Author Nicole Chung was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle and later adopted by a white couple in Southern Oregon. The 2018 memoir “All You Can Ever Know” follows Chung’s exploration of her identity as a transracial adoptee as she searches for her birth family. Her second memoir, released earlier this month, covers the untimely deaths of her adoptive parents — first her father from kidney disease, then her mother from cancer in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “A Living Remedy” chronicles Chung’s grief and rage as she reckons with ways financial instability and inadequate health care access contributed to her parents’ deaths.
Chung will be at Powell’s City of Books on Thursday, April 20, for a conversation with author Lydia Kiesling. She joins us to talk about her most recent work.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross, in for Dave Miller. Nicole Chung lost her parents to illness. It happens and when it does, it’s hard. It’s wrenching. It’s confusing. But there are some truths about Nicole’s loss that made it harder for her. Her dad died of diabetes and kidney disease at the age of 67 and his lack of health insurance over the years accelerated his sickness. Her mom died of cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant Nicole couldn’t be with her at the end. It’s like Nicole Chung lost her parents to illness and to American systemic breakdowns. She writes about all of this and more in her new memoir. It’s called “A Living Remedy.”
Nicole Chung is going to be with us for the hour of Think Out loud today. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Nicole Chung: Thank you so much, I’m glad to be here.
Norcross: Yeah, it’s kind of a welcome back to Oregon.
Chung: It is!
Norcross: You grew up in a small Southern Oregon town, and it has to be mentioned that you are Korean, your parents were white. You were adopted. What was it like growing up there?
Chung: I grew up in Southern Oregon, as you mentioned, and I was actually the only Korean I really knew or was close to the entire time I lived there until I went to college at 18. So it was very much a state of total racial isolation in that regard. I had a really good, loving childhood. I can’t stress that enough. But there were a lot of different ways that my family sort of struggled as I write about a little bit in “A Living Remedy.”
I also mentioned that we really struggled to talk about race and racism and my Korean identity. At the time I was adopted, which was the early eighties, my adoptive parents were specifically told, ‘it’s not really going to be relevant. You won’t need to talk with her about her racial identity.’ They were advised by everyone from the adoption agency that did their home study to the judge who finalized the adoption. So, they were really kind of heeding that advice. And as a result, we really didn’t discuss these things even though...of course I knew from a very young age that I was kind of the only one and I knew what I was and was not seeing. I went to a small parochial, very white school where I was often the only Asian kid and experienced a lot of like racial bullying. In terms of my home life, it was relatively secure for a long time and really a loving family.
Norcross: It was insecure at times of course. And we’ll get to that in a bit. You say that you had this little game that you would play with yourself down there - it was called Count the Asian.
Chung: Oh, yeah.
Norcross: What was that about?
Chung: Just what it sounds like. I could go weeks or months without seeing Asian people who are new to me. I knew where a lot of them were. Obviously I’d see them at the Chinese restaurant. There was this couple who worked at the Doughnut Den and there was someone who worked at this Minute Market near my house. It was very few and far between and I used to kind of count as a game. It was just sort of kind of goofy thing I did. But also I think, really speaks again to that isolation and the way I was looking for what I wasn’t really seeing for people like me.
Norcross: It’s kind of interesting that your parents just didn’t go there when you were, so clearly, seeing with your own eyes that you didn’t look like them but you also didn’t look like anybody.
Chung: It’s true. I mean, again, I think they were a little bit anxious in the way that parents sometimes are, that if they spoke about it, it might make me more worried about it. Also there was a lot that I wasn’t sharing with them, to be honest. I never really told my parents about the bullying at school until I was much older. I did not know how to explain what was happening. I didn’t know that the words I was being called were slurs. I didn’t know what to call them. I remember feeling, not just shame over it, at like seven or eight years old and confusion, but also the strong sense that I had to protect my family from the knowledge of it. Because they raised me to think that it didn’t matter what I looked like at all. It didn’t matter if I was the only one people just cared about who I was on the inside. I just didn’t know how to explain to them that wasn’t the case in my experience. Some of it was just, I think, them not being aware of what I was experiencing and some of that was because of the choices I made.
Norcross: You say in your book that you knew that you were loved but you felt like you were living a life meant for someone else. What do you mean by that?
Chung: Sometimes it just seemed what was I doing in this specific place, in this specific time? I guess I was always both an observant, watchful, and also kind of philosophical kid and it’s probably not a shock, in a way, that I grew up to be a writer...
