How Nicole Chung rewrote her memoir on grief after losing a second parent during COVID
On the Shelf
A Living Remedy: A Memoir
By Nicole Chung
Ecco: 256 pages, $30
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Just as the writer Nicole Chung was adjusting to a new normal without her father, her mother received a terminal diagnosis. “We were especially ill-prepared because we were still figuring out what our relationship was going to be like in the wake of my father’s death,” Chung told me during a phone call from her home in the D.C. Area.
Chung had already written a memoir, 2018’s “All You Can Ever Know,” about her adoption and search for her birth family. (She was also, until recently, editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Catapult magazine.) When she learned of her mother’s cancer, she made plans to visit her in Oregon as soon as possible. But it was March 2020. That trip was canceled. The book she had planned on her father’s premature death went up in smoke. Three years later, she is out with a re-conceived memoir, “A Living Remedy”: the story of losing both her parents to a broken system only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Could you speak about when you started writing this book? When did you know this was a book-length project?
I had sold this book several months before my mother got her terminal diagnosis. My father had been dead for a year and a half, and I knew I wanted to write about the injustice of when and how he died. But my expectation was that my mother would be here and that she would read it, I could ask her questions and get her reaction. So I wasn’t expecting at all to write this book.
When my mother died, the writing terrified me. I put the project down. But once my children went back to school and I changed jobs, I had more “me-time,” and I was able to start again. But I had to start from scratch.
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A friend said that your father died a “very American death.” Can you say more about how this is so?
My father died at 67 after years of medical problems that were exacerbated by precarity and lack of access to medical care. According to his death certificate, he died of diabetes and renal failure. But I don’t think that death at 67 was an inevitability for him. It could’ve gone very differently.
You detail how the lack of access to care damaged both your parents’ health. What about the stress and anxiety about finances? Do you believe this was also a contributor?
I think so, certainly, having witnessed that stress and worry. By high school, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I think I was old enough to register this deep anxiety. I felt newly aware of our vulnerability. And things only got worse for the both of them, because then they had medical debt. Even though they worked very hard to shield me from all this, I spent a lot of time in adolescence, I think, learning to read between the lines.
I was struck by the stark difference between your father’s funeral, before COVID, and your mother’s, during the pandemic, though they were bound by the same faith and ritual of the Orthodox Christian community. In particular, how the open casket at your father’s funeral cemented the loss for your younger daughter.
Everything about my father’s funeral was what my mother wanted. Of course it was still a wrenchingly hard experience. My daughters, it was their first loss. My younger daughter’s age and her autism made his death a hard concept for her to grasp. But when she saw him in the casket, she reached out and touched his beard. She smiled. She wasn’t scared. Being there made it real for her.
When my mother got a terminal diagnosis, it was an inverse process. I wasn’t there to grieve with the community. I remember watching the funeral online, and the live feed cut out and it was just so, so quiet . . . the strange experience of grieving in isolation.
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There were so many moments of kindness, though. There was a friend who brought us a vase of snapdragons and she waved at me through the window and left them on the porch. I was struggling to answer phone calls. The sound of the ring almost sent me into a panic. I also knew it wasn’t going to be my mother on the other end. And so some of my friends sent me recorded video condolences, and then you can watch them when you’re ready. And you can watch them over and over again.
I imagine there will be many more of these stories coming out in the next few years.
Yes, it is certainly something I’ve thought of in writing this book. We are all living with so much grief right now, personal and collective, and it’s natural to want to look away from that. While I don’t think we should look away from that pain, I also understand sometimes that it’s uncomfortable for people to confront that.
Writing memoirs requires a fortitude and bravery that most people find terrifying. Now you’ve written two incredibly personal books. How do you do it?
It’s different for everybody. I found it terrifying for years! I’m still surprised to be writing this kind of work. When you’re little and you’re thinking of being a writer you’re not saying, “I’m going to write a memoir!” When I first started writing about my adoption I was so terrified. I was scared to show it to anyone. I remember each draft scraped a bit deeper. But I felt like I had been waiting to say these things my whole life.
I remember being moved by how generous people were in telling me mine was a perspective they hadn’t heard before. When I started writing more personal pieces, I noticed they really mattered to people. My favorite thing was when they said it made them feel less alone. I don’t necessarily think that nonfiction is a superior genre. The truth was just how I needed to write it.
Have you ever been met with suspicion or criticism over that honesty?
Being a woman of color writing online for many years, I’ve dealt with threats and racism. Criticism is entirely fair, but that’s different of course. The vast majority of messages I’ve received about “All You Can Ever Know” have been supportive. Some people are deeply offended that an adoptee would write about their experience, but those things are not going to stop me. I’m well aware of what my adoptive parents did for me.
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The ending of the book really had me thinking about what we feel we are responsible for, both as parents and as children. Particularly in the relationship between you and your mother, all the decisions that needed to be made and her resistance to letting you in on them.
There were so many moments at the end of my mother’s life, I remember wondering, why is it so hard to get her to talk to me? Who does she think should help her with this, if not me? I never know how much of this is being an adoptee, or being an only child, but I’ve always felt protective of my family. I felt this pressure to be good, I felt responsible for their well-being, too. I’m sure they didn’t want me to feel this way. They shielded me at every turn.
She was still my parent in the end, trying to protect me. But I’m so grateful that she was able to let me in on her decision-making. Mostly I’m just so angry that she didn’t have my father with her. He would’ve been a complete mess, but it’s just so unfair.
How are you and your family doing now? How are your daughters?
I wouldn’t want to speak for them, but I appreciate your asking so much. You know, I wrote an entire book about this and I wish I could tell you I understand my grief now, and that there are no more surprises! But that’s not true. It still shocks me every day. But one small hope I have for this book is that it will help other people to feel less lost in all this, and less alone.
Ferri is the owner of Womb House Books and the author, most recently, of “Silent Cities San Francisco.”
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