What do you think you control?

I am reading The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams. She died last March (2018) of colon cancer at age 42. She was born into a poor family in 1975 in Viet Nam with seemingly few choices but to accept their lot in life. At just 2 months, Yip-Williams maternal grandmother wanted her put to death because this granddaughter was born with serious cataracts and virtually was blind. (An immediate surgery in, say, the United States, could most certainly have restored her sight to near normal.)

Grandmother was certain her granddaughter was destined to a life of utter misery and hopelessness. She did everything possible to orchestrate her granddaughter’s death. The circumstances of how Yip-Williams ultimately escaped death at just 2 months took my breath away.

When Yip-Williams was four, her family became part of the boat people who fled Viet Nam and against all odds somehow made it to the United States. Once in the United States, Yip-Williams did have surgery before she was 5 that marginally increased her sight. Sadly, it was too late to receive the surgery she really needed within the first few months of her life. Yip-Williams lived her life wearing glasses with coke-bottle lens and always relying on people to help her “see.”

But “see” she did! By discipline, hard work and sheer will, Yip-Williams somehow made it all the way through Harvard Law School. At the time of her death, she was a New York City attorney, living in Brooklyn with her attorney husband, Josh, and their young daughters, Mia and Isabelle.

Yip-Williams is a brilliant, enthralling writer. Her prose is beautiful — clear, gripping, honest, incisive, powerful. Throughout her memoir, she writes at length about the choices we make in life, weaving persuasive thoughts about choice, fate, and randomness. After her cancer recurred after already fighting a long, arduous battle, I thought Yip-Williams’ words summarized her thoughts perfectly:

The sense that we ever had control over any of this seems nothing but a mockery now, a cruel illusion. And also, a lesson: we control nothing. …Well, that’s not exactly true. We control how good we are to people. We control how honest we are with ourselves and others. We control the effort we have put into living. We control how we respond to impossible news. And when the times comes, we control the terms of our surrender.”


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