…because I was very curious... and when you’re adopted, that’s the thing, you know you could have been adopted by so many different families. It wasn’t that I wanted different parents. But still, my mind would wander and I would think: ‘Well, what would have happened if I’d been raised by my birth family. Or what would have happened if a totally different set of parents had adopted me? What would my life be like? Where would I be living?’ When you’re an adoptee, these are very real possibilities. That really could have happened to you. So part of it was just thinking why this particular place and time?
A part of it too was I didn’t really feel like I fit where I was. And so it just felt like, well, nothing terrible, nothing absolutely terrible is happening to me. This would be a really good life... and it was, in many ways, a good life for me. But I just remember feeling like, ‘I’d be so much more comfortable here if I were white like my parents and friends.’ Or ‘If they’d adopted a white kid instead they wouldn’t be having these particular experiences.’ I think some of it just stemmed from being adopted and knowing there’s a universe of other possibilities out there.
Norcross: Yeah. And in fact your first book, “All You Can Ever Know,” is an exploration of the circumstances of your adoption and your search for your birth parents. Why was it important for you to know all that and explore all that?
Chung: I think growing up in isolation and growing up with absolutely no knowledge of my birth family. And by that I don’t just mean I didn’t know their names. I mean we didn’t have a social or a medical history. The very little info that we had, were honestly guesses for the most part. So I had grown up kind of wondering about them and my feelings about adoption and being adopted were very complicated. I wasn’t in a place to contemplate a search when I was younger.
And then as I write in “All You Can Ever Know,” [in] my mid to late twenties, I got pregnant for the first time with my first child. I just remember sitting at that prenatal appointment and getting lots of questions about my health history and my mother’s pregnancy and by that they meant my birth mother and I had no information.I just started to feel kind of... It’s not fair and I wouldn’t judge anyone else in this situation but I felt in that moment inadequate. What I had was not enough to go on and it wasn’t enough to pass on. I think what had been a really deep lifelong curiosity at that point, expecting a child of my own, was kind of the final push that led me to search at that time.
Norcross: And how did your adoptive parents feel about you digging into your past and then writing about what you found?
Chung: Oh, I mean, two very different questions. They were… after some initial surprise I think, and maybe a little bit of warning... because I think it’s fair to say my adoptive parents were always opposed, when I was growing up certainly, to me having any contact with my birth family. In fact, one of my birth parents tried to reach out to me when I was very young. They tried to contact us through the adoption attorney who represented my parents, my adoptive parents that is, and they very quickly shut that down. I only found out about that many years later.
So I know when I was growing up they didn’t think it would be beneficial to me. They were afraid it would be confusing. I think they were worried about everything from a later contested adoption to just me having two sets of parents. They didn’t think that was normal and wouldn’t have known, I think, how to deal with it. So my adoption was very much closed. Not open when I was growing up. But they had always said, ‘You know, when you’re older over 18, when you’re an adult, if you want to search you can do that.’
I think they were a little skeptical about what I’d find and kind of warned me not to get my hopes up. But they were supportive of the decision once I told them. Of course none of us were thinking at that time that I was going to write it all down in a book.
My mother’s reaction when I told her, this is many years later, that I was thinking about writing a book about was, ‘You’re writing a memoir? You’re not famous… who’s going to read it?’
Chung: I know, exactly. I think that makes a lot of sense. I am obviously not a celebrity memoirist. But that was a very focused project. Anything that really wasn’t relevant to my adoptee experience and why I searched and what I found just kind of didn’t fit in that book. But my parents were both very supportive, my adoptive parents and my birth father - who I’m in reunion with. As well as my biological sister. So my family was really great about it.
Norcross: Your parents never had much money. In fact, your mom said they didn’t live paycheck to paycheck so much as emergency to emergency. And there’s a lot of talk about the fortunes of the Southern Oregon timber industry. I was wondering if you could tie your parents’ financial circumstances to the downturn that was happening there?
Chung: It’s difficult for me to do explicitly just because my parents didn’t work in the timber industry. I will say the decline of both timber and fishing in that region led to job scarcity for many years. My father worked in the service industry for most of my childhood, in restaurants. My mother worked a variety of jobs from Respiratory Therapist when I was young to Office and Medical Billing. She did a number of different things. They were not college educated. For a long time were able still to make ends meet with decent jobs.
