragedy (1)

After reading my last post, you might think that Elder Sister and I were quite calm and competent in dealing with all her troubles: the mountain of debt, her injuries, her mother-in-law, and her deep, deep grief at the loss of her husband and the shame of his mistress being given such a prominent place at the funeral. In reality, we were frantic.

Elder Sister was in tremendous pain, and we did not know if she would ever walk again. Yet she could not bear to lose her children. We determined that we would do our best to find a way for her to keep and support them, and all our actions stemmed from this resolve. Every day she had a steady stream of visitors from among Eldest Brother-in-law’s friends and the Liu family relatives. We would sit and talk, rehashing the story of the tragedy and her problems. After each visitor, the two of us would evaluate what we had learned and discuss our next step.

The clues about the debt came from a minor business partner, who was the only other survivor of the landslide. He was in a ward on the floor above us in the hospital, and he and his wife would come down to our room in the evenings while he was practicing walking on crutches. His description of the accident was quite hair-raising. The business partners and their families had decided to go on the fishing trip up in the mountains on the national holiday for Sun Yat-sen’s birthday. They were all quite depressed at the fact that one of the major partners had absconded with the company’s money, and they were trying to cheer themselves up. Eldest Brother-in-law and his brother and cousins were avid fishermen; they had organized the picnic and chosen the location. They chose a place high up in the mountains with a deep fishing hole at a bend in a stream; a huge carp lurked at the bottom. Eldest Brother-in-law had tried many times to catch it, but it always grabbed the bait, eluded the hook, and retreated to the murky depths of the fishing hole. Since the business was at a temporary stand-still, the business partners brought up one of the company’s gasoline-powered generators to run a sump pump to drain the water hole, leaving the carp with no place to hide. By the time lunch was over, they had drained 80% of the water from the fishing hole, and Eldest Brother-in-law, his brother, and cousins were wading in with nets to catch the huge fish. Unfortunately, the change in water pressure on the rock cliff above the hole combined with the constant vibrations from the sump pump and generator shook loose a large slab of rock from the cliff. This is what trapped Eldest Brother-in-law, his brother and cousins in the river. It also knocked out the sump pump and dislodged gravel and other smaller slabs of rock creating a true landslide. The injured business partner had been standing just at the edge of the stream, and Eldest Sister had been a few feet into the water with a bucket to hold the fish when they caught it. The business partner had had his leg broken by a smaller boulder, and Elder Sister had been pinned under a medium-sized slab of rock and then completely buried with rubble. The business partner heard her screaming and hobbled over to uncover her head. Then the two of them had scrabbled with their bare hands to dig the sand out from under her, so that they could free her from the slab of rock that was pinning her to the ground from the waist down. They barely got her out before the water levels rose to the point that she would have drowned. The four men under the large slab all drowned. The slab was so thick that it had to be blasted apart to recover the bodies, and despite the best efforts of the salvage crew, none of the bodies was fully intact. (This accounted for part of Elder Sister’s mother-in-law’s animosity because both her sons were buried “without a complete corpse”—a huge taboo.)

The business partner also filled us in on the details of the company’s debt. He told us that Eldest Brother-in-law had been the personal guarantor for all the company’s bank loans and that when Elder Sister was in surgery and not expected to survive, the notary in charge of the estate had worked with several of the other partners to put any and all debts from the company under Eldest Brother-in-law’s name as an individual. This partner was quite ashamed that Elder Sister was going to be saddled with such a large amount of debt and five young children. He was the one who suggested that she needed to talk to all the partners and the notary in order to fully understand her situation. He and his wife made numerous phone calls to ensure that all the partners met in Elder Sister’s hospital room at the same time the notary was there.

At the end of the discussion with the business partners, the notary suggested that Eldest Sister contact a lawyer. She was so far in debt, she did not believe she could afford a lawyer, but after hearing that her mother-in-law had allowed the mistress to wear the funeral robes of a wife, she also knew that she needed to fight for her rights. Fortunately, I had a lawyer friend, who was willing to consult for free. The lawyer felt that the only weak point in Elder Sister’s case for keeping her children was the fact that she might never walk again and possibly had no way of working to support her children.

