Dear Mia and Isabelle,

I have solved all the logistical problems resulting from my death that I can think of – I am hiring a very reasonably priced personal chef to cook for you and Daddy; I have left a list of instructions about who your dentist is and when your school tuition needs to be paid and when to renew the violin rental contract and the identity of the piano tuner.  In the coming days, I will make videos about all the ins and outs of the apartment, so that everyone knows where the air filters are and what kind of dog food Chipper eats.  But I realized that these things are the low-hanging fruit, the easy to solve but relatively unimportant problems of the oh-so mundane.

I realized that I would have failed you greatly as your mother if I did not try to ease your pain from my loss, if I didn’t at least attempt to address what will likely be the greatest existential question of your young lives.  You will forever be the kids whose mother died of cancer, with people looking at you with some combination of sympathy and pity (which you will no doubt resent, even if everyone means well).  That fact of your mother dying will weave into the fabric of your lives like a glaring stain on an otherwise pristine tableau.  You will ask as you look around at all the other people who still have their parents, why did my mother have to get sick and die.  It isn’t fair, you will cry.  And you will want so painfully for me to be there to hug you when your friend is mean to you, to look on as your ears are being pierced, to sit in the front row clapping loudly at your music recitals, to be that annoying parent insisting on another photo with the college graduate, to help you get dressed on your wedding day, to take your newborn babe from your arms so you can sleep.  And every time you yearn for me, it will hurt all over again and you will wonder why.

I don’t know if my words could ever ease your pain.  But I would be remiss if I did not try.

My seventh grade history teacher, Mrs. Olson, a batty eccentric but phenomenal teacher, used to rebut our teenage protestations of “That’s not fair” (for example, when she sprang a pop quiz on us or when we played what was called the “Unfair” Trivia Game) with, “Life is not fair.  Get used to it!”  Somewhere along the way, we grow up thinking that there should be fairness, that people should be treated fairly, that there should be equality of treatment as well as opportunity.  That expectation must be derivative of growing up in a rich country where the rule of law is so firmly entrenched.  Even at the tender age of five though, both of you were screaming about fairness as if it were some fundamental right (as in it wasn’t fair that Belle got to go to see a movie when Mia did not).  So perhaps, those expectations of fairness and equity are also hardwired into the human psyche and our moral compass.  I’m not sure.

What I do know for sure is that Mrs. Olson was right.  Life is not fair.  You would be foolish to expect fairness, at least when it comes to matters of life and death, matters outside the scope of the law, matters that cannot be engineered or manipulated by human effort, matters that are distinctly the domain of God or luck or fate or some other unknowable, incomprehensible force.

Although I did not grow up motherless, I suffered in a different way and understood at an age younger than yours that life is not fair.  I looked at all the other kids who could drive and play tennis and who didn’t have to use a magnifying glass to read, and it pained me in a way that maybe you can understand now.  People looked at me with pity too, which I loathed.  I was denied opportunities too; I was always the scorekeeper and never played in the games during PE.  My mother didn’t think it worthwhile to have me study Chinese after English school as my siblings did because she assumed I wouldn’t be able to see the characters.  (Of course, later on, I would study Chinese throughout college and study abroad and my Chinese would surpass my siblings.)  As a child, there is nothing worse than being different, in that negative pitiful way.  I was sad a lot.  I cried in my lonely anger.  Like you, I had my own loss, the loss of vision that involved the loss of so much more that resulted therefrom.  I grieved  I asked why.  I hated the unfairness of it all.

My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life.  But I do know that there is incredible value in pain and suffering.  If you allow yourself to experience it, to cry, to feel sorrow and grief, to hurt.  Walk through the fire and you will emerge on the other end, whole and stronger.  I promise.  You will ultimately find truth and beauty and wisdom and peace.  You will understand that nothing lasts forever, not pain, nor joy.  You will understand that joy cannot exist without sadness.  Relief cannot exist without pain.  Compassion cannot exist without cruelty.  Courage cannot exist without fear.  Hope cannot exist without despair.  Wisdom cannot exist without suffering.  Gratitude cannot exist without deprivation.  Paradoxes abound in this life.  Living is an exercise in navigating within them.