And then unemployment, it came and went. There were times when companies they worked for, businesses they worked for, actually closed. Some of that could be due to economic downturns certainly in the area. Then it was an area where it was still really difficult to find a job. A good job, when you lost one. So a stretch of unemployment might go on for months. At that point, they would kind of improvise. I remember my mom would sometimes clean houses. I remember her working in my middle school cafeteria. I remember my dad sometimes doing yard work for this wealthy family my grandmother worked for.
They were very much hard working, ‘do what needed to be done’ people. That mostly worked. But as I wrote in the book, I eventually learned what I thought was sort of relative stability, was really just kind of an imitation of it. It was dependent on everything going right. As soon as something went wrong, someone got sick, someone lost a job, a car broke down, whatever, you could see how shaky the whole system actually was for our family. I think that the main struggle for them were the health issues that started cropping up when I was in high school. At that point that was when we really went from paycheck to paycheck to emergency to emergency.
Norcross: In fact, your mom had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy when you were in high school. Can you talk about that? The lack of the safety net they had when they were struggling like that?
Chung: Yeah. I was much more aware of my mother’s health difficulties when I was in high school because they were acute. They were right in front of my face. I knew when she was diagnosed with cancer when I was a freshman in high school. And then two years later she was having significant pelvic pain. At that time we were uninsured. It had been two years since her breast cancer surgery and remission, had been really difficult years for my family. She and my father had been unemployed off and on almost that whole time. He lost his job six weeks after her mastectomy. It was just a really difficult time and medical debt was already rising.
Then she’s experiencing this new pain. I didn’t know about it until one night when she told me you have to drive me to the ER. My dad must have been working late. So I was the one who took her and she was in agony at that point. That was the night that she had an emergency hysterectomy. But I don’t know what would have happened. We can’t know what would have happened if she’d been able to get treatment for those issues sooner but we’d been uninsured for months at that point. So by the time these problems were caught the only option was this emergency surgery in the middle of the night. It was another uninsured procedure, which meant there was more medical debt. It’s not like they told me this, I only found out years later.
At home, I could still sense that things were no longer stable. I could tell they were much more stressed. I could tell that there just wasn’t money for things, even some things that I needed as a high school student. So I worked a part time job to pay for a lot of those things. It was just a really increasingly stressful time for all of us, especially for my parents.
Norcross: Were Medicaid or disability insurance not an option for them?
Chung: So disability insurance, my father applied for that many years later due to diabetes and what we now know to be... he had renal failure. But no it wasn’t really an option. They were both just sometimes working, sometimes not working...very much still wanted to work. When my mother’s health problems began she was still in her forties. I think, too, my parents had a deep skepticism about what they referred to as ‘handouts.’ They didn’t even really like being on unemployment insurance. Later, many years later, when we did try to get my father to apply for disability it was like a real struggle and then he was denied anyway. As so many people are the first time.
Yeah, I don’t know if they just weren’t aware of what was available or if they were ineligible or if they just thought it’ll be fine as long as we find another job and have employer-based insurance. One way or another we were really struggling and without insurance for most of my high school years. That would have a long term impact on my parents’ lives.
Norcross: And we’ll talk about how that bore itself out with your parents a little bit later. I also want to touch on the fact that your parents were quite religious, which you don’t appear to be. What did their experience in the church teach you about community and help?
Chung: As I write about in the book, I don’t share my parents’ faith. They raised me Catholic. They converted though to orthodox Christianity after I left home. They were part of a small parish for the last 15-20 years of their lives. I really saw this community come together in action both for my father and my mother when they were sick. With my dad I saw at his funeral... I remember flying out there and a lot of our extended family couldn’t make it to his funeral. So it was my Mom’s church community really, this close-knit community, and actually my biological sister and her family who lives in the Portland area. So they were the ones who really stepped in and were there for all of us after my father died.
People in that church did everything from bring food to share at the reception after, to someone in the parish made my father’s casket free of charge. I saw this again with my mother when her cancer came back. She started hospice care during the very early days of the pandemic and that community again really drew together to care for her. Everything from food and visits, masked visits, to just helping both her and me figure out what her last wishes were. And helped us figure out everything from her will to advance directives. I don’t have a religious community like that. And, that’s kind of by choice, but I was just struck, and still am, by how much they were seen and nourished and served by those friends - those people who really became like a chosen family to them. I’ll always be grateful that they had that.
