When I divorced my husband, my biggest concern wasn’t how to divide our assets or moving to a new place. It was whether my mother-in-law would still be in my life.
I first met my future mother-in-law when she was a parent volunteer for my high school youth orchestra. On concert days, she wore all black like the performers, removing layers of sweaters to give to students so that no student would be prevented from performing due to a dress code violation. She’d often slip me an extra cookie after rehearsal. “You were special to me even then,” she wrote in a handmade card over a decade later.
During the years I dated her son, I would crowd into the car with him and the rest of their family and head to our city’s Chinatown. Wearing a sweater she knit herself, my mother-in-law would order off the dim sum menu in her native Chinese. She’d place a hand on my shoulder and proudly introduce me as her daughter to the waiters, almost all of whom greeted her by name.
My mother-in-law’s love language is food. After I got married, we’d spend time together over bowls of pho or the lunch special at a local hot pot place. The two of us would commiserate about our careers as teachers while my husband was at work. I could always count on her to listen without judgment. She’d nod her head and react with empathy when I talked about a mistake I’d made or an argument I’d had, even if I was talking about her son. I listened when she shared her frustrations about her own relationships or her concern about a coworker. We shared a career path, a love for my husband and an appreciation for a good sushi buffet.
We shared a career path, a love for my husband and an appreciation for a good sushi buffet.
Two years into my marriage, I suddenly became severely ill with an autoimmune disease. When my husband grew sullen and depressed over my illness, my mother in-law moved in to care for me. Our kitchen filled with barbecue pork, chicken over rice and my favorite homemade sushi. She slipped bits of chicken to her “granddogs,” then knitted tuxedos for them to wear. She spent most afternoons sitting at my bedside sharing news from the world outside my house. When I finally recovered enough to walk to the living room couch on my own, she brought me coffee in my favorite mug to celebrate.
I eventually recovered from my illness, but my husband never did. After my mother-in-law moved out, my husband grew more distant. Instead of watching movies on the couch with me, he disappeared into his home office after work. He’d erupt in anger over a simple question about his day. I learned to tiptoe to the back of the house or spend the evening at a nearby Starbucks when the garage door signaled his return from work.
One day when my mother-in-law was visiting, my husband’s phone vibrated on the couch beside me while he was in a different room. We’d never kept passcodes on our phone and often used each other’s phone. I picked it up to see if the text was from a mutual friend.
I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again, the text read. A much younger woman’s name popped up on the screen.
Dread pooled in my stomach. “He’s cheating on me,” I told my mother-in-law.
Her eyes widened in alarm. Then she reached for my hand with the same empathy she always had for me.
It took over a year of my husband’s lies, failed marriage counseling and tearful conversations before I knew I needed to leave. Still, I stalled. With her downcast eyes and sad expression, my mother-in-law was also grieving the end of my marriage to her son. Sometimes, she tried to convince me to stay. I wondered if she would still want to spend time with me after the divorce. I could live without my ex, but I wasn’t sure I could live without the woman who had become such a close friend over the years. I would grieve her bright smile and the way she lit up every room she entered at least as much as I grieved my marriage.
I could live without my ex, but I wasn’t sure I could live without the woman who had become such a close friend over the years.
On the first Valentine’s Day after my divorce, alone with a few boxes of books I had yet to unpack, I heard a knock on the door of my new apartment. My dogs wagged their whole bodies when I opened the door and saw my ex-mother-in-law. “For my daughter,” she said, handing me a Tupperware container of homemade sushi and squeezing my hand.
Many Valentine’s Days later, I’ve forgotten the heart-shaped boxes of candy and the Hallmark cards my ex-husband once gave me. True love is homemade sushi rolled with a twinge of sadness. It’s choosing friendship and connection even while nursing a broken heart.