Cover image for The unwinding of the miracle : a memoir of life, death, and everything that comes after
Title:
The unwinding of the miracle : a memoir of life, death, and everything that comes after
Title:
The unwinding of the miracle : a memoir of life, death, and everything that comes after
Edition:
First edition.
Publisher Info:
New York : Random House, [2019]
Physical Description:
x, 315 pages ; 25 cm
Contents:
Life -- The odds -- Seeing ghosts -- The warfare, and the weapons -- Deals with God -- Faith, a lesson of history -- CEA, pet, MRI -- The secret -- Moments of happiness -- An adventure with the Chinese medicine man -- The surly bonds of earth -- The crossroads of the world -- I am lost -- A nightmare -- The hand of God -- A love story -- Fate and fortune -- Numbers, a reassessment -- Take your victories where you can -- The cancer is in my lungs -- From darkness to strength -- "Keeping it in the stomach" -- A day in my life -- Invincibility -- Dreams reborn -- Solitude -- A game of clue -- The gift of grief -- In which the Yips become Americans -- Living -- Insanity -- Chipper -- Courage and love -- Hate -- Home -- Believe -- Pain -- Death -- Preparing -- Love -- The unwinding of the miracle.
Abstract:
"Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams narrowly escaped euthanasia by her grandmother, only to then flee the political upheaval of the late 1970s with her family. Loaded into a rickety boat with three hundred other refugees, Julie made it to Hong Kong and, ultimately, America, where a surgeon at UCLA gave her partial sight. Against all odds, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer, with a husband, a family, a life. Then, at age thirty-seven, with two little girls at home, Julie was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer, and a different journey began. The Unwinding of the Miracle is the story of a vigorous life refracted through the prism of imminent death. Motherhood, marriage, ambition, love, wanderlust, tennis, grief, jealousy, anger, comfort, pain, disease--there is simply nothing this book is not about. Growing out of a blog Julie has kept through the past four years of her life (undertaken because she couldn't find the guidance she needed through her disease), this is the story of a life lived so well, and cut too short. It is inspiring and instructive, delightful and shattering. It is a book of indelible moments, seared deep. With glorious humor, beautiful and bracing honesty, and the cleansing power of well-deployed anger, Julie Yip-Williams has set the stage for her lasting legacy and one final miracle: the story of her life"-- Provided by publisher.

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Summary

Summary

As a young mother facing a terminal diagnosis, Julie Yip-Williams began to write her story, a story like no other. What began as the chronicle of an imminent and early death became something much more--a powerful exhortation to the living.

"An exquisitely moving portrait of the daily stuff of life."-- The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

That Julie Yip-Williams survived infancy was a miracle. Born blind in Vietnam, she narrowly escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother, only to flee with her family the political upheaval of her country in the late 1970s. Loaded into a rickety boat with three hundred other refugees, Julie made it to Hong Kong and, ultimately, America, where a surgeon at UCLA gave her partial sight. She would go on to become a Harvard-educated lawyer, with a husband, a family, and a life she had once assumed would be impossible. Then, at age thirty-seven, with two little girls at home, Julie was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer, and a different journey began.

The Unwinding of the Miracle is the story of a vigorous life refracted through the prism of imminent death. When she was first diagnosed, Julie Yip-Williams sought clarity and guidance through the experience and, finding none, began to write her way through it--a chronicle that grew beyond her imagining. Motherhood, marriage, the immigrant experience, ambition, love, wanderlust, tennis, fortune-tellers, grief, reincarnation, jealousy, comfort, pain, the marvel of the body in full rebellion--this book is as sprawling and majestic as the life it records. It is inspiring and instructive, delightful and shattering. It is a book of indelible moments, seared deep--an incomparable guide to living vividly by facing hard truths consciously.

With humor, bracing honesty, and the cleansing power of well-deployed anger, Julie Yip-Williams set the stage for her lasting legacy and one final miracle: the story of her life.

Praise for The Unwinding of the Miracle

"Everything worth understanding and holding on to is in this book. . . . A miracle indeed." --Kelly Corrigan, New York Times bestselling author

"A beautifully written, moving, and compassionate chronicle that deserves to be read and absorbed widely." --Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies


Author Notes

Julie Yip-Williams was born Diep Ly Thanh in Tam Ky, South Vietnam on January 6, 1976. Congenital cataracts caused her blindness from birth. In early 1979, Yip-Williams and about 50 members of her family boarded fishing boats from Vietnam for a monthlong journey to Hong Kong with little food or water. After several months in a refugee camp, her immediate family flew to San Francisco in November 1979 and soon afterward to Los Angeles. Yip-Williams underwent surgery at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute that gave her vision for the first time, but she remained legally blind.