Norcross: You say that you decided to leave your Southern Oregon Town before you even figured out how you were going to be able to do that. And one year when you actually got to see a doctor or a pediatrician the doctor told you, ‘Well, yeah, of course, you have to go...
Chung: Oh my god.
Norcross: …because you’re not even going to be able to find someone to marry here, right?’
Chung: I mean, I don’t know why she said that. [laughing]
Obviously, you can find people to partner with anywhere but that was what she said to me.
Norcross: So, what do you think she was trying to tell you?
Chung: It’s funny. She didn’t really even know me all that well. She was ‚as I write, sort of my on again off again doctor because I didn’t go very often in childhood. She evidently thought she knew me well enough to point out, kind of gently and in a funny way, that she knew I didn’t quite belong there. It was just interesting to have someone who is practically a stranger note that.
I don’t know, I’m from the kind of place where a lot of people hang around and a lot of people know… everybody knows everybody. It is not that others don’t leave but I didn’t know a lot of people who felt the way I did. Like, ‘We just don’t quite belong here.’ I want to stress too that it was not a bad place to grow up. I still have a lot of fondness for it. I love going back to Oregon and I actually miss it. I miss parts of it very much. I’ve been on the east coast now for over two decades. I knew at least I did not belong there in that particular place from a really young age. It was just funny to me that this person who saw me, I don’t know less than once a year, knew that too.
Norcross: Well, your parents were wanderers too.
Chung: They were.
Norcross: They grew up in Ohio, and your dad said one of his proudest accomplishments was getting out of Ohio, right?
Chung: I mean, yeah.
Norcross: What did they teach you about wanderlust and impermanence?
Chung: Yeah. My parents were both from the Cleveland area and one of five siblings each. Most of the rest of their family stayed in Ohio. My parents married very young and struck out West. So they moved to Alaska. They lived in Ketchikan and then they moved to Seattle. Then eventually, they moved to Southern Oregon and that’s where I was raised.
Many people in their family just thought they had lost their minds when they decided to, not just leave Ohio, but go so far out there. But they were the wanderers. I think they were the adventures of their family and they weren’t scared by big moves like that, by big choices, by opportunities. They saw, I think, adventure and opportunity where a lot of people see risk. I only started to reflect on that after I left home, many years after, wonder is that partly why I left. Was it being their child? Was it having this pattern, this model, that also made me feel like I’m not stuck here, all evidence to the contrary? I didn’t know how I was going to leave. But I did have this example of parents who had left everything and everyone they knew to start over and follow their dreams and I think that was a very powerful example to have as a young person.
Norcross: And what was your dream?
Chung: Oh, I mean, I wanted to experience the world somewhere else. I wanted to find a place where I was not the only Asian. I wanted to see what I was capable of and see if I could help my family. From a pretty young age, I understood that that was going to be part of my role and my responsibility. That was definitely one of my goals in going to college and leaving home and trying to figure out what my life was going to be. I was always kind of looking back over my shoulder and thinking how and when am I gonna be able to help my parents?
Norcross: Well, they seem supportive of your decisions except when they weren’t. And there’s a moment in the book where you tell your mom that you’re going to get married in your college town on the east coast and not in your hometown. And it hurt. There’s a passage there that is very beautiful and very enlightening. I was wondering if you could read that for me.
[Reading]: ‘All I could remember about my last visit to Oregon was sitting at my parents’ white Formica dining table feeling helpless as I listened to my mother cry about my wedding. My family supported our decision to marry but mom was upset that I wasn’t getting married, quote from home. I was utterly blindsided by her disappointment. Hosting was not something I thought my parents cared about. It wasn’t that we didn’t socialize, but we generally did not entertain. And why would I expect my parents to plan and host a wedding here when I lived 3,000 miles away?
I tried to list all my logical reasons for marrying in our college town instead and the challenges of planning a wedding from across the country. Flights into our little airport would take forever and cost everyone outside Oregon, 97% of our guests, a small fortune. I couldn’t think of a local hotel to recommend. I couldn’t visit venues or bakeries or florists here. I had no interest in getting married at the church I’d grown up attending and nor did I want to marry in the orthodox parish my parents belonged to even if that would have been allowed. I didn’t tell my mother what I was really thinking, which is that by then, I would have gladly canceled the wedding and eloped if I could have done so without breaking her heart.
‘You’re ashamed,’ she said. Skimming over every reason I’d given and going for the direct cut. ‘You don’t want everyone to see where you grew up.’ It was the first and only time I ever heard her say, ‘We are just your white trash family.’