I was deprived of sight.  And yet, that single unfortunate physical condition changed me for the better.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, it made me more ambitious.  It made me more resourceful.  It made me smarter.  It taught me to ask for help, to not be ashamed of my physical shortcoming.  It forced me to be honest with myself and my limitations, and eventually, to be honest with others.  It taught me strength and resilience.

You will be deprived of a mother.  As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain.  But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it.  Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you.  Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways.  Rejoice in life and all its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me.  Be grateful in a way that only someone who lost her mother so early can, in your understanding of the precariousness and preciousness of life.  This is my challenge to you, my sweet girls, to take an ugly tragedy and transform it into a source of beauty, love, strength, courage and wisdom.

Many may disagree but I have always believed, always, even when I was a precocious little girl crying alone in my bed, that our purpose in this life is to experience everything we possibly can, to understand as much of the human condition as we can squeeze into one lifetime, however long or short that may be.  We are here to feel the complex range of emotions that come with being human.  And from those experiences, our soul expands and grows and learns and changes and we understand a little more about what it really means to be human.  I call it the evolution of the soul.  Know that your mother lived an incredible life that was filled with more than her “fair” share of pain and suffering, first with her blindness and then with cancer.  And I allowed that pain and suffering to define me, to change me, but for the better.  In the past four years, I have known love and compassion that I never knew possible; I have witnessed and experienced for myself the deepest levels of human caring that humbled me to my core and compelled me to be a better person.  I have known a mortal fear that was crushing and yet I overcame that fear and found courage within the very depths of my soul.  The lessons that blindness and cancer have taught me are too many for me to recount here, but hopefully, when you read all my blog entries, you will understand how it is possible to be changed in a positive way by tragedy and the true value of suffering.  The true worth of a person’s life lies not in the number of years lived; rather it rests on how well that person has absorbed the lessons of that life, how well that person has come to understand and distill the multiple, messy aspects of the human experience. While I would have chosen to stay with you for much longer, had the choice been mine, if you could learn from my death, if you accepted my challenge to be better people because of my death, then that would bring my spirit inordinate joy and peace.

You will feel alone and lonely in your pain and suffering, and yet, understand that you are not alone.  It is true that we walk this life alone because we feel what we feel singularly and we each make our own choices.  But it is possible to reach out and find those like you and in so doing you will feel not so lonely.  This is another one of life’s paradoxes that you will learn to navigate.  First and foremost, you have each other to lean on.  You are sisters and that gives you a bond of blood and common experiences that is like no other.  Find solace in one another.  Always forgive and love one another.  Then, there’s Daddy.  Then, there’s Titi and Uncle Mau and Aunt Nancy and Aunt Caroline and Aunt Sue and so many dear friends, all of whom knew and loved me so well.  And then there’s a huge community of people who have followed Mommy’s cancer journey, people who have gotten to know you through my words, people who think of you and pray for you and worry about you.  All of these people’s loving energy surrounds you so that you do not feel so alone.  And lastly, wherever I may go, a part of me will always be with you.  My blood flows within you.  You have inherited the best parts of me.  Even though I won’t physically be here, I will be watching over you.

Sometimes, when you practice your instruments, I close my eyes so I can hear better.  And when I do, I am often overcome with this absolute knowing that whenever you play the violin or the piano, when you play it with passion and commitment, the music with its special power will beckon me and I will be there.  I will be sitting right there, pushing you to do it again and again and again, to count, to adjust your elbow, to sit properly.  And then I will hug you and tell you how you did a great job and how very proud I am of you.  I promise.  Even long after you have chosen to stop playing, I will still come to you in those extraordinary and ordinary moments in life when you live with a complete passion and commitment.  It might be while you’re standing atop a mountain, marveling at exceptional beauty and filled with pride in your ability to reach the summit, or when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time or when you are crying because someone or something has broken your tender heart or maybe when you’re miserably pulling an all-nighter for school or work.  Know that your mother once felt as you feel and that I am there hugging you and urging you on.  I promise.

