Looking back seven years…
I didn’t expect to laugh so much, and I didn’t expect it to be so hard for Helen. And I didn’t expect her to change so many people’s lives.
I married Helen seven years ago today. I had known her five months to the day. There were people who thought I was taking a big risk; I was not one of them, and I was right. The past seven years have not been easy, but they would have been far harder without her, and immeasurably less full of joy.
Back when I announced my intention to marry Helen on the blog I maintained at the time, I tried to describe to my American friends just what kind of person Helen was. I think that’s a good place to start: after seven years of marriage, how much do I agree with my younger self?
- She has a lively and sneaky sense of humor.
I so underestimated this. This isn’t just true; it’s far more true than I could have imagined back then. Especially after the first couple of years, as she slowly found her footing in the midst of the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life, it seems as though whenever I have been around her I have always been more or less constantly laughing. She sees the world so differently from the way I see it, and yet so accurately in her way, that I never know what she will say next that will strike me as both true and hilarious.
I have often told, for example, how after months of nagging the kids and I finally convinced Helen to watch football with us. And when we finally got her to look at the screen and pay attention, she watched intently for about two minutes and then said, with a tone of astonished dismissal, “This is a very rude game.” Now I will wager two things. First, Gentle Reader, I wager you have never heard football described that way ever before in your life (unless you have heard me tell this story). And second, I wager that now that you have heard her describe it that way, you have to admit it’s a pretty accurate description.
Helen is so good-natured that she is a delight to tease, because she takes it all in good fun – and also, because she can give as good as she can get. I hadn’t realized how much of our conversation consisted of this affectionate, tongue-in-cheek give and take until my son Rusty’s girlfriend spent two days in the car with us en route from Houston to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for his boot camp graduation. Poor Christy, we didn’t realize it, but she spent the whole two days in a state of confusion, because she literally couldn’t figure out whether we were really fighting or just playing. But whatever it was, we did it constantly. (He assured her that we are careful never to fight in front of the children and therefore she could relax and enjoy herself.)
You can tell from this that I was pretty much on point for the next two as well:
- She is of an astonishingly even temper and calm disposition.
- She has just enough occasional air-headedness about her to make her empathize with my habitual absent-mindedness, and to be amused by it.
Even after seven years, and occasional episodes of absent-mindedness on a truly epic scale, she responds to what most people would consider provocations with pure grace. (“Oh, you’ve gotten to work and you’ve just realized you forgot to wear a shirt? Ah. Well, don’t drive all the way back home; just go to Wal-Mart and buy one. Love you, see you this evening.” This really happened, and that’s really pretty much how she responded.)
Of course we haven’t gotten through seven years without any fights at all. But really truly furious with each other fights, involving yelling and stomping out of the house and staying away from each other until we could calm down and apologize? I think we have one of those about once a year. Oh, Helen gets mad at me more often than that. (The two times I have accidentally addressed her with my ex-wife’s name? Yeah, that’s a three-day recovery period.) But when she does, she has the immense good sense to simply stop talking to me, rather than say things that hurt. And I have the sense to stay calm myself and offer periodic conversational olive branches. So our marriage has been astonishingly peaceful, in this respect.
But in other respects, peaceful was the last word you could have applied to the life we lived when Helen first got to America. I mentioned earlier “the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life.” Those first four or five years were difficult to a degree I can’t describe without violating other people’s confidentiality (and legal non-disclosure provisions). But I have to talk about them at least in general terms in order to address the next few points my younger self made all those years ago.
- She walks around wearing joy the way other people wear clothing.
- She has a habitually positive attitude and does not indulge in self-pity.
- She has an extremely robust sense of responsibility, and whatever she considers her responsibility to be, she does whatever it takes to fulfill it.
- She keeps her word.
- She has enormous emotional resources and resiliency – her heart may be as soft as warm butter in its compassion and concern for others, but it’s indomitable in its strength and courage.
- She is very, very smart; very, very prudent; very, very hard-working; and very, very practical. I strongly suspect that I will never, ever have to ask her to be more careful or less foolish with money, and if anybody gets lazy and tries to get away without carrying their fair share of the load it’ll probably be me, not her.