I was young but I did know myself a little and it was true that I had no desire to invite everyone I knew to whatever sort of function I might have been able to assemble from a distance in our town. I was conscious of the differences between my fiance’s family and mine. Eager to win his parents’ approval and hoping to protect my own from judgment. But ‘ashamed,’ ‘white trash’, these were words I had never used and didn’t identify with. I couldn’t understand why my mother had seized on them. Why she would wield them like weapons against both of us.
None of my practical arguments moved her. She had always imagined me getting married at home but she had never said so before. And now for the first time in my life, I had let her down. I was sorry for it, though the hurt had been unintentional. But I was not remotely tempted to give in and move the wedding. My mother had not raised me to fear her disapproval or rejection. Even as we argued, I understood she loved me far too much to be unhappy at my wedding.
What I couldn’t seem to adequately express to her, was that practicality aside, it made no sense to me to celebrate one of the most important days of my life in a place to which I felt no strong connection. If my family hadn’t lived there, I don’t know that I ever would have gone back.’
Norcross: That’s Nicole Chung, reading from her new memoir, “A Living Remedy.” Nicole, why do you think your mom reacted to the news the way she did?
Chung: Oh, I still have no idea.
Chung: She had never really said that to me before that it was an expectation. My mother and I, we were not the type of people who talked about my future wedding. We talked about a lot of things. She was really a very close confidant but she never put any pressure on me to marry at all. Always made it clear it was gonna be my decision if and when and never told me that she cared about where I got married. The only thing she said was, ‘You know you can’t get married without me there,’ meaning there was no eloping without her present. I understand that to be the rule but it honestly never occurred to me that she cared whether I got married from home.
I got married very young but I was still in college when I got engaged. But even by then, I could not picture it. You know, it wasn’t my home anymore and I didn’t spend a lot of the year there. I just... logistics aside it just didn’t really cross my mind as a possibility until she told me that that was what she’d expected.
Norcross: We’re gonna talk about your parents’ illness and their untimely deaths now, and I want to start with your father. You mentioned your father had dealt with health problems for much of his life. When did you realize that he was really sick? You know, the kind of sick that you don’t come back from?
Chung: You know, it was difficult too because I was living across the country at the time. I had settled out here. I was raising young kids and I wasn’t able to go home as often as I wanted to just because it was not a time in my life when I had a lot of extra income. In fact, usually when I managed to get home I was putting flights on a credit card. My parents couldn’t afford to see us very often either. So we were doing visits maybe once a year, sometimes every other year, it was really hard. I didn’t have eyes on the situation all the time.
They’re very different people, but one thing [my parents] shared was this desire to protect me. So sometimes they would minimize what dad’s health problems were, sometimes I would only hear about it weeks later. But I think I must have been very aware starting around like 2011, 2012. It was a period when they were both out of work. It was probably like one of their hardest periods. They’d been without insurance for years at this point and dad was getting sicker and mom started sharing with me and I started noticing on our very rare visits, he seems like he’s moving like he’s much older than he is. It t was getting really hard for him to do stairs. I noticed he was kind of shuffling a bit when he walked like he was a little bit unsteady on his feet. She told me all that had gotten worse. Plus a host of things that she knew was related to diabetes, like his eyesight and then some things where she just wasn’t sure. He had a really unsettled stomach. He had very severe fatigue. His legs were sometimes swollen. She knew something was very wrong but didn’t know what.
She kept saying, ‘He needs to see specialists. He needs specialized care and a lot of tests done.’ They just didn’t have a way to access it at that point. They didn’t have the income and they didn’t have the health coverage. But that was when I started to be aware of it and that was when my mother and I started urging my father to apply for Social Security Disability. Which took a very long time to convince him because he was a very proud person and he still felt like he could work, like he wanted to work. When he finally applied, he was denied, as I mentioned before. So as kind of a last ditch effort, they got him on the waitlist at a federally qualified health center and eventually he was finally seen there. That’s when they actually figured out what was wrong.
Norcross: And this is something that you had to set up for him from 3,000 miles away?
Chung: I had certainly had the urge and I offered to set it up but in the end my mother was finally convinced to call the health clinic. By the time they went in there, his kidneys had lost over 90% of their function. They didn’t know that it was that bad, obviously. The specialist told him, ‘If you hadn’t come in when you did, you’d be dead in weeks.’ So going to that health center saved his life. But by the time he got in and got seen, just so much damage had already been done.
