Wisdom//

I Battled Cancer, and This Is What Sustained Me

"I found, through my shame, frustration, heartache, self-pity, and self-loathing, a strength and resolve that I didn't know I had."

Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images
Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

It meant that I was closer to the end, but I didn’t care—I was glad to see 2016 go. With it I felt a great deal of bitchiness go, too. I would rededicate myself to making memories for Mia and Belle. The Chilean writer Isabel Allende (most famous for her novel The House of the Spirits), in her memoir Paula, tells the story of her extraordinary life to her daughter Paula, as she lies in a porphyria-induced coma from which she will never awaken. I read Paula more than fifteen years ago, and yet a series of sentiments recorded on page 23 have never left me, and they come back to me now more powerfully than ever. Allende tells her daughter of her past— a thing she calls her “innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed.” “Take it, Paula,” she tells her, “perhaps it will be of some use to you, because I fear that yours no longer exists, lost somewhere during your long sleep— and no one can live without memories.”

I am a lover of memories, of the past, of history. I majored in history in college, studying American, Chinese, European, African, social, economic, political, and cultural history. I find fascinating how some unique, charismatic figures, like Jesus Christ and Chairman Mao, and revolutionary innovators, like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, altered the course of human history. The rest of us are merely swept along by the tide of events set in motion by others, past and present, and by events that are brought about by forces that are entirely beyond our control (i.e., God, Mother Nature, or the randomness of the universe, which brings about things like natural disasters and illness, depending on one’s religious and philosophical views).

It is the stories of the rest of us that I find most intriguing and valuable— the story of the black Caribbean woman who fled her abusive husband for a New York City shelter with her three children, the tale of how an American World War II POW survived months alone drifting at sea and then years of torture by the Japanese, the saga of the incredible will to live of members of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into the Andes in 1972, the unlikely story of one woman’s ability to live fifteen years after being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. There are so many stories. Indeed, the truth that has been lived by our fellow human beings is much more inspiring than any yarn woven by the greatest storytellers.

But Allende reminds me that there is value in our individual memories, our own past, our own history; after all, what are we but the products of all our experiences? Rather than looking without to find inspiration, strength, and hope, sometimes we must look within ourselves to discover and discern our own stories. There are, after all, miracles in there. Of course, looking within is much more difficult, for we must confront our painful mistakes, our fears, our weaknesses, our insecurities, our ugliness.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, Josh read my surgical and pathology reports what seemed like a hundred times. I could barely manage to get through my surgical report once without being nauseated by the image of parts of my body being removed. Josh read every relevant medical study he could find online multiple times, learning foreign medical terms and making reasoned conclusions about my prognosis that left him more hopeful. I read one sentence of one study and felt drowsiness setting in, and that was the end of that endeavor to take my medical care into my own hands. Josh puts his faith in science, based on numbers and reason. I put my faith in me and a higher power, based seemingly on nothing tangible, in what some would call complete irrationality.

As irrational as it may seem, my faith comes from my memories, from an understanding of my own history, and to a lesser degree, the history of my parents and those who came before them. My very first memory is of crawling up the narrow staircase of our house in Tam Ky, Vietnam, where there was no railing to protect me from falling onto the dust-covered cement floor. My second memory is of sitting on my grandmother’s lap on the Vietnamese fishing boat on the South China Sea, a bare, dim bulb swinging overhead (in my blindness, I could still detect some light and motion) and the mournful prayers of three hundred people begging to reach the safety of the refugee camps in Hong Kong ringing in my ears. I remember a year later trying to fight off the mask that would deliver the general anesthesia in advance of my first sight-giving surgery, at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. I remember lugging my large-print book around and all the other kids staring at me like I was a freak. I remember not being able to fill out the answer sheet for the PSATs my sophomore year in high school because the bubbles were too small for me to see them, even with my magnifying glass, and sobbing for the rest of that weekend, feeling the weight of all my limitations. I remember the elation I felt when I told my parents over the phone I had just been accepted into Harvard Law School and how I heard my father clapping with possibly more joy than I felt, like a little boy who had gotten what he wanted for Christmas.

There are so many more memories, both joyful and painful, but I think anyone can understand based on these memories alone why I have faith in myself and some unseen hand. I have felt God’s presence more than once in my life, and I have felt his absence. And in those times when God was otherwise occupied, I found, through my shame, frustration, heartache, self-pity, and self-loathing, a strength and resolve that I didn’t know I had.

When I woke up at 4:00 a.m. the day after my colonoscopy, the day after we learned that I had colon cancer and before I was transferred to UCLA for the surgery, during what I would call the darkest hours of my life, after I realized that this wasn’t a nightmare from which I would awaken, the fear overcame me and I couldn’t breathe as I sobbed hysterically into the lonely darkness of that miserable hospital. The future, however long or short, loomed ahead of me, a mass of pure darkness the approximate shape of the mass inside of me. I dug deep then into my past, to find another moment of comparable fear. In truth, there was no fear that I had ever experienced that was comparable to that. But there was one memory that was close, which came during the summer after my first year of law school, when I went to Bangladesh. Although I yearned for what I knew would be an enriching experience, I was terrified. A little Asian girl who can’t see very well going alone to one of the poorest countries in the world without any familiarity with the language or culture— it was a bit daunting. Bangladesh, in the days and months before my trip, seemed shrouded in shadows. What if I was mugged or got into a terrible accident or developed dengue fever? I remember acknowledging the fears and doing everything I could within my control to mitigate the risks— I had my mother sew secret pockets for my money and passport into my underwear; I worked out hard so I could be physically strong and fight as fiercely as I could if I were attacked; I bought travel insurance. Then I let everything else go and put faith in myself and a higher power, and I just walked forward, through the fear, into my incredible adventure. Rather than shrouded in shadows, Bangladesh was and is a beautiful place filled with vibrant colors and kind people. My dark prognostications had been wrong.

That night in the hospital room, I willed myself to again acknowledge the fear, told myself to do everything within my power to control my destiny and let everything else go, and then ordered myself to look ahead and walk through the fear once more.

Allende describes her life as a “multilayered and ever-changing fresco that only I can decipher, whose secret is mine alone. The mind selects, enhances, and betrays; happenings fade from memory; people forget one another and, in the end, all that remains is the journey of the soul, those rare moments of spiritual revelation. What actually happened isn’t what matters, only the resulting scars and distinguishing marks. My past has little meaning; I can see no order to it, no clarity, purpose, or path, only a blind journey guided by instinct and detours caused by events beyond my control. There was no deliberation on my part, only good intentions and the faint sense of a greater design determining my steps.”

Each of us has a story. Each of us has experiences from which we can draw strength and that can serve as the basis of our faith. It is just a matter of whether we are willing to dwell in often unpleasant memories, to extract the lessons of our history, to find the secrets of the journeys of our souls. Just as Allende sought to give the secret of her life story, her past and her memories, to her daughter, I find myself wanting to do so for my daughters.

Excerpted from The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams. Copyright © 2019 by The Williams Literary Trust. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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