The Juxtaposition of Life and Death

I’m not sure that God or the forces of the universe send any of us targeted messages; I simply don’t know.  Although I do believe in a higher power (as I’ve written about in Deals With God and Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth to Touch the Face of God), I don’t have that kind of unquestioning faith that so many do that God protects or speaks to any one person.  Maybe I over-analyze the events of my life to find meaning where none exists.  Maybe things just happen because they just happen, full stop.  But I swear there are times when I feel with an intuitive kind of knowing that defies all logic and reason and for much longer than a fleeting moment that God (which for me is the manifestation of all the incomprehensible positive forces of the universe) indeed is watching over me and wants me to understand, and even share with others, some fundamental truth about the human condition and experience.  As improbable as it seems to me that God would interfere with the mundane affairs of billions of humans (much less little old me), I also believe that God is a concept not graspable by the limited human mind.  I suppose that that transient knowing in the face of rational doubt is what one would call faith, tenuous as it may be.  Last Saturday I had one of those times again, over the course of the day in which I can say, in my moments of faith, that God was speaking to me, and in my moments of doubt, that I have carved spiritual meaning and insight from a collection of random incidents.  Whichever it was – a message from God or just my own self-concocted insight – I wanted to share it with you.

Last Saturday my sister, L, and I left my apartment at 5 a.m. to start our crazy day of prepping for and appearing on the Today Show in connection with the Love Your Butt campaign by the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation (promoting awareness of colorectal cancer and the importance of screening as an effective means of prevention and early treatment) and our participation in Cycle for Survival (a collaborative national fundraiser hosted by my gym and sponsored by Memorial Sloan Kettering to raise money for research of rare cancers).  As we would find out later, it was also at 5 a.m. that my 69-year-old uncle died three thousand miles away in a nondescript hospital room, surrounded by some of the people who loved him best.  My sister and I were sitting down to a deli breakfast of under-salted omelets, trying to get warm after our hour-plus outside in the cold, shamelessly cheering, screaming and smiling into the camera like idiots, when our father told us over the phone.  A vital member of my family dies and I and my sister are out and about at an ungodly hour on a weekend, laughing and being silly, living life.  How strange is the juxtaposition of life and death, death and life.

My uncle had been ill for a long time, plagued by various ailments to his organs as a result of excessive weight, diabetes, a congenital heart condition, arthritis and on and on.  But things took a turn for the worse while I was in Paris when his liver and kidneys failed.  Dialysis proved to be of limited effectiveness and so the end came in a matter of a few short but extremely physically painful weeks.  He, together with his generation in my family, had little education; he believed that he could treat his body however he liked and that when he fell ill, the magic of modern Western medicine would save him.  Sadly, he learned the hardest way possible how untrue that belief was.

He was a good man.  As a private pseudo joke between us, I would call him in Chinese, “my most beloved uncle.”  More typically, I called him my 2nd Uncle, second because he was the second of five sons born to my paternal grandparents, with my father being the first.  Of all the sons, my father and 2nd Uncle were closest to one another.  Maybe that’s why I was so fond of him.  In some ways that closeness was odd for they were a study in contrasts, my father’s short stature and bald head against 2nd Uncle’s tall frame and the thick grayness that sat atop his head, my father’s quiet, serious demeanor against 2nd Uncle’s jovial and constantly joking persona.  And yet, they were more similar than they were different.  Both born into the post-World War II era of the last years of French colonialism in Vietnam, into a life of privilege that was afforded the more prosperous of the ethnic Chinese merchant class with the deepest roots in Vietnamese soil.  Like so many other Chinese who emigrated to countries throughout the world to find better fortunes, my ancestors came to Vietnam from China in the nineteenth century and found wealth through first the trading of teas and spices and then a hardware business that included buying and selling all the goods required in construction (i.e. cement, timber, tools, etc.).  They had every expectation that as sons of the eldest son (my paternal grandfather), one day they would run the longstanding and successful family business and that that family business would sustain them as it had for the generations of Yips before them.  But the North Vietnamese’s victory in the 20-year civil war in 1975 crushed those expectations as the Communists moved to nationalize all private enterprises and my father and uncle together with so many others experienced a poverty and bleakness they had never believed would be their fate.

