The Crossroads of the World

A crossroad is a place where multiple roads converge, a milestone of sorts marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another, a point at which a decision needs to be made about what road to take next as one continues on the journey.  When my final day of chemo (hopefully) arrived on January 13, it certainly felt like a milestone, the end of one thing (certainly this cycle of chemo) and the beginning of something else, a decision point where scans would soon follow and I, Josh and my doctor would have to decide what to do next as we continue this ongoing war.  So somehow it felt right that I should end up at Times Square on that last day of chemo, for Times Square – perhaps one of the most famous places on earth – is known as the Crossroads of the World. 

January 13 felt like a momentous day – Cousin N, who is like a sister to me, flew from Los Angeles the day before to be with me for the last session and to spend the week; Cousin C, who is also like a sister to me and who lives in Connecticut, left her young children for 24 hours (something she hadn’t done in four years) to sleep over the night before so she could come with me to chemo as well.  My actual sister, L (who lives in New York City), also came over to spend the night – L and Cousin N slept on the full-sized air mattress and Cousin C on the couch.  As we like to remind each other often in a half-joking way (especially when one seems to have become spoiled by her soft life), no matter how Americanized we have become, we can never forget that we came to this country on a sinking boat from Vietnam and should have no problems sleeping on couches, air mattresses and floors; a carpeted floor covered by a flat cotton sheet was where we slept often as children with not even the padding of a sleeping bag – what did a bunch of Vietnamese refugees know anyhow about sleeping bags?

That night, Josh stayed home to babysit, and we four Yip girls went out to a dinner of fancy Asian fusion fare at a restaurant in the South Slope, opened by a Top Chef winner, laughing and gossiping just as we used to when we were little girls, except now we gossiped and complained about our aging Chinese parents, husbands, children, money, careers (or the absence thereof) and all the stuff of ever impending middle-aged adulthood.  It all felt so comfortable and yet poignant; how sad that it took something like my last session of chemotherapy (hopefully) for advanced colon cancer to bring us all together again without boyfriends and husbands and children, in a way we haven’t been in over twenty years.  While in the cab to the restaurant as we all stared and giggled at the scantily dressed girls freezing their butts off hurrying to the Jay-Z concert, I had one of those strange, passing sensations in which I felt removed from my body and observed this current scene of my life as if I were watching a play on stage, speculating about whether my character would suffer some tragic ending in the play’s denouement.  I wondered if one day, perhaps not so far away, my sisters would all reunite again without me and if they would remember that particular moment of laughter and all the other moments of that evening with bitter sweetness.  Would I be some spirit looking down on them with sadness that I couldn’t be with them, or would I be laughing with them and loving them from afar, or both?

Cancer has made me hold these precious scenes of my life against my heart like they’re my very own children; that’s how much I cherish them, and while those scenes can make me feel a disembodied sadness and longing I’ve never known, they also make me feel an unparalleled joy, appreciation and love for them and the people who star in them. I knew in the moment in the cab that the next 24 hours of my life spent with my sisters would be extraordinarily fun and memorable, that they would be some of the most special of my life.  I just couldn’t imagine then just quite how fun, memorable and special.

During dinner, Cousin N casually mentioned that she needed to meet one of her “reps” at Times Square at 10:30 the next morning.  Cousin N is in advertising; she buys and plans media for a major motion picture studio, meaning she decides where to buy and how to use advertising space (e.g., TV and radio commercials, magazine ads, posters in subway stations, etc.) for blockbusters and every other kind of movie this major motion picture studio produces.  She has become a big muckety-muck, overseeing large teams of young assistants who do her bidding as they execute their advertising strategies.  By “rep”, I knew her to mean one of the many vendors who she interacts with to buy advertising space.  “No problem,” I said, “whatever you need to do for your job.”  Chemo was scheduled for 12:30, so we would have plenty of time.

