The things that unite us in life and death
My parents and my husband David’s parents met for the first time this August, 16 months after our Zoom wedding (thanks, pandemic). We were curious—and just a little nervous—about their first meeting: They have nothing in common!
My parents are Korean immigrant missionaries who minister to the Chinese people. They watch sermons on YouTube for fun. David’s parents are white, retired business owners in North Dakota who spend winters in Florida. They love golfing, watching baseball, vacationing on cruises, and entertaining. What would they talk about? Will they understand each other? Will they get along?
We needn’t have worried, though our predictions came true: My parents only understood about half of what David’s parents were saying, but they politely nodded along, beaming because they were so thrilled to meet them. David’s parents talked about golf and baseball, and my parents talked about North Korea and China. My mother taught my mother-in-law how to roll kimbap (Korean sushi) on a bamboo mat, and my mother-in-law taught my mother where to get the best detergent (Walmart). Two different worlds collided, spun around in a babble of foreign languages and wild gesticulations and confused laughter, then quietly merged into one family.
Their last night together, after a feast of my mother’s kimchi pancakes, bulgogi, kimbap, and japchae (mixed-vegetable noodles), David and I were washing dishes in the kitchen when we heard someone singing. We peered out, our hands still dripping with sudsy water, and watched our parents sing a classic hymn together: “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!” They had huge smiles on their faces. And so did we.
That’s the bond of marriage, which locks two separate families together into one clan. That’s the power of the Christian faith, which binds together children of God from opposite parts of the world under one heritage that transcends flesh and blood. My heart bloomed so full, it filled my lungs and sprung out of my eyes in joyful tears.
A month later, on Sept. 18, 2021, a truck smashed into my mother-in-law while she was on a walk with my father-in-law, missing him just by a couple of inches. She cracked her head on the windshield and instantly went brain-dead. David received a call from his father that morning. It took him a while to understand his father’s words because he was bawling so hard.
We booked the next available flight from Los Angeles to Bismarck. The doctors pronounced her dead while we were midair. We arrived at David’s childhood house at midnight, where David’s father greeted us with bloodshot eyes. He clung to us, and we to him, and we all wept. Then we sat in silence, frozen in shock and denial, trying to wrestle a grief that’s as wild and untamable as the ocean—deep, dark, mysterious, and terrible. Nobody slept that night. As I listened to my father-in-law and my husband each sobbing in bed, I knew my role as a wife and daughter-in-law would change.
My parents flew to Bismarck with heavy hearts and wet eyes to attend the memorial service and funeral. They stood out immediately, being the only Asian faces in a crowd of Midwesterners. My mother-in-law wasn’t just my husband’s mother anymore—she was family, and so too were her 97-year-old father, her brothers and their wives, her cousins and second cousins. “Thank you for coming,” one brother told my parents, as they hugged goodbye on their last night. My mother reminded him, in surprisingly perfect English, “We’re all one family now.”
Family. Three days before my mother-in-law died, I had argued with David’s brother over politics. Now we were planning meals together to feed the waves of family, relatives, and friends streaming in and out of the house. It all seems so stupid now, the things we allow to irritate and divide us. The morning before my mother-in-law died, she had emailed David, “Just love one another.”
She did not know it then, but that was her last blessing to us: Just love.