That bit about joy? Well, at first, I clobbered that well and truly. I had tried to explain to Helen honestly some of the difficulties she would take on by becoming my wife; but she simply had not been able to imagine how incredibly difficult it was going to be. I still had my divorce lawyer on retainer because my ex-wife’s behavioral episodes required legal attention with monotonous frequency. I was trying to fight my way out of bankruptcy while paying mountainous legal bills and trying to deal with an IRS liability that ultimately took several years and over a hundred thousand dollars to settle; as you can imagine, this meant that it took years of scrimping to get back to even a $0 net worth. When Helen first set foot in my house, I had living with me my oldest adopted daughter (who pretty much spoke only Russian and also suffered from severe epilepsy), her student-visa-holding husband who couldn’t work without risking deportation, their infant child, my second-oldest adopted daughter, a foster daughter in her late teens, and my adopted son who was four years older than Kai, Helen’s seven-year-old. Of these, all but my youngest adopted son spoke Russian, not English, as their primary language; and they were culturally Russian in behavior and diet. So Helen was trying to adjust to American culture but also to the quite different Russian culture at the same time, while dealing with mountainous debt. There were also five other children who under the initial terms of the divorce decree were to live at my wife’s house; it didn’t stay that way but now we start getting into some of the really nasty stuff that I simply can’t share. All of these burdens, which I had carried for years and continued to carry for years after our marriage, became Helen’s. And they became her burdens all at once.
I had friends who expressed astonishment that I had been able to survive those last few years of my catastrophically bad first marriage and insanely nasty divorce. They credited my faith in God, and there is no doubt that without that faith, and without the knowledge of the Biblical principles by which I tried to guide my dealings with my ex-wife and children, I don’t know how I could have survived. But in comparison to Helen I had so many advantages. I at least was more or less used to the stress. For example, I didn’t go from having no children to having nine; I worked up to it gradually, one or two kids at a time, not, “You did okay with one so let’s go straight to ten.” In the same way, all the other stressors in my life, as unbearable as they might have seemed to outsiders looking in, were stressors that I had years of practice in learning to bear.
But Helen’s life in Shanghai had been very well-organized and simple and fully optimized for her happiness. She had been making good choices for a long time and so she had her life set up exactly as she wanted it. She was full of joy, partly because she loved God, but also because her life had few problems – since she had not created a lot of problems for herself by bad choices. Life was pretty much perfect for her until she met me…
…and then she walked into my life. From one child to, effectively, ten. Americans and Russians crammed into the same house, and behaving in ways she found unpleasant and incomprehensible and sometimes outright shocking. An ex-wife to whom I was legally tied, as co-conservators of children, for years to come, and against whose malice I had to constantly defend myself, at great legal expense. A country, or at least a state, in which it was not possible to function without being able to drive a car. Every friend and family member she’d ever known in all her life, seven thousand miles away. A mountain of crushing debt, with years of scrimping ahead just to get to zero and start all over, and then a husband who would have to find a way to put up forty-five years’ worth of retirement savings in only fifteen years, unless he planned to work until he was eighty.
Those first two years here…well, there were a lot of days when you wouldn’t have been able to find much joy in her eyes. Several times she went so far as to ask whether we could stay married, but let her and Kai live in China while I lived with my kids in Houston until the youngest could graduate (even as I write that is still months in the future) and I could join them in China. Sometimes I could go as long as two or three days without seeing her smile or hearing her laugh.
But she never actually left. Her time of testing was severe, and it was long in duration, and even to this day there are still burdens. But she stayed the course, shouldered her part of the burden (without her black-belt Chinese saving skills I’m sure my net worth would still be negative), climbed that long mountainous road right along with me even though not one of the burdens was of her own creation or fault. And even at the worst, I don’t think I ever went for a full week without our laughing together.
And eventually, by God’s grace, the joy started coming back. Meanwhile she grew spiritually at an insane rate. And she began to accomplish things that neither of us could have imagined.
- She has exactly the kind of simple, yet inquisitive, vibrant and deeply pragmatic faith in Christ, and love for God, that my parents have.
- She has the gift my mother has, of finding natural joy in serving and loving other people.
- She couldn’t be selfish or manipulative if you held a gun to her head.