The next morning after Cousins N and C accompanied me to drop Mia off at school – my sister L had left early for work – we made our way to 47th Street and Broadway and stood in front of the red steps that are just south of the famous TKTS booth where tourists line up for hours to buy half-priced tickets for Broadway shows.  Times Square is normally a place I avoid like the plague, filled with tourists who walk too slowly and too many flashing lights; it’s a place that can overwhelms in seconds.  But it was early on a Monday morning so it was relatively sane, devoid of the usual mob and the oversized Elmo, Dora and other characters so loved by children clamoring for their photo to be taken in exchange for five bucks and devoid of other crazies like the Naked Cowboy (who goes around even in the dead of winter with nothing on but cowboy boots, briefs, a cowboy hat and a guitar).  Cousin N was talking to Joel, her rep (who I’d met and shaken hands with rather cursorily), a few feet away while I was engaged in a heated conversation with Cousin C about how she should make sure her children are appropriately exposed to their Chinese cultural heritage.

Suddenly, my best friend, S.J. shows up.  What a coincidence I exclaim to her as I go on and on about how really small New York City is despite its population of 13 million.  Then, I see Josh walking towards me and I’m just as amazed to see him and make a comment about how Times Square is known as The Crossroads of the World and how it certainly feels like it now with Josh and S.J. showing up.  And then I see my sister approaching.  Before I can open my mouth to demand to know what is going on (because even gullible me knows something is going on at this point), Cousin N tells me to turn around and “Look!”

Note that when you tell a legally blind person to look, or at least this one, it engenders a certain panic.  Add to that the Times Square environment where there is an infinite number of things to look at and there’s even more panic and you fear you won’t see what everyone wants you to see.  But even I can’t miss this when I turn around and look!

20140113_103807  20140113_103837 (2)

The ad is up for a long time, four minutes maybe.  And then Cousin N announces, “But wait, there’s more!” More?  I’m not sure I can handle more! I think.  Joel gives the thumbs up to the invisible people looking down at us from somewhere above, and the ad disappears and the live camera feed goes on and there I am  on the digital billboard with Josh by my side and Cousin N, Cousin C, L and S.J. and of course Joel.  And then the people who can’t resist the allure of seeing themselves on the big screen in Times Square come swarming in, like moths to a flame. The camera for a few seconds forgets about the rest and zooms in on me and Josh.  I cover my face in embarrassment.  While Josh might look like a politician on camera with his polished wave, I am no politician’s wife, uncomfortable underneath the weight of all that attention.

20140113_104127  20140113_104047

Cousin N and Joel had orchestrated the whole thing.  Joel and his company sell time on the digital billboards in Times Square.  She had told Joel she was coming to New York to be with me for my last chemo session and had shared with Joel my whole story.  He was apparently so moved that he insisted on making an ad for me as well as giving me time with the live camera feed.  I can only imagine how much advertising revenue Joel’s company sacrificed in order to put up an ad about a cancer patient on her last day of chemo.  And of course, Cousin N had coordinated everyone else’s presence.

In those moments in Times Square and in the many hours and days that passed, I could not describe adequately how I felt being the center of so much attention and the recipient of all that love and support in such a flamboyant manner in one of the most famous places in the world.  I, who am never at a loss for words, was dumbfounded then, shocked into silence, and for a long time afterwards.  Then, I could only hug Joel for endless minutes, again and again, repeating innumerable times “Thank you”, crying uncontrollably into his wool coat.  In the hours and days afterwards when I shared with others what had happened, I could only use banal adjectives like “incredible” and “amazing” and awesome” that really conveyed nothing of my thoughts, emotion and what this experience meant to me.

Now that more than two weeks have elapsed since that event, I have the words, and I dedicate them to Joel and Cousin N.