She received a bachelor's degree in English and Asian Studies from Williams College in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard Law School. In 2002, she joined the law firm Cleary Gottlieb in New York and specialized in corporate governance and mergers and acquisitions. In 2013, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She wrote a blog about having Stage IV colon cancer. Her blog will be turned into a memoir. She died from metastatic colon cancer on March 19, 2018 at the age of 42.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

When lawyer Yip-Williams was diagnosed with stage-IV colon cancer at the age of 37 in 2013, she decided to write her story, which resulted in this inspiring and remarkable work that chronicles her immigration to the U.S. and her final five years. Born in Vietnam with congenital cataracts, Yip-Williams writes that her grandmother-who deemed her a burden to the family-had found an herbalist she hoped would administer a potion to put the infant to "sleep forever." He refused, and Yip-Williams's ethnic Chinese family later moved to Hong Kong, where a Catholic charity sponsored their relocation to California, where Yip-Williams was raised and underwent corrective eye surgery. She attended Harvard Law School, joined a firm where she met her husband, moved to Brooklyn, and had two children. After her diagnosis, she was determined to make the most of the time left (she died in March 2018), and to leave a written legacy for her daughters. Yip-Williams faced cancer head on, with "brutal honesty," anger, humor, and resolve. Planning her death, she made Costco runs, traveled to the Galapagos Islands, found a child psychologist for her daughters ages six and eight, and even joked about her husband getting a "Slutty Second Wife." Yip-Williams's wise and moving account of her battle with cancer is an extraordinary call to live wholeheartedly. (Jan.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* This is the poignant and compelling memoir of Yip-Williams' battle with and eventual surrender to cancer. Entries written in real time during the five years between the author's diagnosis and death document her deteriorating physical condition, her emotional angst, and her family's anguish. Throughout, she reflects on her life and reveals what an amazing miracle it has been. Born blind in Vietnam, she survived a perilous boat trip as a refugee, came to the U.S., excelled in school, traveled, earned a law degree from Harvard, enjoyed a successful career, got married, and had two daughters all by age 37, when this story begins. Her writing is honest and, by turns, angry, humorous, and heart-breaking, especially when she talks about her two little girls, who are just starting elementary school. Even though readers know the ending the prologue indicates that if they're reading this, she's already gone every bit of new bad news hits like a blow to the gut. Readers' will smile when Yip-Williams facetiously describes the slutty second wife she envisions for her husband and share in her grief as she makes plans for her funeral. Never mawkish, The Unwinding of the Miracle will resonate with readers.--Kathleen McBroom Copyright 2018 Booklist


Library Journal Review

For Yip-Williams, accepting death meant embracing life. Answering her daughter Mia's wish to narrate her story, Yip-­Williams, who died in 2018 at age 42, shares an emotional and powerful work of family and living with a visual disability. Born to an ethnic Chinese family living in poverty in Vietnam, the author also had congenital cataracts and was legally blind. To save her from a life of dependency, her grandma suggested a potion that would allow her granddaughter to sleep-and never wake up. Yip-Williams tells intertwining accounts of fate and luck; her family fleeing Vietnam during a period of ethnic cleansing, making their way to a refugee camp in Hong Kong and ultimately to California, where she would receive sight-giving surgery. Yip-Williams describes her resentment, her feelings of not fitting in because of her thick glasses and later being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in the midst of a successful law career. Yip-­Williams relates her final journey of physical, emotional, and spiritual fatigue, writing letters to daughters Mia and Isabelle and husband Josh along the way. VERDICT Similar to Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air, this page-turner will be hard to keep on the shelves.-Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