Norcross: I’m struck by the fact that your parents shared so much of this with you but they also withheld so much from you in the interest of quote, ‘protecting you.’ How does that make you feel?
Chung: At the time I remember being very upset about it, sometimes I’d be angry. I also kind of understood and understand that urge. There’s always this balance between believing that you could protect your children from these very hard things and then like the reality. In their case, it was the reality that they did need more help. They were just really struggling. But it was always hard for me...for them to let me into that role.
When my mother was sick, not to skip ahead. That was one of the hardest things, for her, was letting me move into more of a caregiving role. Not a parenting role, I wasn’t like her parent. But her view of it was she took care of me not the other way around and it was really difficult for her to admit she needed help. I think it was the same for both of them when my dad was sick. They would say things like, ‘You have your own kids, you have your own life, you have a family to worry about. This isn’t your problem.’ But I’m their only child and it’s always been the three of us. So I very much felt it was my problem.I was worried… it was just I think hard, particularly in those years, for them to let me in. I think they were scared. I think it was a really scary time for both of them.
Norcross: And he died in 2018 and he was only 67.
Norcross: Do you think he would have lived longer if he had more consistent health coverage throughout his life?
Chung: I mean, I do. I’m very well aware that he had these diseases. He had a genetic predisposition for them and might have had them anyway. But I don’t personally believe that death at 67 for my father was some inevitability. I really do think if he’d had ongoing, regular access to the type of care he needed from when he was first diagnosed with diabetes. Even in his early forties until ongoing. But he really only received the care he desperately needed very late in the process after his kidneys were failing, as kind of a crisis response. It’s not like he had access to what he needed all along.
Of course, you can’t know what would have happened in another timeline, another world. But I do think, and my mother thought so too, she and I both talked after he died about just wishing he’d had more access. Wishing that we’d somehow been able to do more for him. Because there’s that piece of it too. There’s knowing that systems and safety nets failed and also feeling like,’Oh if only I had been able to do more myself…' and that was something that was a part of, I think the grief process for both of us after he died.
Norcross: You’d mentioned that he had a genetic predisposition to diabetes. You point out that his mother, your grandmother, lived longer and had greater access to life prolonging treatment in the ‘60s and ‘70s than her own son had. And you’re very clear that this is not a political book. But are you saying something about the basic level of health care in this country right now?
Chung: I mean, I just feel as though just stating the facts are fairly damning in and of themselves. We know that people here spend more money on medical coverage per capita than anywhere else. It’s really a case of not getting what you pay for it. You have to navigate this enormous health bureaucracy. Many people don’t have adequate coverage and they’re uninsured or under-insured. Then even if you are among the fortunate who have insurance, frequently you are not getting all the care you need. So being insured also doesn’t mean the cost of health care isn’t a burden to you. It’s obviously far more challenging for people like my parents who, when my father was the sickest he’d ever been, were without coverage.
I don’t think of this as just the health care system alone. There were many points at which they were denied assistance or found ineligible for assistance that could have really been helpful. Everything from the Oregon Health Plan to food and rental assistance that they were not qualified for. I do think about that and I don’t know, I think, no, this book isn’t intended to be like a polemic. But I think again just stating the facts and knowing that my father is hardly alone in this, that this is a situation so many American families find themselves in. Trying to meet illness, grave illness, without the care, support, coverage, and resources they need. We just know these to be facts. So yeah, it was something that I very much wanted to face head on in this book. But also, as mentioned, it was impossible for me to write the story of my grief without acknowledging this. It was so much a part of how my mother and I felt and how we grieved for my father.
And in different ways, when my mother was sick two years later, again, like just interacting with the systems that were available trying to figure out how to get her the help and the care she would need – very different circumstances because by then she was just old enough to qualify for Social Security and Medicare. But there was still a lot to figure out. Again kind of scrambling to do this without the millions of dollars that would have made it feel more possible.
Norcross: You intended for this book to be all about your father’s illness and death, and that’s how you sold the proposal. And then you learned your mom was diagnosed with cancer. How did that change things for you?
Chung: It changed everything and then of course, the world changed. Because, as I mentioned, my mother entered hospice care right around the time the first Coronavirus cases were being reported here. So of course I sold the book and I was working on it a little bit before she received her terminal diagnosis. And while she was sick, I was very focused on her and her care and trying to support her. I put the manuscript down for a good long while. After she died in the spring of 2020, during the early weeks of the pandemic, I still didn’t pick the book up again. I just wasn’t ready.