- If there’s a kinder, sweeter, gentler person alive than Helen, then whoever it is I haven’t met ’em.
Helen did learn to drive, but she was terrified of driving on Houston freeways those first couple of years. We even decided that we needed to change churches from our beloved Houston Chinese Church, up near Reliant Stadium fifteen freeway miles away, to Fort Bend Community Church, a Chinese church in our own community that Helen could drive to using ordinary streets.
But Helen had started volunteering to help Chinese cancer patients who had come to America for a last, desperate attempt at survival by seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson. And being Helen, she simply went up there and loved them. It wasn’t just that she helped them and never asked for money; it’s that the love of Christ simply radiated from her and from our friend Ju who was Helen’s partner in service, and these patients knew that they were loved. They couldn’t understand it – how could two strangers love them, with such obvious sincerity and such utter lack of self-interest?
And so, one by one but steadily, they started asking Helen and Ju where that love came from; and then they started becoming Christians. So of course they needed to go to church. And it happens that almost none of them could speak English; so they needed to go to a Mandarin-speaking church. And it also happens that most of them lived within three or four miles of Houston Chinese Church, which may be fifteen freeway miles from our house but is not much more than a few stones’ throws from the Medical Center. But we had switched churches, and the children (especially Rusty) had made friends and gotten involved at the new church and it didn’t seem right to make them switch back; so we really felt like I needed to keep taking the kids to the new church…
So Helen started driving that freeway every Sunday morning, terror or no terror, in order to pick up the cancer patients and take them to church. And before we continue with that story, let’s bring in a couple more things that I said:
- She has a very sweet and pure singing voice, but oddly enough a very rich chuckle with a lot of texture and timbre to it.
- She’s rather absurdly modest.
Now here is where I grossly underestimated her. This woman is the single most talented person I’ve ever met, and all I said about her was that she sings nice.
God has a habit of rewarding faithfulness with unexpected impact. I didn’t foresee that Helen was going to play a major role in helping lead fifty or so (not kidding) Chinese cancer patients to peace with God. I also didn’t foresee that I was going to find myself married to a celebrity.
I knew that Helen had a blog that had quite a few regular followers, and I knew that in the past one series of her blogposts had been selected by the editors of the largest blog site in China to be linked on their home page as an “Editors Choice,” and that she was very diligent about responding personally to people who wrote to her – and, because the blog post dealt with the difficulties of life as a single mother in China, and because she wrote about the trials she faced honestly but with grace and without bitterness, many other single mothers wrote to her in some desperation. But I had no idea how good a writer she really was – because I couldn’t, of course, read Mandarin.
It turns out that she is astonishingly good. I have been told this by others who read Mandarin fluently, and I have gotten to where I can read Mandarin well enough to be able to translate her work with reasonable accuracy, and even in my deeply inadequate translations she writes movingly and powerfully. Literally thousands of people in China have signed up to make sure they automatically get copies every time she posts anything, and one piece that she wrote over the weekend of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was read so widely in China that she got an e-mail from one of the bereaved thanking her for the comfort they had found in her article. As the years went by and she continued to grow deeper and deeper spiritually through her faithfulness in helping me bear my burdens, her articles grew richer and richer and her audience wider and wider. There are several Chinese online magazines now that not only publish her work regularly, but occasionally contact her and ask her whether she can write bespoke pieces on topics they badly want to address but on which they can’t find adequate pieces. She even edited a book with true stories from the cancer patients.
Then one of the cancer patients, as she entered the last few weeks of her life, went blind, and no longer could read Helen’s blog posts. So she asked Helen whether it would be possible for Helen to record herself reading the articles out loud, so that even in her blindness she could have the comfort of listening to the articles over and over, as she had until then been comforting herself by reading them over and over.
And that’s how the podcasts started. For Helen of course did what the patient asked. But, being Helen, she went to the internet to find out what articles were supposed to sound like when they were read aloud. There she discovered that people don’t just read books and articles aloud; they perform them, with sound effects and music tracks designed to heighten the emotional impact.
