The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes Afterby Julie Yip-Williams Published 08 Jan 2019
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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.
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.
"The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After" Reviews
In the vein of Until I Say Goodbye: A Book about Living, When Breath Becomes Air, and The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, The Unwinding of the Miracle is an incredibly personal memoir about death and dying but that is ultimately, triumphantly, about life and living.
This isn't one of those books targeted at cancer patients, cancer survivors, and their families. This is a book with a powerful message for everyone: life can be terribly unfair sometimes, and it's devastating. You're allowed to mourn. You're allowed to feel sorry for yourself. But don't let it take over your life: life is for living, and there is so much living left to do.
I have lived even as I am dying, and therein lies a certain beauty and wonder. As it turned out, I have spent these years unwinding the miracle that has been my life, but on my terms.
Julie Yip-Williams was in her mid thirties when she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The diagnosis came out of nowhere: Julie was healthy and in the best shape of her life. What started out as a stomach ache or bout with flu abruptly resulted in a life-changing declaration: you have cancer. Julie is devastated, not only that she might die at a tragically young age, but at the thought that she might leave her two young daughters to grow into womanhood without a mother and leave her husband without a wife and partner.
But Julie is resilient: remembering her earliest years, she muses that she should never have survived childhood. Born with cataracts in Communist Vietnam, Julie’s grandmother urged Julie’s parents to take baby Julie to a herbalist to obtain something to make the baby go to sleep and never wake up. It was better to be dead than to live with blindness. Grandmother feared that should Julie live, she would become a shameful burden to her family. Miraculously, Julie lived, and not long thereafter immigrated to American with her family, where she eventually received medical attention, but far too late, and as a result is legally blind.
Julie’s life story is incredible. If nothing else, this book is worth reading just for her autobiography! Being born with blindness of course caused Julie to feel anger at times, but she ultimately prevailed. The rage at the unfairness of it all drove Julie toward success: she traveled the world, graduated from Harvard Law School, practiced law at a firm in New York City, married the love of her life, and raised two beautiful daughters.
The cancer diagnosis changed everything for Julie. She asks her readers: how is it possible to survive almost being killed by her family as a baby, only to be diagnosed with cancer thirty years later? She confronts her anger and depression and is able to embrace a positive attitude, but remains skeptical of “hope,” and the crushing sadness never truly leaves. This book is raw and personal; it is literally Julie’s diary entries and blog posts. As a writer, she is absolutely honest – not overly cheery or optimistic, Julie has a positive outlook some days, but is overwhelmed by depression on other days. She takes us to the doctor, to chemo, and to her daughters’ school events. It’s jarring to read the sections recounting her medical experience with the passages chronicling the mundane details of daily life. The juxtaposition of these passages is shocking.
I’ve read quite a few books about being diagnosed with and living with cancer, but The Unwinding of the Miracle is undoubtedly one of the best I have read (if you enjoy this book, I recommend reading Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer next). Julie’s honestly is heartbreaking. It undid me: at times her writing is so raw and personal that it felt like an invasion of privacy to read. She captures the wide range of sometimes contradictory emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis, and the challenges of retaining an identity as a mother and wife after receiving the new identity of a cancer patient. I tore through this book in only a few sittings, and by the end I was sobbing. This is the kind of book that can change your life. I really mean that. This is so much more than a book about cancer. It’s a book about love, family, motherhood, hope, and living with joy.
And for any who might be reading this: I am grateful to have had you here, on this journey. I would presume to encourage you to to relish your time, to not be disabled by trials or numbed by routine, to say yes as much as you can, and to mock the probabilities. Luxuriate in your sons and daughters, husbands and wives. And live, friends. Just live. Travel. Get some stamps in those passports.
My only criticism (and I’m not even deducting a star; this book is THAT good) is that a little more editing is needed. Some of Julie’s stories were told over and over again (especially the stories from her early childhood), and the book could do without all that repetition. There was also an entire chapter about Roger Federer that seemed completely out of place and should probably be taken out of the book entirely. These problems are completely fixable, and I hope the manuscript is edited down a bit before being published later this year. After all, I did only read a review copy. I realize that this book is the product of Julie’s diary entries, which are intensely personal. Julie was writing for herself, and I can imagine the comfort she would feel writing about her childhood, her parents, and her daughters. These passages are invaluable, but they can weigh the reader down.