At that point I knew the whole project would need to be reimagined. I just didn’t have the energy for that kind of endeavor and it was partly pandemic life but a lot of it was grief. There were times when I didn’t know if I’d ever get back to it, honestly. I do remember writing a lot in my journal in those months and those proved to be really helpful sources, I suppose. Sometimes I took notes or did research for the book but for the most part, I didn’t really start working on it again in earnest until she’d been gone about six months, I think. At that point I just started over from the beginning. I took a few things I’d drafted but for the most part I started over from scratch. It was just a kind of a long, slow process, and writing about very immediate, very raw grief. So, yeah, I wrote most of it starting in late 2020 and then in and through 2021.
I got to a point where I think I felt very curious about the story and where it was going to go. I was interested in trying to write about my grief in real time - which is new to me. I think with my first book I knew very much where I was going most of the time. Nothing in that book surprised me. I write about plenty of surprises but the writing process itself didn’t really shock me at any point. With “A Living Remedy,” there were months where I didn’t know where it was going. Which was really scary. But eventually, along with the fear, there were these questions. What was I learning about myself and my parents? What was most important to me to talk about in my grief? And could I write this story in a way that would really matter to other people? And make them think of their own lives, their loved ones, and their losses.
I had to really trust myself and my writing in a way I had not done before. I also learned to show myself a lot of grace - which is very new to me in terms of work. I really had to learn to be gentler with myself when writing this book. But I’m glad I figured that out because I don’t think it would have been possible if I hadn’t finally learned to show myself a little bit of grace and care in my work.
Norcross: How did you get to that point where you felt grace for yourself for what sounds like the first time?
Chung: It was kind of late in coming and honestly I think grief for my father and my mother changed me a lot. Many people will be able to relate to this, living through the pandemic. Living through this one long extended crisis. Trying to not just care for my mom at the end of her life but then parent two anxious kids during it. Balancing full time job and full time Zoom school and writing and everything else. I think I learned a lot more about my limitations. I realized I needed to have some patience for those and some patience for my own humanity. I just sensed that pushing through… forcing myself to produce at any cost, it might result in a book but it was not going to result in ‘the book I wanted to write.’ It was not going to be what I needed it to be.
I learned to approach my work with a little bit more patience and faith. There were many days when I didn’t write because I simply could not find time during the pandemic. And then there were days where there were these long marathon sessions and I was really feeling very free. The book definitely required everything I am. One of the things it also required was for me to slow down and take some care and recognize when I needed breaks. Recognize when I needed more time. I asked for a deadline extension, which I’d never done before in my life.
But it was so necessary. I’m very... ‘thank you, so much,’ to my editor. It was really necessary to write this particular book. I just don’t think it would have been the book it needed to be if I had not learned to approach my writing in this way.
Norcross: And, on the topic of being gracious with yourself, you’ve said a couple of times here that at times during your parents’ sicknesses and ultimately their deaths, you wanted so much to be more helpful, financially or otherwise. I understand the motivation but why was it so strong?
Chung: So many things. Some of it’s probably being an only child and feeling... some of it is growing up with parents who were loving and did their best and were very good parents but ultimately I did grow up seeing them struggle in different ways. I was very aware and very protective. I don’t know, it was just, I loved them. I think primarily that was coming from this place of love.
I think many people think of caregiving as a family responsibility. A personal one and part of what we owe our parents and elders. There was a lot I wanted to do and I think that works if you’re privileged enough and wealthy enough and live, or can move near your parents. Or have space in your home for them … even then it’s very energy intensive. It takes time and it can be isolating.
On the one hand, I know that focusing on individual, personal responsibility can obscure the reality of these broken systems that we’re all trying to navigate. It can let whole failing structures off the hook when we just think about it as it all being up to us. And on the other hand, they were my parents and I loved them, of course. Of course I wanted to be able to do more – everything from being more present and affording more trips to I wish I could have supplied them with the health care they needed. That option just wasn’t there for any of us.
Part of my grieving process has always also been learning to forgive myself or not punish myself for these things that are beyond my control. I guess it did require me to face the reality of these broken systems and how it wasn’t my parents’ fault and it wasn’t mine. Ultimately, these structures that weren’t really set up to help us, didn’t. I think it was really important for me to face that as part of my grieving process. Honestly so that I didn’t stay in that place of just blaming myself.
