A Vigorous Life Through the Prism of Impending Death

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“Live while you’re living, friends,” writes Julie Yip-­Williams in her memoir, The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After. It was The New York Times bestseller when she died of stage IV colon cancer at the age of 42. She is the most recent of several debut memoirists who died of cancer in the prime of life, a group that includes Paul Kalanithi and Nina Riggs; all left stunning personal accounts of their experience looking into the mirror of mortality.


Title: The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After

Author: Julie Yip-Williams

Publisher: Random House

Publication Date: February 2019

Price: $27.00, hardcover; 336 pages

Reliving the Unspeakable

Any young life cut short by cancer is tragic, but Ms. Yip-Williams’ story is particularly wrenching in that it was nearly a miracle that she survived early childhood. She was born blind in Vietnam, barely escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother, then survived the sociopolitical drama of the 1970s, as the country convulsed in postwar upheaval.

The tale of her escape from Vietnam on a rickety, dangerously overloaded boat—300 refugees on a vessel designed for 120—to Hong Kong, then the United States, is breathtaking. But the continuation of her saga in America is equally as riveting as her heroic past. Although it is a sprawling narrative of a woman embracing life, it is also an instructive guide to facing the hard truths of cancer.

As is fitting for a memoir chronicling a slow march toward imminent death, the book is organized in years and months, each section divided into multiple stories by subheads, which are themselves titled like lines of a haiku: The Bliss of Making the Journey Alone, The Surly Bonds of Earth, The Gift of Grief, and so on. These titles are more than decoration; they serve as miniature windows into the forthcoming narratives. And they are beautifully done.

Bright and Driven

Before her death in 2018, Ms. Yip-Williams lived life to its fullest. When she arrived in America at the age of 4, she underwent an experimental eye surgery that restored partial vision, along with glasses. She still needed a high-powered magnifying glass to read a restaurant menu.

Bright and driven, she graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. She then took off with just a backpack and traveled the world, a young woman on her own. After her adventures, which read like stories from a glossy travel magazine, a prestigious white-shoe law firm hired her, and she met Josh, her true love. The successful couple had two daughters, Mia and Isabelle. Life is great, and then it happens.

Diagnosis and Grief

It was supposed to be a family celebration in the summer of 2013. The author’s entire family had gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate her cousin’s wedding. For a month or so before the occasion, Ms. Yip-Williams had been having recurrent stomach discomfort—nothing serious, it seemed, she just “wasn’t herself.” When the symptoms of nausea and constipation became more persistent, she saw a gastroenterologist, but still nothing appeared to be alarming.

When the couple arrived in Los Angeles, the vomiting became so severe, it sent her to the ER. A colonoscopy showed a mass in her mid-transverse colon, so large that the colon was almost completely obstructed. The bad news was overheard, making it more chilling. The author writes, “I will never forget the moment I woke up after my hemicolectomy in the recovery room. Josh was being consoled by Tim, the nurse, and my surgeon, Dr. D.C. He was being told that he had to take care of himself in order to take care of me…. Even in my anesthetized state, I knew something had to be really wrong if everybody was fussing over Josh and not me, the person who had just come out of surgery.”

"Ms. Yip-Williams exhorts her readers to jettison complacency and live vividly by facing the hard truths of human existence consciously.”

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Ms. Yip-Williams was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. “Once I grasped that everyone was preoccupied with the numbers, I understood why Josh was so upset. Josh loves numbers…. [He] sobbed that night and early the next morning, as he googled again and again survival rates for stage IV colon cancer….”

The author whipsaws between grief and optimism, telling herself that she’ll defy the odds. After all, look at what she’d already overcome. But optimism in the face of such a grim diagnosis is fleeting. When people ask how she’s doing, Ms. Yip-Williams replies, “‘Oh, fine. Just hanging in there,’ … while wanting to scream: ‘I didn’t deserve this! My children didn’t deserve this!’”

The reader is privy to Ms. Yip-Williams’ description of how she coped with a terminal diagnosis during the 5 years from her diagnosis to her death. These sections—interspersed with humor, candor, rage, tenderness, fear, and eloquence—are not neatly organized, nor should they be. Her road was not a straight line to the grave, and she lets the reader share all of the bumps, ruts, and detours. Her two clinical trial treatment failures will be of special interest to The ASCO Post readers, as will the tender desperation of her oncology team. The emotional strain on them is palpable.

Facing Reality

The closing paragraph of this extraordinary memoir is as compelling as its opening: “When the time comes, I will happily and with a great sigh of relief climb into my bed knowing that I will never need to get up again. I will surround myself with family and friends [and] eagerly greet the end of this miracle, and the beginning of another.”

This memoir adds an important voice to that special subgenre: books by people with cancer who know they will die shortly after the last word is written. Ms. Yip-Williams exhorts her readers to jettison complacency and live vividly by facing the hard truths of human existence consciously.

The Unwinding of the Miracle is highly recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■