But they fled that land of broken dreams, swept along by macro forces beyond their control.  In their 30s, they came to America and worked in Chinese markets, cutting up meat behind a glass case filled with pork and beef and wrapping it in pink paper as the purple light zapped the occasional fly.  I would visit my father and uncle as a little girl at their respective markets; the places always stank and they’d carry the stench of rotting meat home with them at the end of their 12 hour days.  2nd Uncle spent the remainder of his working life as a butcher; my father would move on to become a delivery man for a local Chinese food and liquor distributor.  While their younger brothers were more entrepreneurial and generally more successful, they both languished, never making much money, certainly never achieving that prosperity that Asian Americans are so known for.

I remember my father telling me as he was driving me somewhere when I was a teenager, “2nd Uncle and I sometimes wish we had never come to this country.”  I was horrified!  How can you say such a thing? I demanded of my father.  Think of the life your children would have had in Vietnam.  “Our children are the only reason why it was worth coming to this country,” my father responded.  I was young and relatively untried, focused on me and not so much on him and his plight.  Now, I understand better how that statement hinted at so much disappointment and dissatisfaction.  My father and 2nd Uncle truly epitomize the emasculating impact of immigration, for moving to a new country late in life has the ability to dishearten so many men who in their native countries were doctors or engineers or, as in my father and uncle’s case, comfortable business owners, but who are here waiters, cab drivers and butchers, and despite their best efforts to learn English in between working twelve-hour days, six days a week in order to support their wives and children, they just can’t find a way to achieve the upward mobility that they dreamed was possible ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, when they first came to this country.  This emasculation is a phenomenon I alluded to in A Dance Between Two Worlds in which I described my father’s unwillingness to engage with the world outside of his little insulated Chinese community because he was intimidated, ashamed and frustrated, for he only saw in himself failure.  I didn’t know my 2nd Uncle well enough to say definitively that he felt as my father did, but I would be willing to bet a lot of money based on what I do know that he did.  I can only imagine the bitterness that could fester over the years, and even the sense of victimization fueled by perpetual defeat.

While certainly his lack of education and cultural perspectives as well as his own innate personality played their respective roles, I do think that the sense of bitterness, victimization and defeatism derived from the immigrant experience bled into the way 2nd Uncle handled his health issues, contributing to his premature death from entirely preventable afflictions.  Rather than confronting his medical problems with a desire to change the course of his life when it was still possible to do so, he continued to stay with horrible doctors despite being told by family that he should find others.  When his children told him he should exercise, his attitude was why bother, especially since exercise made him tired.  He didn’t try to educate himself about his ailments.  He failed to help himself.  He languished in his later years much as he did in his earlier years, albeit in a different context, terribly insomnic and trapped within the confines of his pained body that had become his physical and emotional prison.  He became withdrawn and depressed, a shadow of his former gregarious self.   His last days were not happy ones.

All of these varied and complex thoughts and feelings worked their way into the front of my mind as L and I sat in the deli finishing our tasteless omelets, absorbing the news.  And then they floated to the back of my mind as we made our way over to the Equinox Fitness Club at 43rd and 5th at 9 a.m. to join Cycle for Survival.  150 bikes lined the main exercise floor, free food and beverage waited to be consumed in the room usually used for group fitness classes.  Masseurs stood by to give free massages on the lower floor, next to the room where there would be free yoga and Pilates.  When the first set of riders took to their bikes at 10 a.m. (I was not among them), the music boomed and the instructor pumped up the crowd, all united that day to raise money for a cure for cancer.  Bystanders cheered, screamed and waved their orange pom-poms.  Energy fed on energy, making the air alive and electric.