Norcross: Your mom died in May of 2020. So obviously you couldn’t travel. You and your husband and your kids watched the funeral from your couch, over a video from your home on the east coast. How was that for you?
Chung: It was a very hard day and just very surreal. That’s still my only live-streamed funeral. Of course it was not at all what I imagined. We had buried my dad just two years earlier. So funerals were very fresh in my mind. I just pictured when it was my mother... once we knew she was dying and I knew I was also gonna lose her, I thought like at least I’ll be able to be there.I’ll get a phone call and they’ll tell me it’s time and I’ll get on a plane and I will fly there and I’ll hold her hands and I’ll be there when she dies. That was a moment that we were robbed of because of the pandemic.
I remember the funeral being a very...it was a really lonely experience in a way. Of course my family, my husband and kids, were there but it was that phase of the pandemic when we really weren’t seeing other people. If we were going for walks we were masked. I remember some friends sending flowers and food and a neighbor dropped some flowers on the porch and waved at me through the window. That was kind of the extent of the fellowship that day. Again, from my father’s funeral, I remembered the funeral, the burial, the mercy meal, the reception after, people hugging and laughing and talking and crying. My mother’s funeral, there was none of that. The screen went to black and it was over. We were just there in our house, where we had been for weeks at that point. Not seeing anybody.
It was devastating and I really, I knew there was no writing about my mother’s death and my grief for her without facing that. But I also honestly wanted to write about that time because I know how many people had a similar experience. They weren’t able to be with someone who was sick or they weren’t able to be with a dying loved one or they live-streamed a funeral. There’s a real tendency right now to want to look forward, not back, and to move on or get things back to normal. But so many people are carrying a lot of grief from that time that can feel unacknowledged or unseen and I think it’s very important to see it. I think it’s very important to remember those losses. Not just the people who are gone but what the people who grieve them, who are left behind, what they also missed out on. I don’t think we can or should look away from that pain.
Norcross: Your mom was, as you mentioned earlier, a member of the Orthodox Church and in that tradition, only the priest speaks at the funeral and it got you doing this kind of thought experiment about what you would say…
Chung: That’s right.
Norcross: ...if you were asked to stand up and say something and you couldn’t come up with anything at the time so you just sort of let it go but you’ve had some time to think about it. I’m wondering what you might say about your mom if you were asked to speak on her behalf.
Chung: Well, I hope it’s ok to say this entire book essentially is, you know, I don’t think of it as an Elegy. And when you write a book, it is very much for readers. It’s not just for you. But my mother was with me, always on my mind when I was writing this. We begin and end the book with her and with our relationship - it’s the emotional heart of the book. It’s really the foundation. There are so many things that I could have said that would have been much better than my attempts at trying to come up with words to memorialize her at her funeral.
I think the main thing is just that she and our relationship are the foundation of this book, because really her love for me was the foundation of my whole life. It’s responsible in so many ways for everything that I’ve ever done. I think that it’s made me braver than I would have been otherwise. I think it’s just something that I’ll always be able to hold on to. I was always enough for her and it’s a really powerful thing when you know that you are just always enough for somebody and that they have this rock solid faith in you.
My mother was a very devout person. She had a deep and abiding faith in God but honestly, selfishly, what I remember most is her faith in me. And I’ll miss her forever. That’s just always going to be the case. She should have had many more years. But I know she’s always with me and I don’t know where she is or how she is. But I know that the way she raised me and loved me that’s not going anywhere. It can’t. That’s always going to be a part of me.
Norcross: Just 30 seconds here. I’m sorry to leave it for the end, but the title of the book is “A Living Remedy.” Where does that come from?
Chung: It’s from a poem by Marie Howe. The poem is called “For Three Days.” I had written the whole book, I had everything but the title. I was kind of desperately searching for something that felt right. I was in poetry books, so this is “For Three Days” which is in her book, “What The Living Do.” Which is also an absolutely amazing poem about grief. This phrase jumped out at me because even grief provides a living remedy and I loved it. I loved that living was in the title. I didn’t really want a title about death. I wanted a title that felt alive and active and forward looking. I thought it was perfect and I asked for her permission and she said, ‘Yes.’ So I’m so grateful for that.
Norcross: Nicole Chung, a beautiful book. Thank you so much for talking with us about it.
Chung: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Norcross: Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir, “A Living Remedy.” She appears at Powell City of Books this Thursday evening at 7pm.
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