I have often dreamed that when I die, I will finally know what it would be like to see the world without visual impairment, to see far into the distance, to see the minute details of a bird, to drive a car.  Oh, how I long to have perfect vision, even after all these years without.  I long for death to make me whole, to give me what was denied me in this life.  I believe this dream will come true.  Similarly, when your time comes, I will be there waiting for you, so that you too will be given what was lost to you.  I promise.  But in the meantime, live, my darling babies.  Live a life worth living.  Live thoroughly and completely, thoughtfully, gratefully, courageously and wisely.  Live!

I love you both forever and ever, to infinity, through space and time.  Never ever forget that.


36 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgiamama
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 09:39:44

    Astonishingly beautiful, Julie. Sending so much love to you and your family. ❤️


  2. Cara Martin
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 10:07:00

    Definitely not fair. Beautifully written and thank you for sharing. Many prayers and warm thoughts being sent to your and your precious family. Your daughters will no doubt treasure this letter.


  3. Kate
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:04:09

    I am in awe of you, Julie. Such beautiful words. Sending love to you and your family.


  4. paul
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:25:16

    Beautiful. If only more people could understand the things you understand. if only more could understand without having to experience such trying issues. I am grateful that you’ve shared so much with me and so many others because it makes us better people for it. I’m sure someday mia and bell will understand your words and their meaning. why it takes so much life experience to understand these things is I guess part of the design.
    Thank you for being so open, so caring, so strong.


  5. Berta
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:30:36

    I am so sorry that you had to write this, and I’m in awe that you did. I wish you a peaceful transition, and I wish your family love and light. All these writings will be a book. I’m sure of it. You have inspired so many people who barely knew you. And you will inspire many more with your writing, and through the good work of your daughters. You are already whole.


  6. The Astonishing FMan
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:41:09

    Thank you.


  7. Kristen
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:48:00

    Julie what a gift you have left your darling girls with this blog. I lost my mom six years ago as an adult and so many things you shared with your girls here are exactly what she would want me to remember as well. We continue to pray for you, Josh and the girls. Sending all of our love and prayers from Georgia.


  8. RJ
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 11:50:11

    Incredibly beautiful letter, heart wrenching as well. Thank you for sharing. Your daughters have a beautiful mother. Sending love.


  9. Tyler Burton
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 12:33:30

    Julie, Thank you for helping us all to evolve towards being whole and stronger. Your letter to your daughters is a beautiful life compass.


  10. Mirna
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 12:47:55

    This is just beautifully written. Thinking of you and your family. sending all my love.


  11. cltoll
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 13:47:25

    So incredibly touching and beautiful. They will treasure and cling to this. Praying for all of you.


  12. Eric
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 13:50:07

    I hope you can still enjoy the simple things in life like watching Raj Federer play in the Wimbledon finals this weekend. Thanks for being such a great inspiration for all of us fellow cancer patients.


  13. Ashley
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 15:57:56

    Thank you Julie for your honesty and vulnerability. You have given us a wonderful gift of allowing us to share your journey. Prayers for earthly comfort and eternal peace. Faith hope and love.


  14. Tina
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 20:51:56

    Julie,no wiser words have been spoken.I am humbled and thankful I got to read and learn from your words.I can just imagine your daughters as young girls reading this and brimming over with immense pride and gratitude knowing that your blood flows in them.I am sure your words must have brought tremendous comfort to other parents facing similar tormenting situations as you as well as to family members who are loosing a loved one.Finally someone gets what they are going through and tells it like it is.You may not know the impact of your words,but you have eased many a troubled heart with your powerful words,such clarity ,truth and understanding of life.Thank you from us all!


  15. Cirincione, Norma F.
    Jul 14, 2017 @ 21:52:11

    Julie, dear,

    Edward and I send you our love. May I pay you a visit the week after next?


