October 18, 2019

XYLYLS | The Privilege of Loss

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I try to catalogue everything that happens, maybe to the brink of obsession.

To that point, I have three pillars on which I rely to retell what is effectively my story: my Google calendar, a five-year Hobonichi, and my bullet journal. I’m obnoxiously type A with my calendar—I record any deviation from schedule, MCAT studying, impromptu kickbacks with friends, working out, journaling, etc. To supplement that, I start every morning by journaling in my Hobonichi. This particular 2019 – 2023 design reserves one spread for each calendar date, five divided rows for each year. Ultimately, what I write is mindless babble, but it helps to distill the day’s constant stimuli into a few sentences. It also helps that I daydream from day to day when I gaze at the blank spaces beneath years 2021, 2022, or 2023. “This day, two years in the future, I could be in medical school!”—this thought alone makes my heart skip a beat.

The bullet journal is my merciless grid of daily to-dos, the keeper of my accountability. I stipple my pages with stickers, each day with carefully proportioned squares and deliberate hatching. Each month is a record of my sleeping and of my habits, both the ones I’m trying to cultivate and the pesky ones of which I ache to rid. It’s also where I force myself to write one thing a day that made me happy. As it turns out, this task is not so difficult usually. Here are some of this year’s nuggets of gratitude (verbatim) as 2019 winds down:

  • 02 / thinking about how fortunate I am to have been raised in Colorado. evergreen lake in the mountains!
  • 05 / last time seeing the OG squad for probably another year or so—warmth with them comes so easily and thoughtfully
  • 25 / snow outside. also just being alone
  • 07 / lab dinner @ hibachi! everyone is so cute it makes me embarrassed to be there :’)
  • 24 / forgot how much better the alternate ending is of FFXV in episode ignis
  • 13 / vegetable soup!
  • 24 / took steps back in climbing in terms of strength… but technique (?) improved
  • 18 / getting to know Lena (she smiles a lot!)


Like I said, this task is not usually difficult; my threshold for what I consider small joys is, as you can see, low. Only on the days where breathing suddenly becomes herculean does it become hard to put pen to page.

In fact, I don’t write a single thing about December 3, 2017. There is no quirky note, no small doodle next to the tiny chicken-scratch heart, and, of course, no to-dos. It’s hard enough navigating everyday conversation with your friends and family after something like that—you don’t need a checklist. In a sea of days where there must be at least one thing that makes each day good, 12/03/2017 sticks out like a lone buoy. The only artifact I have from December 3rd, two years ago, is a spread of figure drawings in ink with that date and a hastily pasted hospital name tag in the corner. I don’t know why I kept it or what purpose it serves being there, burrowed in my sketchbook. I just know I accumulate things, sometimes meaninglessly, in desperate hope that one day it will spontaneously become meaningful.

People are wrong about grief, or the response to loss. Loss doesn’t get easier with time—it just gets heavier. Everything I heard and read and watched about grief doesn’t prepare you for anything. Five years with a diagnosis doesn’t prepare you. The things you hear people say after it happens—“I’ll keep you in my prayers,” “They’re in a better place,” “It’ll get easier”—quickly become default, empty platitudes, unintentionally devoid of care (it’s not that they don’t care—that it’s unintentional really bites). And, primarily, people commonly characterize loss with sorrow, misery, depression …

My personal experience with loss has felt less like I’m drowning and more like I’m standing at the shore of an endless ocean that separates you from me, and I can’t swim. I can’t build a boat either, or fly, so my options are limited. If, somehow, I was able to peer over the horizon to the other side of the world, I’m not even 100% certain that you would be there. But there’s a reason I keep coming back to the shore. The cusp of the expanse is not even that beautiful—it’s dizzying and impossible and fills me with longing. I just near the sea, sit down, let the waves lick my feet, and cry. With each visit, I’m no closer to any conclusion, no more certain about how to reach you, and the vastness is so unchanged you’d think it was mocking me.

It’s honestly the distance that drives me crazy. I think with every unanswered question and conversation we never had, the ocean between us swelled a league in length. What was it like growing up in China and moving to America? With what did you struggle that you never let me see? What was it like to acquiesce to your parents’ push for you to pursue degrees in math and physics when all you really wanted to do was draw? How are you way better than me at drawing, and we never had a single conversation about it? Why wouldn’t you talk to me, and why was I so scared of talking to you? Is it cultural, or was our family singled out to be scourged by poor communication?

When you got stressed, did you ever close your eyes and imagine looking up at a big night sky filled with stars?

