Book excerpt by Julie Yip-Williams ’97; Illustration by Nomoco
“This story begins at the ending. Which means that if you are here, then I am not. But it’s OK. … Dying has taught me a great deal about living—about facing hard truths consciously, about embracing the suffering as well as the joy. Wrapping my arms around the hard parts was perhaps the great liberating experience of my life.”
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 11 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 2-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 [ ], 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.
“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.”
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 5, 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.
From the book The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams ’97. Copyright © 2019 by The Williams Literary Trust. Published by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
About the author
Born poor and blind in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, Julie Yip-Williams ’97 was sentenced to death by her grandmother, who deemed the infant a burden and embarrassment. An herbalist refused to carry out the grandmother’s orders, and Yip-Williams’ life was spared. Political turmoil mounted in Vietnam, and the family fled on a rickety boat with 300 other refugees. They made their way to Hong Kong and, later, the U.S., where a surgeon partially restored Yip-Williams’ vision. Despite being legally blind, she thrived, attending Williams, where she majored in Asian studies and history, and Harvard Law School. She joined an international law firm based in New York and, with her husband, Josh, and two daughters, Mia and Isabelle, made a life that, she wrote, “came to so much more than I ever thought possible.”
At the age of 37, Yip-Williams was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer. And so began a different journey, one punctuated by surgeries, scans, rounds of chemotherapy, alternative therapies and trials in hopes of beating the odds—or at least buying more time. Unable to find clarity and guidance, she wrote her way through her experience in a blog titled, simply, “My Cancer Fighting Journey.” Random House learned of her story and offered her a book deal, turning the online chronicle into the memoir The Unwinding of the Miracle, published in February 2019, 11 months after Yip-Williams’ death at the age of 42.