    — Norma F. Cirincione | Director of Alumni Relations and Associate Life Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP Assistant: One Liberty Plaza, New York NY 10006 T: +1 212 225 3150 | F: +1 212 225 3848 | M: +1 646 894 3019 |


  16. saffronsmoke
    Jul 15, 2017 @ 11:49:03

    I am in tears and heartbroken – I thought of you all of today. Of course I join in sending that positive energy to your family but it goes to you especially because I cannot stop hoping. Today in a monastery perched on a cliff in Armenia I lit a candle for your life. Love Tanya


  17. Kim
    Jul 15, 2017 @ 12:05:03

    Thank you for sharing this and giving us the privilege to read these wise and poignant words, along with the many other moving pieces you have written over the years. Holding you in my thoughts, a stranger via the interwebs who wishes you and your family peace, comfort, and joy.


  18. Anne
    Jul 15, 2017 @ 12:34:16

    You have given your daughters a rich legacy of your words. These words will be imprinted on their hearts.


    • Shona
      Jul 15, 2017 @ 16:56:04

      Your values, strength & words are the most beautiful legacy you could leave your sweet girls. May love & peace be with you on this final stage of your journey. Kia Kaha


  19. Gina Morse
    Jul 16, 2017 @ 17:26:41

    Dear Julie,
    I’m holding you and yours in my prayers, just as I will hold your words in my heart for the rest of my life. I too will take the advice you have given to your precious girls…I will LIVE. Any time my anxiety begins to get the bettter of me or I find myself thinking negatively, I will call to mind the dear friend I met through her words…the friend who gave everything for another day just to be on this Earth, and it will bring me back to gratitude and what is truly important. Any time I find myself being frustrated by the challenges of raising my two teenagers I will remember all you gave and did for your babies even when your body and mind were pushed beyond their limits, and I will be more patient and understanding. You have been a great teacher, and I am so grateful we all will have your words to go to when we need a fresh perspective. Thank you for sharing with us.

    With lots of love,


  20. DonnaW
    Jul 17, 2017 @ 20:07:02

    Your blog is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Thank you for sharing your story with the world. You have done everything humanly possible and more. Today’s medicine has failed you. I am saddened by the latest scan results. I know you suffer greatly the emotional and physical pain brought on by this horrible colon cancer. I hope for a miracle and less pain for you.

    With deep admiration,


  21. Giada
    Jul 18, 2017 @ 12:40:06

    so sorry that you have to go through something so awful and unfair. no one should die this young.


  22. Wonn
    Jul 19, 2017 @ 19:27:22

    Thinking of you and your family. Will continue to keep you and your words close to heart.


  23. Lilly
    Jul 20, 2017 @ 10:33:22

    Strangely I remember most from my childhood my mother telling me “life is NOT fair” and hat seemed like a mean thing for her to tell me back then. Then when I got cancer at age 27 I knew how she was right and it hit me that she was telling the truth back then. Then I had a son and going through Chemo radiation and clinical trials and having him learn that not all childhood experiences will be the same. Our children grow up faster than others, Julie, because they live this truth every day. Their mommies aren’t able to do all other kids’ moms do but they know we love them just as much if not possibly more than they can imagine. My son voices fear of my passing too, and I one day hope I can write a loving letter full expressing what you have done for your girls.


  24. Kristi
    Jul 24, 2017 @ 19:40:54


    Thank you for sharing your journey. You write beautifully and honestly and I’m sure your girls will appreciate what you have written. I expect they will read what you have written over and over again and gain comfort from it in the years to come. Peace to you and your family.


  25. Victoria Ostezan
    Aug 08, 2017 @ 20:16:36

    Julie…..the only way to describe you is ROCK STAR! I just yesterday found this blog while searching for answers to my fiancés appendiceal cancer and symptoms after his HIPEC surgery! My google search landed me on your blog during your time through HIPEC. I read that first landing page and immediately had to go to the beginning of your journey and read from the start! I have been reading one by one your posts to my fiancé. You have something so wise, sincere, humorous, intelligent I could go on and on! Your writing has touched our very souls as you put into words what my fiancé (Scott) and I have been feeling and going through better than we could ourselves! I have a lot of catching up to do as the posts are numerous (in a GOOD way) and we don’t want to miss anything!
    Just wanted to send love to you, your girls and husband and to THANK YOU for this from the bottom of our hearts!