1 Death, Part One March 1976, Tam Ky, South Vietnam When I was two months old, my parents, on orders from my paternal grandmother, took me to an herbalist in Da Nang and offered the old man gold bars to give me a concoction that would make me sleep forever. Because I was born blind, to my Chinese grandmother, I was broken. I would be a burden and an embarrassment to the family. Unmarriageable. Besides, my grandmother reasoned, she was showing me mercy--I would be spared a miserable existence. That morning, my mother dressed me in old baby clothes soiled with brownish-yellow stains from my sister's or brother's shit that she had not been able to wash away, even after countless scrubbings. My grandmother had ordered my mother to put me in these clothes and now stood in the doorway to my parents' bedroom, watching my mother dress me. "It would be a waste for her to wear anything else," she said when my mother was finished, as if to confirm the rightness of her instruction. These were the clothes in which I was to die. In desperate times such as those, there was no point in throwing away a perfectly good baby outfit on an infant that was soon to become a corpse. Our family drama played out in the red-hot center of the Cold War. South Vietnam had been "liberated" by the North eleven months earlier, and a geopolitical domino came crashing into the lives of the Yips. By 1972, the war had turned decidedly against the South, and my father was terrified of losing what little possessions he had risking his life for a country for which he, as an ethnic Chinese man, felt little to no nationalistic pride. In his four years of military service, my father never talked to anyone in his family during his brief home leaves about what horrible things he had seen or done. His mother's attempts to spare him the ugliness of war by using bribery to get him a position as a driver for an army captain had not been as successful as they had all hoped. He found himself driving into enemy territory, uncertain where the snipers and land mines lurked, and sleeping in the jungle at night, afraid of the stealthy Vietcong slitting his throat while he slept on the jungle floor, and then jerking into motion by explosions that ripped open the silence of a tenuous calm. In the end, the constant fear of death--or worse yet, of losing a limb, as had happened to some of his friends--overwhelmed whatever notions he had of honor and his fears of being labeled a coward. One day, he walked away from camp on the pretext of retrieving supplies from his jeep and didn't look back. For a week, he walked and hitchhiked his way to Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, where he hid in Cholon, an old district inhabited by at least a million ethnic Chinese. Cholon was a place with such bustling activity and such a large population of those not loyal to the war effort that he could hide while still being able to move freely about the community. My grandmother, to whom my father managed to get word of his whereabouts, trusted no man's ability to remain faithful, including her son's, and suggested to my mother that she join my father in Saigon. And so my mother, with my two-year-old sister, Lyna, in one arm and my infant brother, Mau, in the other, went to Saigon, and there they lived in limbo with my father until the end of the war, waiting until it was safe for him to return to Tam Ky without the fear of being imprisoned or, even worse, forced to continue military service in a rapidly deteriorating situation. It was not the time to have another child. When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, my parents rejoiced with the rest of Saigon, not because they believed in the new Communist regime but because the war was finally coming to an end. As Saigon changed hands, they celebrated by joining the feverish mobs ransacking abandoned stores and warehouses, taking tanks of gas and sacks of rice and whatever else their hands could carry away. They celebrated by welcoming the news of my pending arrival into this world, and after Saigon fell, they finally went home to Tam Ky, where I came into the world on an unremarkable January evening eight months later. I weighed a little more than three kilograms (between six and seven pounds), big by Vietnamese standards, but not so big that my mother and I were at the risk of dying during childbirth. Hospitals were filthy, and cesareans were not an option in those days; no one knew how to perform them, except maybe in Saigon. My father named me [莉菁], which is pronounced "Lijing" in Mandarin Chinese and "Lising" in Hainanese Chinese, and translated literally means "Quintessence of Jasmine." My name was intended to convey a sense of vibrancy, vitality, and beauty. My mother, who had waited so long for a new baby, was thrilled. And so was my grandmother--at first, anyhow. Two months later, wrapped in my brother and sister's old baby clothes, I was in my father's arms, on a bus, making the two-hour trip north to Da Nang on Highway 1, sentenced to death. 2 Life July 14, 2017, Brooklyn, New York Dear Mia and Isabelle, I have solved all the logistical problems resulting from my death that I can think of--I am hiring a very reasonably priced cook for you and Daddy; I have left a list of instructions about who your dentist is and when your school tuition needs to be paid and when to renew the violin rental contract and the identity of the piano tuner. In the coming days, I will make videos about all the ins and outs of the apartment, so that everyone knows where the air filters are and what kind of dog food Chipper eats. But I realized that these things are the low-hanging fruit, the easy-to-solve but relatively unimportant problems of the oh so mundane. I realized that I would have failed you greatly as your mother if I did not try to ease your pain from my loss, if I didn't at least attempt to address what will likely be the greatest question of your young lives. You will forever be the kids whose mother died of cancer, have people looking at you with some combination of sympathy and pity (which you will no doubt resent, even if everyone means well). That fact of your mother dying will weave into the fabric of your lives like a glaring stain on an otherwise pristine tableau. You will ask as you look around at all the other people who still have their parents, Why did my mother have to get sick and die? It isn't fair, you will cry. And you will want so painfully for me to be there to hug you when your friend is mean to you, to look on as your ears are being pierced, to sit in the front row clapping loudly at your music recitals, to be that annoying parent insisting on another photo with the college graduate, to help you get dressed on your wedding day, to take your newborn babe from your arms so you can sleep. And every time