Of course what that actually means is that somebody who is good at writing, writes stuff that is worth reading. Then somebody who is good at reading reads the stuff, usually with several takes, each of which usually gets some of the reading just right and some of it not. Then somebody who is good with music finds, or composes, music suitable to the reading. Then somebody who is technically good with computer software, and who has an ear for timing, mixes the music and the reading together, including mixing readings from different takes to produce what sounds like a single read-through but is really a painstakingly and seamlessly patched-together set of cuts of the various takes, using the best of each. And lastly an editor looks at the length and, if it’s just too long or in places wanders too far afield or slows the pace too much, figures out which pieces to cut out in order to tighten everything up. I’m quite serious; this is a typical team for a professionally published audiobook or artistic podcast.
Helen listened to all of this and did not think, “Oh, I need to get a team of people together.” She listened to all of it and thought, “Oh, so that’s what I need to get my podcasts to sound like.”
So she did.
It turns out that she has a highly expressive reading voice that is also extraordinarily calming and comforting. It turns out that she has a keen ear for just what kind of music each piece needs, and near-flawless judgment in exactly where within the reading the music should appear, and where it should swell up or die off. It turns out that she has the patience to take two hours of reading takes and transform them into twenty minutes of reading perfection. And all this, with no training whatsoever.
Really, I bought her a high-end microphone, and she found production-mixing software on the internet and downloaded it, and taught herself to use it, and the next thing you know – I kid you not on this – she had done a series of podcasts that was the entire text of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Chinese, single-handedly…and it went to the top ten on the podcast download charts for the People’s Republic of China for religious podcast audio books. Every time she wrote a blog or magazine article she would do a podcast version of it, a process that would take several hours; and then the podcast would go out with the article. By the time the year was out, not only were there more than a thousand people who were downloading every self-written, self-performed, self-produced podcast she published as soon as she published it, but she had been contacted by a lady in Wuhan who wanted Helen’s permission to collect those podcasts and publish them on a CD. Which she did, and people ordered that CD from every province of China, I think. Last year the local Chinese Christian radio station got in touch with Helen and worked out a contract under which they pay Helen every month to produce content specifically for them to air.
To top it off, a few months ago Helen was contacted by the director/producer of a documentary about a couple in China who for years have run a private orphanage for children with extreme special needs – spina bifida, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, paraplegia…just a truly astonishing couple. The director had years of documentary footage available, but needed to be able to tie it all together with explanatory commentary, which she wanted to be told from the perspective of the wife. Tragically, however, Xinwei died of cancer a couple of years ago. But the director had heard Helen’s podcasts…
So last month the documentary came out, and I have rarely sat through a more moving and inspiring two hours. And the narrative sections are in fact told through the voice of Xinwei – as provided by Helen.
But all those people in China weren’t just reading and listening. Helen publishes on the Web, primarily; and when you publish on the Web, you get comments. And when Helen gets comments, she answers them. A Web community started to form around Helen’s posts, and it migrated from there to WeChat, which you can think of as the Chinese version of Facebook, more or less. People began contacting Helen privately, in desperation, because they were struggling with ferociously difficult problems, and they knew Helen had fought through ferociously difficult problems in her past, and they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. For a not insignificant number of people, Helen’s podcasts became a lifeline, the one thing above everything else they hung onto in order to make it through, the one voice of comfort they could find (for China can be a cold, hard world to the lonely, and there are many Christians in China who are the only Christians in their village and who therefore endure a special kind of spiritual loneliness). They would listen to her podcasts until they had them practically memorized. And they would reach out to her to thank her…and often, to ask for help, for advice, for a word that would help them find their way.
I’ll tell you frankly, this scared Helen. It still does. She has researched what it would take to get a degree in Christian counseling simply because she finds herself doing counseling already – because for so many of her listeners there is nobody else to do it. She feels the weight of the responsibility keenly. She comes and asks me for help, sometimes – “What can I say to somebody who is going through this? Could you write something about this that I could translate?” She tries, I think, to communicate as much love and acceptance as possible without giving much advice, because she feels so inadequate to advise but wants so badly for them to know they are loved.
Only, I’ll tell you a true story. At one point Helen mentioned on WeChat that she was struggling with the decision of whether or not to go back to college and get a counseling degree. It turned out that one of the members of her WeChat community is in fact a professional counselor, with at least one and I think more than one doctoral degrees to go with years of experience. And her response to Helen was, if memory serves, “Why do you need a degree? You’re already one of the best counselors I’ve ever seen.”