Julie died in April 2018, about a year before the book will be published. She was 42. Obviously, I never met Julie, but her words have touched me and brought me great comfort, and I wish I could tell her husband and her daughters how much her words meant to me.
Julie’s husband says it best in the Epilogue:
But that – cancer kills – is hardly a revelation. The revelation would come in how Julie responded to her fate. For the little girl born blind, she saw more clearly than any of us. In facing the hard truth of her inevitability, and never averting her gaze or seeking refuge in fantasy, she turned her life into a lesson for us all in how to live fully, vividly, honestly.
In our life together I learned so many lessons from her, but none more so than this: it is in the acceptance of truth that real wisdom and peace come. It is in the acceptance of truth that real living begins. Conversely, avoidance of truth is the denial of life.
Come to my blog!
Julie Yip-Williams was just thirty seven years old when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Married, with two young daughters and with a career in law, she spent five years coming to terms and knowing that eventually her illness would lead to her death. Yes, its the circle of life that we all revolve around, but no one expects or wants to die that young! Julie's parents lived in Communist Vietnam. When Julie was born, she had cataracts and her grandmother begged Julie's parents to take her to a herbalist, to get a tonic that would male Julie die. Her grandmother believed that Julie's survival would only be a burden to the family. The family escape to America where Julie receives the medical treatment for her eyes. She was declared legally blind due to her poor vision. But being blind did not hold Julie back. This is an open and honest memoir that will resonate with many readers.
I would like to thank NetGalley, Random House UK, Transworld Publishers and the author Julie Yip-Williams for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Julie Yip-Williams was only 37 when she was diagnosed with the colon cancer that would eventually kill her. Married, with a burgeoning law career and two young daughters, Yip-Williams spent the next five years coming to terms with what death means. Her goal was to embrace the inevitable. She knew her disease would kill her, sooner rather than later. She was heartsick at the thought of leaving her two young daughters motherless. At the same time, death is the ending that we all must face, and Yip-Williams wanted to stare death down with bravery and respect.
"To the degree that my book speaks truth about not just the cancer experience but the human experience in general, I want people to be able to find themselves in the writing. And in doing so, I want them to realize that they have never been alone in their suffering . . . I want them to find within the rich, twisted, and convoluted details of my life truth and wisdom that will bolster and comfort them through their joys and sorrow, laughter and tears."
I definitely saw myself in Julie. 35, with two young daughters as well, my biggest fear has always been to die when they still need me. I could relate to Julie's belief that no one can love them or parent them in the way that I do. It's a tragic scenario. In that, I was inspired by the way Julie handled death. She saw it coming for her, and she surrendered on her own terms, in the best way she could. She was thoughtful of every aspect of her death, and thoughtful of those she loved most. She was honest about the good things that arose from her diagnosis, but didn't shy away from the many, overwhelming negative aspects of her cancer.
I rarely keep books I've already read, and in this instance my copy is an ebook, but this is one of those books that demands a spot on your shelf. I plan on purchasing a copy for myself. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for allowing me the opportunity to read and review this book.
Julie Yip-Williams has a very interesting story to tell in the 37 years before her colon cancer diagnosis in 2013 but this story is rarely mentioned as the book concentrates on the tests, treatments, clinical trials, pain and side effects she’s endured from diagnosis to her death in 2018. She lists all the different cancer drugs she’s had or considered with a lot of detail about the results of ongoing blood tests, MRI, PET, CAT scans, CEA levels, etc.
I feel very bad about giving such a review about someone’s memoir who has died but I did struggle with many things she had to say but mostly her many references to ‘Slutty Second Wife’ such as
“I understand that if I die, Josh will need companionship and my girls will need a mother figure, and I’m okay with that. But I will state here for the record and to get this off my chest, any woman who encroaches on our relationship while I am still living will have to answer to me. And to her and the Slutty Second Wife (if she is not the same person), I promise you this – if you screw with Josh and my children, either while I’m alive or after I’m gone, if you find a way to get around my ironclad estate planning and take assets from my children in your grubby little hands, if you otherwise harm any of them, I will haunt you from the afterlife and I will hurt you.”