you yearn for me, it will hurt all over again and you will wonder why. I don't know if my words could ever ease your pain. But I would be remiss if I did not try. My seventh-grade history teacher, Mrs. Olson, a batty eccentric but a phenomenal teacher, used to rebut our teenage protestations of "That's not fair!" (for example, when she sprang a pop quiz on us or when we played what was called the "Unfair" trivia game) with "Life is not fair. Get used to it!" Somewhere along the way, we grow up thinking that there should be fairness, that people should be treated fairly, that there should be equality of treatment as well as opportunity. That expectation must be derivative of growing up in a rich country where the rule of law is so firmly entrenched. Even at the tender age of five, both of you were screaming about fairness as if it were some fundamental right (as in it wasn't fair that Belle got to go to see a movie when Mia did not). So perhaps those expectations of fairness and equity are also hardwired into the human psyche and our moral compass. I'm not sure. What I do know for sure is that Mrs. Olson was right. Life is not fair. You would be foolish to expect fairness, at least when it comes to matters of life and death, matters outside the scope of the law, matters that cannot be engineered or manipulated by human effort, matters that are distinctly the domain of God or luck or fate or some other unknowable, incomprehensible force. Although I did not grow up motherless, I suffered in a different way and understood at an age younger than yours that life is not fair. I looked at all the other kids who could drive and play tennis and who didn't have to use a magnifying glass to read, and it pained me in a way that maybe you can understand now. People looked at me with pity, too, which I loathed. I was denied opportunities, too; I was always the scorekeeper and never played in the games during PE. My mother didn't think it worthwhile to have me study Chinese after English school, as my siblings did, because she assumed I wouldn't be able to see the characters. (Of course, later on, I would study Chinese throughout college and study abroad and my Chinese would surpass my siblings'.) For a child, there is nothing worse than being different, in that negative, pitiful way. I was sad a lot. I cried in my lonely anger. Like you, I had my own loss, the loss of vision, which involved the loss of so much more. I grieved. I asked why. I hated the unfairness of it all. My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life. But I do know that there is incredible value in pain and suffering. If you allow yourself to experience it, to cry, to feel sorrow and grief, to hurt. Walk through the fire and you will emerge on the other end, whole and stronger. I promise. You will ultimately find truth and beauty and wisdom and peace. You will understand that nothing lasts forever, not pain, or joy. You will understand that joy cannot exist without sadness. Relief cannot exist without pain. Compassion cannot exist without cruelty. Courage cannot exist without fear. Hope cannot exist without despair. Wisdom cannot exist without suffering. Gratitude cannot exist without deprivation. Paradoxes abound in this life. Living is an exercise in navigating within them. I was deprived of sight. And yet, that single unfortunate physical condition changed me for the better. Instead of leaving me wallowing in self-pity, it made me more ambitious. It made me more resourceful. It made me smarter. It taught me to ask for help, to not be ashamed of my physical shortcoming. It forced me to be honest with myself and my limitations, and eventually, to be honest with others. It taught me strength and resilience. You will be deprived of a mother. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you. Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways. Rejoice in life and all its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me. Be grateful in a way that only someone who lost her mother so early can, in your understanding of the precariousness and preciousness of life. This is my challenge to you, my sweet girls, to take an ugly tragedy and transform it into a source of beauty, love, strength, courage, and wisdom. Many may disagree, but I have always believed, always, even when I was a precocious little girl crying alone in my bed, that our purpose in this life is to experience everything we possibly can, to understand as much of the human condition as we can squeeze into one lifetime, however long or short that may be. We are here to feel the complex range of emotions that come with being human. And from those experiences, our souls expand and grow and learn and change, and we understand a little more about what it really means to be human. I call it the evolution of the soul. Know that your mother lived an incredible life that was filled with more than her "fair" share of pain and suffering, first with her blindness and then with cancer. And I allowed that pain and suffering to define me, to change me, but for the better. In the years since my diagnosis, I have known love and compassion that I never knew possible; I have witnessed and experienced for myself the deepest levels of human caring, which humbled me to my core and compelled me to be a better person. I have known a mortal fear that was crushing, and yet I overcame that fear and found courage. The lessons that blindness and then cancer have taught me are too many for me to recount here, but I hope, when you read what follows, you will understand how it is possible to be changed in a positive way by tragedy and you will learn the true value of suffering. The worth of a person's life lies not in the number of years lived; rather it rests on how well that person has absorbed the lessons of that life, how well that person has come to understand and distill the multiple, messy aspects of the human experience. While I would have chosen to stay with you for much longer, had the choice been mine, if you could learn from my death, if you accepted my challenge to be better people because of my death, then that would bring my spirit inordinate joy and peace. You will feel alone and lonely, and yet, understand that you are not alone. It is true that we walk this life alone, because we feel what we feel singularly and each of us makes our own choices. But it is possible to reach out and find those like you, and in so doing you will feel not so lonely. This is another one of life's paradoxes that you will learn to navigate. First and foremost, you have each other to lean on. You are sisters, and that gives you a bond of blood and common experiences that is like no other. Find solace in one another. Always forgive and love one another. Excerpted from The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.