Then I looked down at my phone and saw that my cousin C, 2nd Uncle’s daughter, was calling and everything around me receded into unimportant background.  I went upstairs away from the deafening noise to call C back.  She’d called to break the news to me.  I told her I already knew.  We talked for a long time, about how she felt about his passing, his life, their relationship, his last days, a lot of things.  She cried and I cried.  At that moment, I was in a place that resonated life with each beat of the music downstairs, while my cousin was in her quiet suburban home grieving the death of her father.  Strange is the juxtaposition of life and death, death and life.

When our conversation was over, I went back downstairs to find my sister and tell her some of what C had shared with me.  We sat on a steel bench outside the little studio reserved for the kids to do art and where they could ride miniature bikes, a little removed from all the activity.  As I told her what I knew, my sister, who so rarely cries, began to weep.  I put my arms around her and we sat there, two sisters mourning the loss of their uncle in the middle of all the chaos of Cycle for Survival.  When the tears were dry, we went back into the throng for a snack and then took a yoga class.  Strange is the juxtaposition of life and death, death and life.

When my turn came to ride at 1 p.m., the reality of my uncle’s death had been with me for five hours.  I was more than ready to ride.  Wil, my favorite cycling instructor and a founder of Cycle for Survival, and whose team I was on, happened to be the instructor for the hour in which I was riding.  Wil is one of those handsome, awesome instructors who attracts groupies, people who follow him from one Equinox location to another to take his classes.  From many personal experiences, I can say that his classes are so demanding that they can push you to the edge of puking your guts out.  After I was first diagnosed and sufficiently recovered from surgery, I took Wil’s class after a long hiatus.  I’d been taking his class for years.  He may have known my face but he certainly didn’t know my name.  I knew about his commitment to Cycle for Survival and so maybe that’s why I went up to him after the class to tell him about what had happened to me.  Back then, I would sometimes suddenly burst into tears when I told people about my diagnosis, and sure enough, it happened just as I was trying to tell Wil.  He took my hand and consoled me.  And ever since then, every time I’ve gone to his classes, he shows his support for me by making it a point to say hi to me in the middle of the ride, to hug me, to ask me how I’m doing.  And I feel like the Teacher’s Pet and certainly the envy of every eligible and ineligible woman in the cycling studio who are no doubt jealously wondering why he would be paying so much attention to me.

At Cycle for Survival, he outdid himself, both as an instructor and my supporter.  When he took the podium to begin the hour, he told the crowd that he wanted to make mention of two women.  I was the second of the two.  He asked me to raise my hand.  “Julie has Stage IV colorectal cancer,” he announced to the subdued audience of hundreds.  “When she told me she had cancer, she also told me that I had to make her strong again even as she was on chemo.  She’s going to have surgery in a couple weeks and she’s asked that I make her stronger for that surgery.  She writes in her blog about how I inspire her to fight, to dig deep.  The truth is that she is the one that inspires me.”  The crowd erupted in applause and cheers for me.  Tears came to my eyes.

Then, I rode for that hour with everything I had and everything that I am.  I rode with an incredible high and happiness, with love for my life and body.  I rode with all my physical strength and power, ever so grateful to have that strength and power, diminished though it may be after all I’ve been through.  When Josh showed up with the girls and walked right up to me – I was in the front row of bikes so there was room for me to briefly kiss them – I rode with the joy of being a wife and mother seeing my wonderful husband and beautiful daughters (even if they (including Josh) were completely overwhelmed by the chaos and soon left).  I rode as a loving sister as I watched L cheer me on, gyrating her hips to the music and waving her pom-poms like a crazed cheerleader.  Most of all, with the shadow of my uncle’s death only hours earlier looming over me, I rode with a passion for life, with the determination to suck the marrow out of every second of every minute, to never allow bitterness to take root in me, to never be a victim.  As I rode with the sweat pouring down my face, I acknowledged yet again that I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth but I vow that with whatever time I do have left, I will live with joy and gratitude, and not my uncle’s defeatism; I will strive and I will ultimately succeed in finding beauty and laughter amidst the ugliness and sorrow; I will live whatever life I have left on my terms so that when my time comes there will never be any shame, disappointment or regret; I will take what is dealt to me and, despite it all, I will make my indelible mark on this world so that my girls will know and take pride in who their mother was.  I solemnly made and now make again all of these promises to myself.

