The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams: A pragmatic approach to dying

Review: Yip-Williams is determined not to be pitied because of her cancer

Sat, Feb 16, 2019, 06:00


Book Title:
The Unwinding of the Miracle


Julie Yip Williams

Bantam Press

Guideline Price:

In The Unwinding of the Miracle, Julie Yip-Williams faces terminal cancer with a determination not to let it define her life.

“This story begins at the ending. Which means that if you are here, then I am not. But it’s ok.” Memoirs and autobiographies focusing on the premature death of their writer are often dominated by the weight of the inevitable, the awareness that with each page we are moving closer to what we knew was coming all along. Yip-Williams is determined not to be pitied because of cancer. Instead she takes control of her time left and presents her life in exquisite detail, relishing the obstacles as well as the successes, giving her children something they can look back upon and see that her life must not be solely associated with cancer.

In 2013 Yip-Williams was diagnosed with a rare strain of bowel cancer. In her own words, she was in her prime: a 37-year-old corporate lawyer in New York, happily married with two young girls. Her life is bookmarked with a series of transformative circumstances. Her family fled Vietnam in the 1970s, reaching China in an overcrowded fishing boat taking in water faster than luggage could be thrown overboard. That the Yip family made it safely to China, let alone to the US, was a miracle. As an infant born with serious cataracts in a country at war, the possibility of accessing restorative surgery was slim, so she was brought to a herbalist to be euthanised – to “spare her miserable existence”. Yet, Julie Yip makes it to the US, where she has her eyesight partly restored.

No metaphors

The more she was told she wouldn’t be able to do something because of being legally blind, the more resolute she was in proving otherwise. Though the book deals primarily with life from cancer diagnosis until death, it is punctuated with stories of solo travels, where Yip-Williams throws herself into new environments from South America to Antarctica, where she gazed “in absolute wonder at the massive glaciers in infinite shades of white, blue, and green rising above the water, majestic arches and craggy mountains made of old and new ice sculpted over time, more glorious than anything ever made by any human being.”

Yip-Williams dispenses with the war metaphors that often become part of the narrative of cancer treatment; she doesn’t spend time comparing her journey to a battle, herself to a soldier or the cancer cells to an invasion. Instead she dissects her family’s future as she imagines it, as she has planned it with her husband, and builds its foundations as much as she can. As time for her quickly moves from years to a matter of weeks, she unites a network of people around her whom she can trust to be there in her absence and to bridge the gap between life and loss, to restore a sense of normalcy.

Outside of the acute lens through which she views her own life, she also gives ample space to note how difficult her cancer diagnosis and the inevitability of her death are for her loved ones. Her sickness works as a pressure cooker for even her strongest relationships and it becomes necessary for the bonds with her parents, her husband and children to be totally rebuilt and reconfigured so they can manage to process such extensive changes. It is the preparation for the journey she cannot continue and the end that is inevitable.

Coping mechanism

Yip-Williams offers interesting perspectives on hope, what she calls the “cottage industry of cancer”, from the point of view of someone with a terminal illness who rejects the false security of hopeful thinking, yet is aware it is a necessary coping mechanism for so many others in her position. Through simultaneously living her life as it is ending and revisiting her past, she realises her idea of heaven is simply her current life but without cancer, and that she does not need cancer to make her “grateful for everything”.

Yip-Williams could allow herself to be absorbed, imagining her children’s grief and her husband’s hypothetical second wife, but instead she is pragmatic, preparing what is essentially an A to Z of how to get by without her. The result is an almanac of sorts for her family’s future, a biographical journey punctuated with insight, emotion and the frank honesty and reflection that come with the acceptance of death.

“Indeed we will grieve not for what is lost but find strength in what remains behind, through the bonds of human sympathy born of common suffering, and in our faith in something greater than we can conceive of.”