Soon after your diagnosis, I think you withdrew because you knew I didn’t know a world without you. And maybe you were trying to prepare me. But I already said this. Nothing prepares you, not for the permanence of death and certainly not for how big this stupid ocean is, or for the kind of unshakable coldness that seems to follow you, even when you finally make it inside.

And it’s not really sadness anymore. It’s compression to the point of discomfort, crushing when I want to flail, and deep vibrations that leave me with tremors for days at a time. And it’s completely indiscriminate, hitting like waves of aftershocks.

Loss gets heavier with time because I realized too late that people—all people—are phenomenally interesting. And when I hear stories of my friends, of these new people who fill my heart and my life in more ways than one, I find that I cry because, I realize, this is just the opportunity I never gave you. Every remarkable new friend and heartrending, character-building story accumulates and, now, thanks to you, there is value in getting to know souls in intimate and profound ways. Because I failed when I was younger. I failed with you, out of everyone I could have possibly failed, and the second-to-worst part of it is that teenage me didn’t even know I was failing. And the definitively worst part was that you never thought I failed. You told me you were proud of me. You were always telling me how proud you were of me.

… for what?

I maintain that people are wrong about grief. Some vague, bodyless entity on the internet once said, “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Reading this sentiment for the first time touched me acutely. In the way that it applies to nascent, all-at-once grief, I agree. It very accurately describes the kind of grief that makes you abandon your bullet journal and paralyzes your pen. One moment, you are channeling every last scintilla of love into this person, and the second they’re gone, the gate of the channel slams shut, and love accumulates, bursts, and disperses like vapor. However, in the way it applies to long-term grief, I could not have had a more opposite experience.

In one of my favorite essays that describes life as the passing of seasons titled “There Is a Season”, author Parker Palmer writes,

There is another paradox here, known in all the wisdom traditions: If you receive a gift, you keep it alive not by clinging to it but by passing it along.

Grief, as I have experienced it, saturates my every conversation and every meaningful interaction I have with the world now. That I lost you inspires asking the hard questions sometimes, conversations that end in tears, the orientation of heart that yearns only to become closer and to care deeper. It is because I lost you that I know what kind of doctor I want to be. It is because of grief, of failing you, of everything I couldn’t give you that I know now just how rich life can be. So, it is not true that in grief, love has nowhere to go: this newly liberated love just needs some time to recover before I can redistribute it to my family, to my insanely important friends, to every individual in my support system who’s patiently listened to me along the way, to the zeal with which I can choose now to live my life.

To my future patients.

To that one patient I might meet in my future: Chinese immigrant, father of two (upon whom he dotes too much), hardworking, faithful husband, diagnosed with stage IV non-small lung cancer with a prognosis of a few years but, with just a little bit of love, can live at least until he sees his daughter graduate high school.

And all of that—that squeezing tightness, that unyielding compression, those unprompted tremors, and that eternal waiting at the edge of an infinite sea with ice-cold seawater lapping unremittingly at your toes—is the privilege of loss.

It’s realizing that nothing gets easier, that everything gets heavier, but that you grow stronger because it’s not an option to remain where you were. You wouldn’t want to anyway, once you finally feel what it’s like to live with two hearts—your own that has always been there, weathered and worn, and the other, born of grief, suffused with the love that has, like a gift, been passed on to you.

I want to end by mentioning that I am unbelievably lucky to have experienced loss the way I did. I recognize that, while one part of my world was crumbling, 90% of the structures in my life at the time were (for the most part) as solid as rock: the privilege of coming to Cornell, my own mental and physical health, the few friends I told when it truly felt like love had nowhere to go, my aunt, my brother, and my mom. I have not yet experienced the kind of irredeemable loss many have experienced at varying junctions of lives much more different than my own, so please take what I have to say with a grain of salt. There are many things I have yet to experience, things that will surely change how I feel as I write this.

If you haven’t heard of the MPR podcast Living While Dying: An ALS Story, I urge anyone interested to listen. To keep it brief, it focuses on Bruce Kramer, who is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He’s an educator and a husband who faces his diminishing life with a refreshing take: one of acceptance, preparation, and saying goodbye. Everything I have written here is summed up objectively better by Kramer in the last episodes of the podcast:

We humans tend to interpret loss as the wrong side, as if loss could be controlled. As if we were never going to lose. And we have so much evidence in front of us that says this is a silly belief.

Loss is the process that we need in order to replace something with something else. We can replace it—that loss—with something that is actually transformative or transcendent. We don’t learn when everything’s going well. We are habitual, we don’t learn when everything is good. We learn and we grow when we are challenged.

And in the end, every human will lose everything. There will be enormous loss. And in that loss is great opportunity. Opportunity to build into the human that you want to become.