Because I was born blind in Communist Vietnam, I always felt like I wasn’t wanted, like I brought shame to the family, like I would forever be an invalid undesired by my family, much less any man, for in that place and time a woman’s worth rested on her marriageability and potential for having children and no man would ever want a blind girl as his wife or mother of his children.  I had a major physical disability and carried with me all the stigma that came with a disability.  There was certainly more hope for my future after we came to America and I received sight-restoring surgeries (although I still had and still have a significant visual impairment), but that feeling of not being wanted remained.  No one ever said we don’t want you to me when I was a little girl, but I just knew, particularly early on in life, when I hadn’t found my voice to stand and fight for myself as people told me what I could or couldn’t see and do.  My mother had my siblings go to Chinese school to learn Mandarin Chinese after regular school but never me.  You won’t be able to read the Chinese characters, she told me.  Fifth Uncle took my siblings and cousins to see Star Wars:  Return of the Jedi in the theaters, but not me.  Why don’t I get to go, I asked my sister.  Because you might not be able to see the screen, she said.  (Translation:  no one wants to waste money on you.)  Once when I was nine, Cousins N and C and my sister all got to go to San Francisco to visit 4th Uncle and I didn’t get to go.  Why? I asked my mother.  Because you can’t see like everyone else and no one will take care of you, was her response.  So many people made so many ridiculous assumptions about me born of ignorance and an unwillingness to ask me about my own capabilities.  From a young age, I felt marginalized; I felt defective because I was repeatedly told through actions and words that I was defective and no one wants what is defective, and even more so, no one loves what is defective.

So I spent many years proving that I could see well enough to go to the movies, to travel the world on my own, to study Chinese (I studied Chinese extensively in college and lived in China during my junior developing a fluency that has long since left me from lack of use).  I did it all for many reasons, but mostly it was to prove my own self-worth to myself and my family for I wanted to be wanted, accepted and loved.  At some point when I had accomplished all that I had dreamed of accomplishing and indeed got married and had children and did those things that everyone once said I wouldn’t be able to do, I began to feel self-worth and love from within as well as from without, but to a large degree, I could never let go of those feelings of marginalization, of being unwanted and unloved, so ingrained had they been in me from such a tender age.

I’m pretty sure my feelings of insecurity are nearly universal amongst all people.  I see the insecurity already in my children even though they have had the benefit of nurturing teachers and (I like to think) parents.  I’m always amazed at how the beautiful and intelligent never feel quite beautiful or intelligent enough, how people constantly agonize over not being thin enough or charming enough.  And all of these things matter – beauty, intelligence, weight and hundreds of other criteria by which people judge themselves – because these are the characteristics people select to determine whether they’re indeed desirable and loveable.  Ultimately, we all have a constant need to be accepted and loved in this world, to feel connected to the communities represented by networks of family, friends, colleagues, church and the other groups that surround us.  It’s almost as if the fear of being unloved is part of our genetic makeup where some might be more predisposed than others but it exists at some baseline level in everyone.  With success, experience and maturity, the insecurities tend to dissipate.  Ironically and rather unexpectedly, for me, cancer has proven to be the most effective in chasing away my insecurities, allowing me to forsake finally and almost completely those old, familiar and painful feelings of unlovability.  How funny that one of the two greatest challenges of my life, my visual disability, should make me feel unloved and that the other greatest challenge of my life, this cancer, should make me feel loved.

I’ve often said that one of the blessings of my cancer diagnosis was the opportunity to feel such incredible love and support from family, friends, acquaintances, healthcare professionals and even total strangers, the kind of love that people, true to human nature, only show when the thing or person loved is being threatened.  I know intuitively that a lot of people go through their entire lives without ever experiencing the kind of human compassion and love that has been shown me, and I’m only 38 years old.  I was moved to tears by, and experienced true humility through, the gentleness and compassion shown to me by the many nurses and doctors who helped me through the darkest days of my diagnosis, washing my hair for me when I couldn’t, hugging and giving me words of comfort when I cried about my babies facing life without a mother.  I was shocked by all the floral arrangements that came to my hospital room after my surgery.  I was astonished by all the relatives and friends who came to see me in those days and weeks, even though I hadn’t seen or spoken to some of them in years.  I’ve been touched by all the messages of support I’ve received, some of them from people I would have never thought cared.  My Times Square experience was certainly the most spectacular display of love and support I’ve ever received, maybe even the greatest received by any cancer patient ever!  It was yet another stunning example of the generosity and love that the human spirit is capable of and for some reason, I was once again at the receiving end.   To be the beneficiary of all this compassion, generosity and love in the past six-plus months has been to experience a beautiful and profound aspect of the human experience; it has been my privilege and honor.