When I called the leaders of Elder Sister’s church, we were only thinking of asking them to announce her name with the prayer requests Sunday morning. It never occurred to us that the church would be able to arrange sponsorship of the family as a charity case. Of course, Elder Sister’s miraculous survival made her a good candidate. After she was released from the hospital, the church frequently asked her to give her testimony of miraculous rescue and recovery to warm up the crowd for visiting evangelists. A few years later, her two younger daughters were also sent to the US as part of delegation of Christian youth from Taiwan. The children were told that they were going to evangelize hedonistic American youth, but when Yuni took our family to attend one of their concerts, we learned that the children were being shown to American churches as proof of the efficacy of US church contributions to foreign missions. When Yuni called Elder Sister to let her know, she just sighed and said that was the price of living on church charity. Without that charity her family would not have survived. Yuni was quite upset because Elder Sister and her family had been converted to Christianity through our family and not through US missionaries. He felt that they were being coerced into a scam, especially after we chatted in Chinese with the other Taiwanese kids in the group and learned that many of them were 3rd generation Christians.

When members of the Liu family came to visit Elder Sister in the hospital, the discussions turned to the “hagiography” of Eldest Brother-in-law, similar to the conversations after the death of Grandma Chu that summer. Everyone remembered Eldest Brother-in-law as a teenager learning his trade from Pa. Elder Sister remembered the good years at the beginning of their marriage. They remembered Eldest Brother-in-law’s generosity to his parents and brothers and to everyone in the Liu family. When the visitors were just Ma and her daughters, the talk would turn to the mistress and the shame experienced by the Liu family at the funeral. Ma would scold Elder Sister for having been too soft-hearted in dealing with the mistress. Ma told us all how she had dealt with Pa when he had had his one and only affair. She was especially upset that Elder Sister had agreed to allow the illegitimate daughter to be entered onto the household register and recognized by her father. Elder Sister did not say anything in front of her mother, but after Ma and the other sisters had gone, Elder Sister told me that she registered the baby because she did not want the poor girl to grow up with the stigma of “father unknown” because being the child of a mistress was not the baby’s fault. Elder Sister told me that from her childhood, Pa’s greatest hero had been a man in the village who was wealthy enough to support two households. I said that Yuni had mentioned admiring that family. Elder Sister said that all of Pa’s apprentices had been infused with such sentiments, as well. Since Elder Sister had only borne one son, she thought that Eldest Brother-in-law felt he had a legitimate excuse to start another household on the outside. She said that she considered this a woman’s lot in life. She felt that she would be better in the long run by going along with things and maintaining her feminine virtue than by being argumentative or adversarial.

In the end, Elder Sister was right. She never remarried but instead remained a “chaste widow.” She took her children back to the family farm in the hills to see their paternal grandparents every holiday and on their father’s death day. After a few years, she was able to get housecleaning jobs for cash, and she always managed to scrape together money for substantial red envelopes for her parents-in-law on Chinese New Year and their birthdays. The mistress, of course, took up with another man soon after the funeral. She left her daughter with her mother in the hills so that she was not burdened with a baby. The wife of Eldest Brother-in-law’s deceased brother also remarried within two years of the tragedy. She took her children with her to the new marriage, and they rarely saw their paternal grandparents. In many ways, Elder Sister was a text-book example of a chaste Confucian widow and within 4 or 5 years, she had worn down her mother-in-law and the other nay-sayers in her deceased husband’s family. This tactic won her much freedom to practice her faith and raise her children as she pleased.

The daily reminiscing with visitors in the hospital helped greatly to alleviate Elder Sister’s grief. It also helped her parents and siblings (except for Yuni who had returned to his job in the US two days after the funeral) to work through their loss of face at the funeral and to reconcile themselves to helping Elder Sister regain her place in her children’s family. Since she was determined to keep her children and fight for her rights as the legal widow, the family rallied around to help her get better. Cousins, aunts, and uncles brought her nourishing foods and herbal medicines to promote bone growth and healing. I was exhorted to work with her on as many extra physical therapy sessions as she could stand every day. The hospital’s physical therapist came every morning, and I watched and learned how to help with the exercises. Then Elder Sister and I would do more sets throughout the day when there were no visitors in the room. The five weeks until Elder Sister’s pelvis healed went by quickly. The orthopedic surgeon took another x-ray and promised us that if the results showed that the fractured bones had healed sufficiently, he would allow Elder Sister to practice standing and walking.

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