Not long after I arrived in the hospital, the surgeon who had sewed up Elder Sister’s internal injuries decided that she was ready for solid food. The hospital had a kitchen on the floor for all the family members staying with patients. Ma and the other sisters brought me rice, and Pa gave me money for veggies and meat. I had a small pot, a spoon, a hot pad, a knife, and a cutting board for all my cooking, and I stashed them on a shelf in our clothes cupboard. Every morning when the nurses began their rounds to give medicine, I would go make a pot of rice gruel with meat and vegetables for Elder Sister’s breakfast. We would eat while we waited for the doctors to make their rounds. The two surgeons usually came at 9 and 9:30 with one leaving as the other was arriving.
Eldest Brother-in-law’s funeral took place on my fourth or fifth day in Taiwan. Yuni, Pa, Ma, and our children all attended the funeral. They stopped by the hospital on their way back to Chungli, and all the adults were furious. Yuni and Ma were so upset they were incoherent, and Pa did not want to speak at all. It took us awhile to pry the facts out of them.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Eldest Brother-in-law had a mistress in another town, and this mistress had given birth to a girl a year or so after the birth of Elder Sister’s son, who is five days older than Peace. Eldest Brother-in-law had given his mistress most of his cash, and he had paid for her house in full. He had mortgaged Eldest Sister’s house to the hilt and used the money for a business deal. His car was mortgaged, as were all the work sites where he was building apartment complexes. And he had signed the documents as personal guarantor for all the company’s mortgages. Then his business partner had absconded to the Philippines with all the cash, which was one reason Eldest Brother-in-law had been fishing recklessly, triggering the landslide that had killed him, his brother, and his cousins. Eldest Sister was left a widow with five children and debts that were three hundred times greater than assets under her name.
It was a dire situation, but her mother-in-law was only interested in blaming her for jinxing her husband’s family and in wishing her dead. Eldest Sister had been baptized a Christian five years previously when we both were pregnant with our youngest children. After that, she had not gone to the Land God’s temple or the Money God’s temple with offerings for the success of her husband’s business or for his personal safety. Therefore, Eldest Sister’s mother-in-law placed all the blame for those four deaths on her. During the funeral, the mother-in-law essentially disowned Elder Sister—the legal and first wife—and allowed the mistress to walk behind the coffin carrying her daughter. This placed the mistress with her illegitimate child ahead of the legitimate son, the legal wife, and the legitimate daughters. It was also a huge insult to the Liu family, who had turned out in force to pay their respects and to help with the mourning rituals.
Then to make matters worse, Eldest Brother-in-law’s surviving brothers had approached Pa and Yuni to try to take custody of the five children away from Eldest Sister. Moreover, they said that their mother wanted whatever insurance money Elder Sister would receive to support the grandchildren. The mother-in-law had also demanded the car and the house until she found out they were mortgaged to the hilt. Because it was the day of the funeral, Pa and Yuni had restrained themselves in these discussions. They had said that Elder Sister was conscious and recovering well and that she was not planning on abandoning her children. They told the surviving brothers to bring their mother to the hospital to discuss things with Elder Sister herself. They said that they supported whatever decision Elder Sister would make in this matter.
Because Pa and Yuni were so distraught about the loss of face to the family at the funeral, Elder Sister said that she needed to rest and that she would consider what she should do. She was not fully aware of the financial situation, and so after the family left, she had me call Eldest Brother-in-law’s business associates. They arrived within a few hours and informed her that when everyone thought she would die, too, the company had transferred all corporate debts onto her husband because they thought that no bank would go after a five-year-old boy, and her four daughters could refuse their inheritance. They encouraged Eldest Sister to refuse to inherit, too, but she did not want to leave her only son with a mess. Unfortunately, it was too late for the company to take back the changes to the books, as they had been impounded in the government’s investigation of the estate.
Next Eldest Sister had me call one of my friends in Taipei who is a lawyer. Wenzhu came down that weekend and talked to us. She laid things out very clearly to Eldest Sister, so that she knew her rights and responsibilities under the law. The biggest thing was the insurance money. Hsiu-chen and Hsiu-ling had become insurance salespeople when the economy in Taiwan began declining as factory jobs moved to mainland China. Eldest Sister helped them in their new career by buying policies for herself and her husband from each of her younger sisters. Eldest Brother-in-law did not know about the policies, and Eldest Sister had paid the premiums out of money she had earned in her own businesses. Wenzhu said that the insurance money was hers and that it could not be taken by the bankruptcy court or her mother-in-law since Eldest Sister was listed as the sole beneficiary on the policies. She also said that if Eldest Sister did not sign to give her children to their uncles, since she was coherent and competent, the children could not be taken from her. She would need income for the long-term, though.
Next we contacted the leaders of Eldest Sister’s church. Some of them had contacts in the US and in Hong Kong, and they worked with church leaders to find sponsors to support her family. Two congregations in the US and one in Hong Kong agreed to provide support to Elder Sister and her children until her youngest had finished college. Wenzhu’s only concern had been that Eldest Brother-in-law’s siblings could tell a court that Eldest Sister was unable to support five minor children. The foreign churches provided letters of commitment, and one of the church leaders from Taipei knew of a Taiwanese organization that could ratify the agreements as charity, so they would be exempt from bankruptcy court proceedings.
Eldest Sister’s mother-in-law had fainted on the day of the funerals and had spent more than a week recuperating from her grief. By the time she and her remaining two sons arrived at the hospital to visit us, we had everything clearly in order. Elder Sister politely informed them that she had contacted a Taipei lawyer and the notary handling her deceased husband’s estate. She told her mother-in-law that she was left with debts totally three hundred times the amount of her assets, that the insurance monies would only cover paying the workers’ back salaries from when the business partner had absconded, and that she and her children would be depending on church charity until her youngest child had completed his college education. She said that she would be giving up all the business properties in bankruptcy, but she would be able to keep the house for several years while the bankruptcy case went through the system, as the national tax office was looking into the disappearance of the money. The mother-in-law was mostly interested in the money. When she learned that keeping the five children would bring no additional funds, she quickly agreed to leaving them with Elder Sister. She kept quizzing Elder Sister on this asset and that asset, to which the inevitable answer was “mortgaged to the hilt.” As Eldest Sister’s in-laws were walking out the door after a long and exhausting visit, Eldest Sister called out, “He gave all his cash to his mistress; he only left me with his debts. That’s what legal wives are for.”
The mother-in-law and the elder of the two surviving brothers did not come back to visit or inquire after Elder Sister again. After another few weeks had gone by, the younger surviving brother brought Elder Sister’s children to see her. When he found me still there ensconced on my cot in a corner, reading Jin Yong’s kung-fu novels, he was embarrassed that Elder Sister’s natal family had brought back the Americans to spend more than a month in the hospital. He and his wife came with hot fresh meals several times a week for the last few weeks that Elder Sister was in the hospital. He apologized for his mother and brother’s attitudes, saying that the sudden death of so many family members had shocked them to the point of derangement. Elder Sister was gracious and promised to bring the children up to the family farm every holiday to spend time with their grandparents, after she was released from the hospital.