I am humbled.  That unwanted little girl, unworthy of love, is truly baffled by all these acts of love.  I don’t understand why Joel and Cousin N. would go to such lengths to put together the Times Square surprise.  Truly.  I don’t know why I would deserve such a grand and generous gesture.  I’ve not done anything particularly meaningful for humanity.  I’ve never been some do-gooder working to solve the problems of poverty and illness that plague the world.  Other than some charitable donations, I’ve never knowingly helped abused women or children.  I’m not a particularly altruistic person, I don’t think.  I’ve been too busy trying to prove to myself and the rest of the world that I deserved love and haven’t focused much on giving love.

I am inspired.  As the recipient of so much kindness and love, I want to do more.  I want to make a meaningful impact on the world.  It probably won’t be solving the problems of poverty in the developing world or helping abused women and children.  I’m not sure what it will be.  I hope this blog has done good, but I want to do something more than this blog, something to really “pay it forward”, something big and important.  On my last day of chemo, I stood at a crossroads, literally and figuratively, the end of one phase and the beginning of another, a decision point where choices need to be made.  In some respects, I’m still standing at that crossroads, trying still to figure out what to do next to be the giver of compassion and love, rather than just a recipient.  I know it is one of those decisions that will come to me organically if I am patient and open to the opportunities.  I know the universe will speak to me and direct me towards the right road.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Katie
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 07:55:27

    Now that I have stopped crying I will try to comment. Congratulations on finishing chemo! You have your life back! It must feel so liberating. I love your post, I think it is my favorite one you have written so far. I feel exactly the same way about all of the love and generosity that has been shown to me. I don’t feel like I deserve it because I don’t believe I have been especially wonderfully kind and helpful to others my whole life. But now that I “see the light” I want to earn that love and pay it forward. I will let you know when I figure out how.


  2. Bill Ide
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 09:15:14

    Your words have made a difference for many of us. You have a unique talent of perception that translates into worded emotions, humor and graphic pictures that can be aborbed easily by otheres to help many find their way. That is a road that others of us can not traverse nearly as well as you..Thanks for all of your sharing todate and for all the good that your next chapter will produce for others. Congratulations on finishing the chemo which is a huge victory in itself! Times Square will now have a new image for me when next passing through it..


  3. Lakesha Dennis
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 09:31:33

    That is so awesome! Thank God for the wonderful support system you have 🙂


  4. Judee Mulvey
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 16:35:25

    Congratulations on a job well done !! You’ll figure out the next step because you are one smart cookie …. and have three equally smart cookies at your side ! xoxo


  5. Donna D
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 14:47:07

    Thank you for sharing your story….so touching and moving and especially thought provoking. I think that in sharing your story and expressing your desire to “pay it forward” you may have already found a way to do so. Your story has certainly inspired me not only to “pay forward” all the love and generosity I myself have been the recipient of but more importantly to realize that shielding my son (born premature and thus prone to pneumonia, asthma, allergies, etc.) from perceived “dangers” may have been more for us and to calm our fears than beneficial for him…especially in psychological ways I’ve never considered. I vow to strive to be sure he knows I believe he can do anything he sets his mind to …I’ve always felt that way but our actions and concerns may have led him to feel lacking in some way.

    May you be blessed as you continue your fight against cancer.


    • julielyyip
      Feb 02, 2014 @ 15:02:36

      Donna, thank you for sharing this with me. In many respects, talking/writing about my visual impairment and the hurt that resulted therefrom is much harder than talking/writing about my cancer. There is so much pain and anger there, at least there used to be, and the scars will never entirely go away. I’m glad that sharing that part of my story is helping you think about how you want to think of your son. I hope that he will achieve all that he ever dreams of achieving for himself, notwithstanding any physical limitations he may have.


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