A Mother Documents Her Final Months Of Life In 'Julie' Podcast

Feb 7, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 12:51 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to start this next story with a letter. It's from a woman named Julie Yip-Williams written to her two young daughters. It's a letter to prepare them all for her death.

JULIE YIP-WILLIAMS: Dear Mia and Isabelle, I have solved all the logistical problems resulting from my death that I can think of. I have left a list of instructions about who your dentist is and the identity of the piano tuner. But I realized that these things are the low-hanging fruit. You will forever be the kids whose mother died of cancer. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from that pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, embrace it and then learn from it.

SHAPIRO: Yip-Williams wrote and recorded that letter after being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 37. She had already lived an extraordinary life. Yip-Williams was born blind in a small village in Vietnam. Her family immigrated to California, where she received surgery that partially restored her sight. She graduated from Harvard Law School, traveled to all seven continents, got married and started a family. Then came the cancer. When she got the diagnosis, Yip-Williams began writing. Her blog captured her feelings of hope, hopelessness and ultimately acceptance. Yip-Williams died last year. Her memoir, "The Unwinding Of The Miracle," is out this week. And as a companion to the memoir, Julie Yip-Williams invited producer Eleanor Kagan to help her record the final months of her life.

YIP-WILLIAMS: Do you love our apartment, Mia?

MIA YIP-WILLIAMS: Yeah.

YIP-WILLIAMS: What do you love most about our apartment?

MIA: My bedroom (laughter).

YIP-WILLIAMS: Your bedroom.

ELEANOR KAGAN, BYLINE: That's Julie. She's in her early 40s. Her hair is in a cool pixie cut. She's got thick glasses on, comfortable sweat clothes, no shoes. She's giving me a tour of her Brooklyn apartment.

YIP-WILLIAMS: What is it about your bedroom that you love the most?

MIA: It's creative.

KAGAN: Her daughter Mia is 8 years old.

YIP-WILLIAMS: She chose the wallpaper, purple and blue butterflies. I think it's a bit garish and ugly, but she loves it (laughter).

KAGAN: They show me the bathroom, the kitchen and then Julie's bedroom.

YIP-WILLIAMS: This this room I designed - planning to die here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YIP-WILLIAMS: The wallpaper which is on one wall only - it's an accent wall - it's gold. It was expensive, but I splurged 'cause I said, you know what? If people were going to come visit me as I'm dying, I want to have a nice background (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAGAN: And six weeks after that apartment tour, Julie Yip-Williams did die of colon cancer. She was 42. But this story isn't about the fact that Julie died. It's about how she prepared for that moment. Towards the end of her life, Julie wanted to document everything - the emotional experience, trips to the hospital for treatment and conversations like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK WARREN: So OK...

YIP-WILLIAMS: I was at radiation this morning.

KAGAN: A few months before she died, Julie was talking to Mark Warren, her friend and book editor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YIP-WILLIAMS: My thoughts are going. It's getting stranger, I think. (Laughter) Like, I couldn't watch myself be born, but I can watch myself die. When we're born, you know, we come into this life, and we don't have the consciousness to be aware of the miracle that's occurred. And I feel like I'm watching my body die. And now I feel like I've come to accept the decline. I'm sort of watching it happen as an observer. Like, oh, (laughter) I'm very interested to see how it unfolds. There's this intellectual curiosity about it, but there's also this appreciation and reverence for kind of the unwinding of the miracle. And I'm, like, trying to really embrace that experience and, like, understand it - like, what physically is happening to me. It's kind of nuts.

KAGAN: Part of that reverence for that unwinding of the miracle was an intense focus on the process of dying, on what was happening to her body as her death got closer. Even here, two weeks before she died, she was still finding new things to be fascinated by.

YIP-WILLIAMS: Do you know that when you die, when you can't breathe anymore, there's something called air hunger where your lung is starving for air. It's, like, this beautiful term, and that's what my oncologist called it. And I was like, what's it going to feel like? Don't be afraid, but just feel. Feel it. Walk through the experience, and just love it because it's part of your life.

KAGAN: Sometimes witnessing that unwinding of her life just meant being as present as she could, like at home with her kids.

YIP-WILLIAMS: The only person who knows how to tune in this house, which is sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

YIP-WILLIAMS: What do you want to play?

MIA: Well, I...

KAGAN: That's 8-year-old Mia on the violin.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

YIP-WILLIAMS: Nobody else should tell your child that you're dying except you. I know my kids better than anybody else. Like, I know how they're going to react to stuff, so I want to be in control.

ISABELLE YIP WILLIAMS: Mommy, I'm going to stick a note on you.

YIP-WILLIAMS: OK.

YIP WILLIAMS: And...

YIP-WILLIAMS: And maybe that's, like, me being a control freak, you know? But whatever - I'm a control freak.

KAGAN: The entire time that I'm sitting here asking Julie all these questions about her death, Mia and Isabelle are just, like, in the background, playing, totally unfazed by what we're talking about.

YIP-WILLIAMS: They don't recall a time when I wasn't sick because when I was diagnosed, Mia was 3, and Belle was not even 2. When I was upset about scans and stuff one time, you know, when she was 4 and I was, like, crying and - you know, on the couch and stuff...

YIP WILLIAMS: Mia has a question for you.

YIP-WILLIAMS: Hold on a second. And Belle said, what's wrong? And I said, mommy's getting sicker and sicker. And then she, like, paused for a second, and then she's like, but you're not gone yet, mommy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

MIA: OK, that's it.

KAGAN: Good.

YIP-WILLIAMS: This apartment is the largest physical gift I could give them. When I built everything, you know, I thought about the adjustable nature of the shelves, you know, like, as they grow. Like, I lie in their beds at night, you know? And I'll think about all the nights that they'll sleep in this bed, and I'll think about, you know, how I won't be here. But I try to, like, leave my presence. Like, mommy's here, you know? All these choices I made for them - what to hang. It was for them so that they knew that their mother was looking out for them and providing a beautiful place for them to grow up in. So that was my greatest gift - tangible gift.

KAGAN: And then there are the gifts that are harder to pin down. Julie wanted to face her death honestly, to not live in denial of it. And with her book, her blog and these recordings, she was showing all of us how to die well and giving us permission to do the same.

YIP-WILLIAMS: (Reading) I have often dreamed that when I die, I will finally know what it would be like to see the world without visual impairment. I long for death to make me whole, to give me what was denied me in this life. When your time comes, I will be there waiting for you so that you, too, will be given what was lost to you. But in the meantime, live, my darling babies. Live a life worth living. I love you both forever and ever - Mommy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: That was Julie Yip-Williams reading a letter to her daughters. She died last year. And you can hear more of her story on the podcast Julie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.