Yes, I can understand her complete frustration, anger, bitterness and a myriad of other emotions I cannot conceive as I am not in Julie’s situation, but I cannot ever condone writing these words down and then publishing them for the world to see. I have two close friends who have lost wives to cancer and who have remarried. Both men have dealt with this with completely sensitivity to their late and current wives and have been marvellous and inspirational in how they have brought the second wives into the family and friends group while loving and honouring the original family unit at the same time. This is a very difficult path to tread for everyone involved and bereaved men and women need the love and support of all around and not huge guilt trips laid on them when they find love again. Being a step-mother or step-child is already a minefield without your birth mother making it a war-zone while still alive. I try and get past my frustration at Julie writing this by hoping that she is joking but she refers to it several times and even use her Slutty Second Wife phrase in an email to a music teacher asking her to be proactive in her daughter’s music future when she dies.
For me the main interest in this memoir was the author’s life before the 2013 diagnosis. She was born in 1976 to a Chinese family living in Vietnam. A few weeks after her birth her family realised that she was blind. Her paternal grand-mother insisted on Julie’s parents taking her to a herbalist some distance away to be given a potion to kill her. The grandmother’s reasoning being that Julie wouldn’t be able to walk around the house without bumping into things. When her periods started “She’ll bleed all over the place, dripping like a wild bitch” and she’d end up on the streets like armless and legless people. Fortunately the herbalist refused to have any part in the dirty deed asked of him. While I wanted to know more about Julie’s early life this whole section was implausible as she described the bus journey to the herbalist in great detail including what the other passengers were doing, what passersby were doing, the crops in the fields, the weather. I very much doubt her mother could relate all this thirty or so years later when Julie was told of ‘the secret’.
Around age four, Julie and her immediate family escaped on a boat to Hong Kong and then onto USA. In L.A. an ophthalmic surgeon was found who restored some sight to Julie although she was still legally blind. All of this is very quickly glossed over and I didn’t have a sense of how much she could or couldn’t see throughout the book. She went to University and then to Harvard Law School but that is only mention in passing.
There is a lot of clichéd writing and no sense of timescales in the book. Since finishing it I have learned that it was actually a series of blog posts which explains the disjointed writing. It’s crying out for a ghost writer to heavily edit it and instil some sense of chronological understanding in the book.
The clichéd writing is very irritating. Julie makes so many assumptions about those around her “happily ensconced are they in the unblemished perfection of their own lives”. She makes comments likes this time and time again seemingly oblivious to the fact that no matter how much good health, wealth or success a person has no one has an unblemished life. Yes, most do not have to endure the challenges and traumas that she has but no one’s life is perfect.
She describes times of rages when her husband feared for his own and the children’s safety. Her husband, in an honest epilogue, notes that they came close to divorce on occasion. She talks of her 5 year old daughter loving to watch documentaries about wild animals killing each other. And how that same daughter loves watching endless TV shows with her father about airplane crashes as the father is obsessed with these sort of programs. I truly fear for the mental health of those innocent children who were only 6 and 8 when their mother died after almost 5 years of illness. I just hope that her husband and two young daughters are as resilient as Julie thinks they are and they have a lot of love and excellent care surrounding them to get over the traumas they have faced these past 4/5 years. And indeed, future traumas inflicted by the permanence of the writing in this book on their lives. What mother states for the world to see that the moment she married her husband or held her new born children was not one of the happiest moments of her life. Best unsaid if that is truly what you think.
With thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Transworld Publishers for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Julie was a friend of a friend; I never met her.
This is dark and intense. I had to read it in little chunks, so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. I especially liked her attacks on what she called the “hope industrial complex.” I so admire her honesty, even when it gets dark and brutal. She must have been really amazing.
I loved this beautiful and compelling memoir of living with and dying from colon cancer. Julie Yip-Williams packed a lot of living into her too-short life. She didn't mince words when writing about the awful stuff of cancer but she also wrote with eyes wide open about life, relationships, and deep, abiding love.