At any rate, in the meantime she started finding that lots of her listeners were struggling with the same problems. So she began starting special-project WeChat groups dedicated to having a small community of a hundred or so people take on short-term sort of group-therapy projects: “One Hundred Days Without Catching Fire,” for example, which is a Chinese way to say, “We are all going to try to make it a hundred days without losing our temper and yelling and screaming at our spouses and kids.” She has done several of them, and they fill up promptly. And every day, she checks all the comments, and follows the conversation, and if she finds anybody who makes a comment and then doesn’t get any reply, she answers herself, so that she can be sure that nobody in the group feels ignored and left out.
And all this time, she has still kept on ministering to the cancer patients. A couple of months ago, she successfully completed a course and passed the state exam to become an accredited medical translator. She had never studied anatomy, and so she didn’t just have to learn the English medical terminology – she had to learn the Chinese terms, too, from scratch. She spent two weeks immersed in endless notes and diagrams and vocabulary lists while the rest of us fended largely for ourselves at dinnertime…
Then she passed the exam, first try.
I pause here to note that Helen got to read the first section of this post before I wrote this section, and she complained of various “inaccuracies.” One of them was that she objected very strongly to my statement that she was “very, very smart.” This had a big “X” placed next to, along with the annotation, “Just not very stupid.”
She went from knowing pretty much nothing about human anatomy and medical terminology even in her own language, to passing the state medical exam for medical translators. In two weeks. On her first try. I leave it to the Gentle Reader to decide whether I have been guilty of an “inaccuracy.”
Also, I need to assure you: she means it. She really, genuinely, thinks I exaggerate her virtues and abilities, because she really, truly, genuinely is one of the most humble people you’re ever likely to meet. Meanwhile I’m like…look, you passed the test, for cryin’ out loud.
One last note: she recently has taken up drawing with pencil, and from there moved on to painting. A couple of weeks ago she decided to try her hand at acrylic on canvas, applied with a palette knife rather than a brush, which was a technique she had never used before. She found an instructional video on YouTube and started to follow the artist’s instructions to paint a nice little study of bright color on a background that is deliberately muted and dark in order to render the splashes of color even more vivid by contrast. But she was literally painting this during Hurricane Harvey, and she wound up turning what the artist thought of as the background into the lead character, as it were, and she decided not to add the bright colors at all – thereby completely changing the character and mood of the piece into something I think is best described as “elegaic.”
I thought it was awesome. I put a picture of it on Facebook and people thought it was awesome. I took it to work and co-workers thought it was awesome. And it happens that one of my company’s partners has a sister who has made her living for years as a painter in oil and as a commercial artist and instructor; she has sold hundreds of paintings. My partner’s wife sent her a photograph of Helen’s picture and asked whether it was actually good enough to sell, and if so, how Helen ought to go about trying to sell it.
The answer came back today – and remember, this is the first time Helen has ever tried to paint with a palette knife instead of a brush. The professional artist said Helen should frame it (which – I’ve checked already – would cost about $110), and that it absolutely was good enough to sell, and that if Helen wanted to start selling paintings, she (the professional artist) was willing to offer consultant services to help her.
Oh, and she even said what she thought Helen should expect to be able to get for that painting, if she were willing to sell the original. That would be $900, plus the cost of the frame.
A thousand dollars.
Here’s another of my “inaccuracies,” according to Helen. Where I said she was “very, very talented,” there was another “X,” and another note: “Just have some hobbies.”
Again, I leave it to the Gentle Reader to decide whether I have been guilty of an “inaccuracy.”
- She is transparent and honest; what you see is what you get.
- She has no talent for dishonesty whatsoever.
- She is very good at business, but is literally incapable of carrying on business in a dishonest or unethical manner.
- She can pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in perfect safety – I’ve never heard even a shade of anger or bitterness in her voice when she talks about the past.
- She has never allowed herself or any member of her family or friends to ever say anything bad about Kevin’s father in front of him, because that’s Kevin’s dad.
- When she smiles at me the world wobbles and my blood catches on fire.
Seven years later – it’s still true.