A woman recollects her frightening confrontation with leukemia and the ways in which it changed her outlook on life.
Debut author Lee was born in 1962 on the far-flung island of Guam in the Pacific; as a result, her happy childhood was largely insulated from the political tumult and cultural upheaval that engulfed the U.S. mainland. Her upbringing was far from common, though—she was raised in a classic pagoda-style home, a 24,000-square-foot “fortress” that housed a large multigenerational clan that included her parents, six siblings, grandparents, and extended family. In addition, the head of the clan, her grandfather, was a successful businessman who openly kept a second wife and family in China. The horizons of the author’s unusual, if cloistered, childhood were expanded when she spent summers in Manila and San Francisco—the latter became her “Shangri-La,” an idealized representation of freedom and sophistication, and she eventually moved there to attend college. But Lee’s world was shattered by a sudden illness—in 1988, she become increasingly sick and then suffered a stroke. She eventually learned she was suffering from leukemia and could only be saved by a combination of radiation, chemotherapy, and a bone marrow transplant, which would prevent her from having children should she survive. The author, writing in deeply introspective prose, astutely examines the ways in which the disease compelled a revision of her worldview, puncturing the illusions of her youth. She turned to her family, especially her mother, for consolation amid her trials, a dependence she writes of affectingly: “I am also certain that if I had died, the mere sound of my mother’s voice would have sustained and guided me through whatever stages were ahead. The strength and power in her words would have been a beacon.” Lee’s story is a poignantly inspirational one—after her recovery, she became a patient advocate, intent on helping others. Her memoir is notably forthcoming and meditatively sensitive—with a gimlet-eye, she limns both tragedy and her triumph over it to find a meaning that encompasses both.
A cancer survivor’s affecting and elegantly composed remembrance.