I believe every life and every death can serve as a lesson on, or a reminder of, how to live.  As sad as it may be for me to say (and I hope no one in the family is offended), 2nd Uncle’s death was a reminder to me of how I don’t want to live my life, a reminder made more powerful by the fact that it happened on a day that I was living an inordinate amount of life; it was not my typical Saturday of lounging about with the kids.  Even as I grieved for my uncle, I was so incredibly happy to be doing what I was doing.  The extreme contrast between his death and all my living that day made me feel like God was speaking to me, that God wanted me to remember, as I approach my HIPEC surgery and the next major battle in this cancer war, lessons I already knew but might have forgotten in all the recent lows.  As is so often the case with life and death, the dramatic juxtaposition of my life and his death only served to accentuates the beauty and wonder of life itself, to show me how much I love it with every fiber of my being.

I told Cousin C weeks ago that when the time came, I would want to go back to Los Angeles for the funeral services.  In Chinese culture, the burial or cremation must occur on an auspicious day as determined by those who know how to interpret such things.  As it turns out, I won’t be able to go back for his service because his wake will be held on the day of my HIPEC surgery, Thursday March 13, and the cremation service will follow the next day.  Even as his family and friends bid him a final farewell and the winds carry his ashes away, I will be engaged in a battle for my life.   How strange is the juxtaposition of life and death, death and life.

***

Here are some photos and videos from the day for those who might be interested.  I ended up raising nearly $3,500 for Cycle for Survival.  Thank you to everyone for the support.  And thanks to Josh for being such a good sport and taking care of the kids most of the day.

Here are some videos of us on the Today Show.

That’s us outside of the Today studio.  Thanks to my Josh’s employer for letting us paint in their offices at 5:30 in the morning.  My excuse for not painting was that I was going to Cycle for Survival immediately afterwards.

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That’s me and Wil.

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That’s me riding.

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That’s me listening to Wil talk about me.

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This me and my sister after the ride.  She’s wearing her Love Your Butt t-shirt.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill Ide
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 09:00:18

    So powerful and inspiring!

    Reply

  2. Belle Piazza
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 15:41:41

    Beautiful and inspiring as always. Thank you.

    Reply

  3. Belle Piazza
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 21:17:47

    I just posted my March blog for TCC called God and Cancer – ironic how we both chose that topic to write about! Your blog, as always, was beautifully written. I thoroughly enjoy your writing. You are leaving a wonderful gift for your children. I hope when they get older, you will be there to read along with them – but whether you are or not, you will live on through your writing forever.

    Reply

  4. Judy Dunning
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 11:09:26

    Julie, you are my hero. I will have a Julie vigil on Thursday, all day. I just can’t help but feel you are taking all the right steps to getting healthy for living a wonderful, long life. Lessons learned for me. What will make me happiest and most fulfilled will working on an individual basis with those with little hope and those who are fighting this alone. You should not have to be alone and frightened ever. I look forward to hearing about the great things your future brings. Love from Oklahoma.

    Reply

  5. Kit Grady
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 13:08:51

    Julie, What a wonderful post- Sharing so many of thoughts -with my hubby as we deal with this also. You are so inspiring and please know how much your writing means to us. Stay strong, you’re in my prayers

    Reply

  6. Kris
    Mar 12, 2014 @ 11:44:57

    Just read this today and want to wish you strength and smooth sailing through your surgery tomorrow.

    Reply

  7. Denise
    Oct 22, 2014 @ 17:38:13

    Beautifully written blog. The Lord does speak in ways that only your heart can see. If you listen closely you will recognize his still small voice which proves more powerful than any other. All things are for his glory. His whisper to you is about reaching you right were you are and establishing a relationship with you. (you are not mundane–you are precious to Him and bought at a high price) Open your heart to him. Wishing you all the best in health, family, endeavors and of course in life overall and in death to come. He will be seen in all those things now and forever.

    Reply

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