Many of us have been through it. By "us" I mean adult children. And by "it" I mean witnessing our parents decline and die, even as we're scrambling to pay the bills generated by the high cost of medical care in America. In her just-published memoir called A Living Remedy, Nicole Chung chronicles her experience of this ordeal, complicated by class, geographical distance, the pandemic, and the fact that she's an only child, as well as a transracial adoptee — a situation she explored in her best-selling first memoir, All You Can Ever Know.
As a mother by adoption, I was initially hesitant to read Chung's first memoir. She does excavate some hard truths, especially about transracial adoption; but I also came away from that account struck by the deep love Chung expressed for her adoptive parents — the very same parents whose one-after-another loss she endures here. So it is that late in A Living Remedy, when a cousin calls the grieving Chung and asks the question, "How are you feeling?", she hears herself answer: "It's like being unadopted."
Class identity, however, much more than racial identity or adoption, is the factor that greatly determines the course of events recalled in A Living Remedy. Though her parents would always say they were middle class, their work history — precarious, sometimes with iffy health benefits — placed them squarely in the working class. Her dad worked, first as a printer and then in service jobs in the fast food industry; for a time, her mom was a respiratory therapist and then held a series of short-term clerical jobs. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer during Chung's junior year of high school, she had just been laid off; Chung's father was earning an hourly wage managing a pizza restaurant. After her mother's serious health scare, Chung says:
I had sensed that we no longer lived paycheck to paycheck, as my mother had once told me, but emergency to emergency. What had seemed like stability proved to be a flimsy, shallow facsimile of it, a version known to so many American families, dependent on absolutely everything going right.
As you can hear from that quote, Chung is a straightforward writer. It's not the poetic beauty of her language that distinguishes this memoir, but the accrued power of a story told in plain, direct sentences; a story that can feel overwhelmingly shameful to the adult child living through it. Because the other tale Chung is telling here is about the hiding-in-plain sight predicament of class-climbers like herself who have plenty of cultural capital, but not so much the other kind.
As a teenager, Chung was awarded a scholarship to college and moved across the country from her childhood home in Oregon. She married, had two children, went on to an MFA program, and worked as an editor and writer. Yet, during the time her 60-something-year old father was dying — of diabetes, renal failure and, most certainly, from decades of postponing costly medical check-ups — Chung and her family couldn't afford to fly more than once a year, maybe, to visit her parents. Here's what she says about that situation:
If you grow up as I did and happen to be very fortunate, as I was, your family might be able to sacrifice much so that you can go to college. You'll feel grateful for every subsequent opportunity you get, ... even as an unexpected, sometimes painful distance yawns between you and the place you came from — . ... But in this country, unless you attain extraordinary wealth, you will likely be unable to help your loved ones in all the ways you'd hoped. You will learn to live with the specific, hollow guilt of those who leave hardship behind, yet are unable to bring anyone else with them.
All too soon after her father's death, Chung's mother, also in her 60s, has a recurrence of cancer, which spreads quickly. Chung is able visit her mother once before the pandemic makes travel too risky. "I can't tell you about her death, [Chung simply states] because I didn't witness it."
A Living Remedy is a powerful testament to the failures of our health-care system and to the limits of what most of us can do for those we love. The anger and sense of helplessness that radiate off Chung's pages made me think of "The Man With Night Sweats," Thom Gunn's great poem about the AIDS epidemic. Gunn's last lines are: "As if hands were enough/To hold an avalanche off."