“They say that youth is wasted on the young. Now, as I approach my final days, I realize that health is wasted on the healthy, and life is wasted on the living. I never understood that until now, as I prepare in earnest to leave this life.”
Of all the powerful statements in Julie Yip William’s moving memoir, the above quote summarized best how she realized wisdom often comes with finality. In many parts of her memoir, she urged her readers “to live while we live.” We tend to take many things for granted, based on an unconscious list of priorities, and often complain about the “mundane” tasks we have to do daily, like a trip to Costco, the work we do in our office, the shuffling of our children to activities etc. until we suddenly realize we no longer have the privilege of that “ordinary” life. Yip-William, in prepare for her death from metastatic colon cancer, stepped back as a story teller, an observer of her turbulent childhood and incredible adult life she led, up to the moment she learned of her fate of dying young. To experience all the things she achieved in the forty two years she had lived, many of us would have taken a few lifetimes.
Julie Yip-William was born “blind” as a Chinese Vietnamese in the mid 1970s when South Vietnam fell into communism. She had congenital cataracts like her older sister, but unfortunately did not receive eye treatment, as the country was in turmoil and many physicians had fled to avoid living under the communist regime. Considering her an enormous burden to the family, her paternal grandmother ordered her parents to take her to a medicine man to be put to sleep. Yip-William escaped this early death because the medicine man refused this task. The secret of her childhood was retold by her mother when Yip-William was a college student.
A few years after she was born, her family escaped to America and settled in California, where Yip-William received eye surgery at UCLA. With her eyesight now being 20/200, she nevertheless was considered legally blind. Due to her poor eyesight, she had a tough childhood when she was denied many childhood activities given to her three siblings. Being highly motivated and intelligent, however, Yip-William managed to excel in school, went to Williams College on a full scholarship, and graduated from Harvard Law School. She then worked for a prestigious firm in NYC.
To prove her self worth, contrary to the notion given by her parents including the admonition that nobody would marry a blind woman, Yip-William travelled alone extensively, from China to Peru, from New Zealand to Antartica. These lone trips helped shape her world view and recognize her strength and self worth.
Against all expectations, Yip-William met and fell in love with her husband, a white handsome man who had grown up in the South. As she movingly described their union as husband and wife, their relationship, like everything else in her life, was an almost impossible dream. They had two daughters and then, a few years after their second daughter was born, Yip-William was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
A big part of the memoir focuses on Yip-Willam’s ferocious battle against colon cancer, all the dramatic ups and downs of her treatment which affected her daily life as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and co-worker. When fighting a bad cancer, Yip-William reminds us, there are potential collateral damages along the way, including a good marriage and many other important relationships. Her readers will be hopeful for her in some parts of the book and, in others, in awe of her mental and physical strength. Readers will then see how, in the following chapters, her body betrays her again, as the cancer, like Yip-William, seems determined to stay alive itself. She reminds us how, at a certain junction in our life, our body becomes our enemy. She fights to keep some parts of her body alive, as the invasion of the tumors continues to rob her liveliness.
In her illness, Yip-William was forced to see many truths about life, love, courage. She continued to face her imminent death with grace and wisdom, sharing so many pearls about living, as she prepared to part this world that she loved so much. She tried to see death as her last big adventure, one that nobody can avoid. She tried to leave her trace in this world, so that she would not be forgotten. She showed her devotion to her family, as she planned in detail to help her husband raise their two young daughters, from making lists of what he needed to do for their children’s music lessons, to hiring someone to cook for them after she died, to supervising the project of renovating their New York City apartment so her family, especially her daughters, would have a comfortable life. She thought of everything, as if she would still be there managing their lives in her invisibility. The second chapter in the book was a letter to her two young daughters, in which she taught them all the important things she knew about life, including the incredible importance of pain and suffering, that “Walk through the fire and you will emerge on the other end, whole and stronger.” She believed a full life is when we experience “everything we can, to understand as much of the human condition as we can squeeze into one lifetime, however long or short that may be.”
In illness, Yip-Williams recognized love and compassion, courage and grace. She was in awe of some friends she found along the way during her treatment, who died before her, who lived as full a life as they could when facing death. She did not act as if she was welcoming her death with open arms. She cried and grieved for the long life she was yearning for, like all other mortals, but with her keen sensitivity and intelligence, she knew the big part of her time left was not to be for grieving for a life that could have been, but to prepare for a death with peace, wisdom, and almost in an organized manner, as death should be recognized as a part of life itself.
Facing death also made Yip-William reflect on religions and the meaning of God. With all the misfortunes she faced throughout her life, she realized she had to navigate her own course to find joy, instead of trying to explain her misfortunes in terms of God, fate, or some incomprehensible force. She took what was given to her and tried her best to ensure a better outcome. Her fighting spirit and endurance was remarkable.
In her last chapter, Yip-William reminded us of our own miraculous lives and how, like her, our miracle will unwind at some points. She reminds us that we still have control of how we view the unwinding of our miracle. She was facing it with all honesty and truth, for doing so, she understood she would live a fuller life. She recounted her experience in traveling to Antartica, where she recognized the “miniature” of her existence. She reminded us through this experience that “We live every day not in the shadow of greatness and grandeur but within the confines of our small but seemingly enormous lives.” At some point, something drastic will happen to remind us how small and insignificant our life might be, but, in Yip-William’s words, “in that powerlessness comes truth, and in truth comes a life lived consciously.”
“The Unwinding of the Miracle” does not tell us what we do not already know. It’s a reminder for us to live consciously and fully, that love and relationships are what bind us to this earth, that death doesn’t have to be viewed as darkness or with fear, but something to accept as a natural (if untimely) part of life. Yip-William’s stunning memoir reminds us to accept what we often fear, like sadness, despair, cruelty, suffering. All these dark forces help us see the beauties of joy, hope, compassion, and wisdom. She wrote it beautifully, with wisdom, humor and frankness. The last chapter of the book was written by her husband. It was heartbreaking to read his observations relating to her death, but shows us how the living grieve for their loved ones, how their loved ones’ illnesses can break them as much as the sick. Life will go on, as Yip-William wished for her husband, but no life or no time is wasted. The dead will always have a place in the hearts of their loved ones. They did not die; as long as memories of them remain, they simply become invisible.
“We control how good we are to people. We control how honest we are with ourselves and others. We control the effort we put into living. We control how we respond to impossible news. And when the time comes, we control the terms of our surrender.”