Whenever I’ve been fraught with anxiety, particularly since the stupid cancer arrived, my youngest son comes up to me and says firmly: Mom. Sushi, bath and reading.
My boy knows what calms me and reading is one of those things. I made a list of books that soothed me around my cancer treatment time and I’m going to add The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams to this group of illustrious books.
The Unwinding of the Miracle book began as a blog, which of course sparks hope to those of us who write about our own cancers. It saddens me, though, when I realize how many books were published posthumously – like Julie’s book, and Nina Rigg’s The Bright Hour and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. I hope the authors got to see their book in some sort of form – a draft of a cover, or a printed manuscript – before they left this world.
I am still drawn to books about cancer two years after my diagnosis. This might seem weird to non-cancer people. As one relative said to me: why can’t you just put it behind you? I can’t put it behind me. It is part of me now. We all integrate cancer into our identities in some way, even those people who seem to be ‘over it.’ (They aren’t over it. They just don’t talk to you about it). Reading stories about cancer, especially metastatic cancer, helps me shine a light on the Bogeyman.
The Unwinding of a Miracle is both a memoir and a commentary on dying. I read the first few chapters impatiently, hoping the author would get to deeper reflections beyond her chronological story. Don’t get me wrong, her story is fascinating – Julie was born blind in Vietnam, arrived in Hong Kong on a boat as a refugee when she was three years old and eventually settled in California. Hers is the American dream story – she overcame the struggles of her childhood, went to Harvard Law School and practiced as a lawyer in New York City. She got married, had two children and lived an affluent life in Brooklyn. But then at age 37, she got colon cancer.
When I read a book, as in real life, I like to cut through the chit chat to get to what’s important. I’m glad I didn’t give up on The Unwinding of the Miracle, because my perseverance paid off. The first chapters are mostly a re-telling of Julie’s life up until cancer. The rest of the book is a deep dive into what I call what really matters in life.
I’m always searching for commentary on the patient experience in books about cancer, and Julie does share some of that. Her diagnosis occurs in a sketchy hospital far from home, where she’s travelled for a family wedding. She calls the physicians there ‘dubious’ and arranges to get transferred to a ‘more reputable’ hospital. This was a very American reminder of how having good insurance and money gets you better care (in Canada, there’s no transferring around hospitals, no matter how wealthy you are).
She speaks candidly about her forays into alternative medicine, “…I could roll the dice with traditional Chinese medicine, which after all has been around for thousands of years and is a part of my noble Chinese heritage.” Those who mock patients for searching for complementary treatments will gain a greater understanding of why patients stray into alternatives. (It is because we are afraid, we feel ignored by our doctors, we have lost trust in the health care system, we go through bouts of feeling desperate to do anything to live just a little bit longer).
I admire of Julie’s telling of what she terms ‘her darkness’ that hits her two years after diagnosis, as she’s deep into Stage IV cancer. “There is a natural, intuitive fear of darkness, people who are gripped by it are ashamed to speak of it,” she says. But speak of it she does. The book turns here from a chronological tale to one that is thoughtful and reflective. I imagine this mirrored Julie’s own experience having cancer, which can flip flop between denial and to trying to stay on this side of cheery to dark depression and eventual sad acceptance.
Julie shares many jewels in the caves of suffering (as David Gilbert has termed) in her book. These jewels are not necessarily shiny or sparkly but they are hard-fought jewels, hard and dusty.
I find and continue to find delusion, fake optimism, and forced cheer in the face of a devastating diagnosis where death and all the fears that come with it must be avoided at all costs.
If you aren’t afraid to consider death, if you believe that people facing death can offer up jewels in the midst of their suffering, then The Unwinding of the Miracle is for you. It isn’t a light book but it is an important book. Julie Yip-Williams’ legacy is her story, her children and how she lived an unflinching and authentic life, right up until the end.