  26. Nirosha
    Aug 15, 2017 @ 01:09:39

    Julie, i’m thinking of you and your family and sending you lots of love. Thank you for sharing these beautiful words. You are an inspiration in every way – your strength, you passion, your wisdom. “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on… ”
    love, nirosha


  27. The Astonishing FMan
    Aug 16, 2017 @ 02:50:00

    Dear Julie,

    Thinking about you a lot, I check your blog and your Facebook several times a day. I’m sorry for your suffering and pray that you and Josh and Mia and Belle are managing as well as can possibly be hoped under the circumstances.

    Your blog post is a brave and beautiful affirmation of Life! I have sent it to many others. All who read it are powerfully affected.

    I don’t know what to say, so I wrote for you a simple poem. I’m not a poet, as you can probably tell after reading this, but you have the honor of being the only person about whom I’ve ever attempted to write a poem. Written with much love and admiration, here it is:

    For Julie

    On a rickety ship
    Your soul sailed

    On a terrible sea
    Your soul sailed

    To a mystery world
    Your soul sailed

    With new opened eyes
    Your soul saw
    A man

    With new opened eyes
    Your soul saw


    On a rickety ship
    On a terrible sea
    Your soul sails

    With new opened eyes
    With new opened heart
    Your soul sails

    To a mystery world
    Your soul sails
    Your soul sails

    Your soul sails
    Your soul sails
    Your soul sails


  28. Gloria
    Aug 31, 2017 @ 23:18:51

    Julie, My father’s memory has been my solace and comfort whenever life gets especially hard and I’ve felt joy at how proud he is of my accomplishments. He’s still present in my life 32 years after his passing. I kept his doodle notebook and trace my fingers through his doodles. Your exquisitely written letter will be cherished by your daughters. Peace and love to you and your family.


  29. Sara
    Mar 20, 2018 @ 16:15:17

    Beautiful and powerful letter. RIPJulie.


  30. EF
    Mar 23, 2018 @ 03:14:01

    Dear Julie,

    Thank you for sharing this.

    My mother died of cancer in my teenage years, and you are so right in speaking out all the feelings I had: the anger of unfairness, the jealousy of my peers who grew up with loving mothers, the pain and grief of losing my mother. And yes, I did rise out of the situation with more resilience, more compassion and empathy, but every now and then when life circumstances reminds me of the life that could have been with my mother, I still feel a mild wave of bitterness and pain. Losing a mother at a young age is like inflicting a heavy blow to the heart, and although the wound heals, every now and then when the wound is touched again, it causes some pain.

    And thanks for the words of wisdom. I feel as though I hear my mother speaking to me through this letter of yours.

    I just learnt of your story from Hong Kong. You had fought bravely against cancer. Hope you can rest peacefully with God now.



  31. Greg
    Mar 26, 2018 @ 15:29:24

    RIP beautiful woman and mother, you have done a great job. Even through all the unfairness in life, your children will understand without a doubt that their mother loved them, I can’t begin to express how beautiful that is; my mother had no love in her, nor does many children’s mothers – it all sums up to the unfairness of life of which you have written so eloquently. This entry made me cry, for you, for your children and for myself; as I would have loved to have had a mother like you. You are special.


  32. scholachat
    Mar 31, 2018 @ 09:02:37

    She had a special kind of intelligence and insight that’s very rare. She’s precious. Your children will surely know you loved them Julie, rest in peace


  33. Chris
    Apr 02, 2018 @ 01:33:14

    I am going through the unfairness of life. Reading your blogs are inspiring. Because of them I hope to find courage like you. Thank you.


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