Framed by Wayson Choy’s two brushes with death, Not Yet is an intimate and insightful study of one man’s reasons for living.
In 2001, Wayson Choy suffered a combined asthma-heart attack. As he lay in his hospital bed, slipping in and out of consciousness, his days punctuated by the beeps of the machines that were keeping him alive, Choy heard the voices of his ancestors warning him that without a wife, he would one day die alone. And yet through his ordeal Choy was never alone; men and women, young and old, from all cultures and ethnicities, stayed by Choy’s side until he was well. When his heart failed him a second time, four years later, it was the strength of his bonds with these people, forged through countless acts of kindness, that pulled Choy back to his life.
Not Yet is a passionate, sensitive, and beautiful exploration of the importance of family, which in Choy’s case is constituted not through blood but through love. It is also a quiet manifesto for embracing life, not blind to our mortality, but knowing how lucky we are for each day that comes.
About the author
Wayson Choy (April 20, 1939–April 28, 2019) was a pioneer of Chinese-Canadian literature. His first novel, The Jade Peony, was co-winner—with Margaret Atwood's Morning in the Burned House—of the 1995 Trillium Award for the best book by an Ontario resident. It also won the City of Vancouver Book Award. The Jade Peony spent 26 weeks on the Toronto Globe & Mail bestseller list and placed Number 6 on its 1996 Year End National Bestseller List for Fiction.
Born in Vancouver in 1939, Wayson Choy taught English Literature at Humber College in Toronto for over 25 years. In 2004 Choy was appointed to the Order of Canada and won the Harbourfront Festival Prize, awarded annually to a writer who "has made a substantial contribution to the world of books and writing."
In 2015, Choy received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions to BC literature.
In his acceptance speech, Choy remarked "I'm proud to have my pioneer Chinatown stories—and my own personal ones—recognized as part of the shared literary history of all Canadians,"
Choy was also awarded the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found in 1999 and Ontario's Trillium Book Award in 2005 for All That Matters.
Excerpt: Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (by (author) Wayson Choy)
Just as I was trudging down the stairs to leave for the Toronto airport, headed for Massachusetts, a sudden acidic tingling – a burning sensation – crept up from the back of my throat and triggered a hacking fit. My mouth contorted. My nostrils widened. My head whiplashed with the force of a hurricane; my mouth exploded in a sneeze. I snorted wetly like a cartoon pig. Gasping for air, I dug into my pocket for a tissue, and had anyone been there, I would have excused myself with, “Sorry. Allergies.”
My mind was too busy brooding over the deadline for my novel – the final deadline that would conclude three years of work. I had a month left to go.
As for the coughing, in the last two months or so I had fallen into fits of dry coughing, but if I held my breath, tightened my lungs, and didn’t move a muscle for at least five seconds, I could breathe with ease again.
During July of 2001, with my book deadline looming, far from my mind was any thought that these spells could be signs of ill health, or worse. Only in Victorian dramas and novels, and in grand operas, does a cough or two foreshadow finis. Certainly, a sneeze lacks any hint of funereal dignity.
When I was young, I believed that I might die instantly, in a car crash or a great train wreck. In my late forties, I thought I might have a heart attack because I devoured too much fried meat and scorned leafy greens. By my fifties, I was waiting patiently for some dramatic sign of illness: cancer, for example, or a stroke, or aids, which had, by my sixth decade, taken away a dozen beloved friends.
But I remained lucky.
Now, in my sixties, and believing that I looked at least ten years younger, I had my mantra: whenever I coughed suddenly, coarsely, I told anyone nearby, “Sorry. Allergies.”
People nodded sympathetically. A few even said that they too swallowed little pills to numb their nasal passages. But by July my pills weren’t working, and my extended family members, Karl and Marie, Jean and Gary, over a banquet dinner at the Pearl Court, said to me in chorus, “See your doctor!”
Two weeks before I left for my summer writing retreat in Massachusetts, I dutifully visited my doctor and friend, the man I called Dr. David.
Even after he told me, “You’ve had an asthmatic predisposition for most of your life, Wayson,” I grumbled at the inconvenience of having so many damned allergies – to dust, pollen, cats, dogs, crabs, clams, oysters, smog.
David raised an eyebrow.
I did take care, I quickly clarified: we have a tabby, an aging cat named Belle, but I avoided petting her. Yes, my room was dusty, but only if I attempted to sweep did I suffer. I vacuumed every five years, religiously. I avoided certain kinds of shellfish, especially the kinds that I didn’t like.
“And,” I said, “I do have air conditioning in my third-floor space.”
“Get a good air cleaner, too,” David said. “Now that you’re in your sixties, you’re more vulnerable. You’re asthmatic.”
David patiently detailed in medical terms what that meant to me. He pointed to a set of bisected plastic lungs; his thoughtful demeanour suggested that he took me for one of his more intelligent patients, someone whose rapt Chinese-brown eyes actually glowed with understanding.
I smiled, I even nodded, as medical phrases sailed right past me.
David’s concern for me, his youthful good looks and perfect office manners, charmed me, but from that meeting, I can only retrieve this fragment: “Yes, yes, Wayson, any one of your allergies can trigger a serious asthma attack.”
Damn allergies, I told myself.
“Right after you come back from the States” – David tore off a prescription – “call me.”
His hand gently gripped my shoulder. “I’m booking you to see a specialist.”
“Oh,” I said, appreciatively. “Well, give my regards to your wonderful wife and family.”
As he does sometimes, David gave me a hug.
“You know,” he said, walking me out to the reception area, “I’ve talked to a lot of people about some serious problems they’re having, but, Wayson, you’re the only one that stays smiling.”
In the small waiting room, a few people looked up from the cushioned benches on each side of a burbling fish tank. On his mother’s lap, a toddler banged together some alphabet blocks.
I was standing with my luggage at the top of our hall stairs. I couldn’t wait any longer for Karl to assist me with my baggage: one bulging, scarred cowhide briefcase, one crammed-to-overflowing book tote, and my two seam-bursting suitcases.
The fifteen steps descending to our foyer might have discouraged a lesser man.
Think, I told myself, impatiently shuffling my feet.
A plan flashed in my head: I took a deep breath and lowered my left shoulder; next, my right one; looped the straps of each of the two smaller bags over them in turn, and stood up. The thick briefcase contained plastic Ziploc stacks of manuscript and research files, notebooks and index cards; the second, the oversized cloth bookbag printed with the face of Giller-winner Mordecai Richler, was stuffed with a collection of fountain pens, ball points, and pencils, rubber stamps of dragons and butterflies, erasers for ink and graphite, plus a brace of Chinese reference books. The two bags clunked against my hips like sacks of concrete. The belt-thick leather strap of the briefcase cut into my shoulder. Hands free, fingers ready to grasp the two suitcases, I stared down at the black-and-white-checkered hall below. I had forgotten to count the last footfall – the final touchdown onto the floor.
All I had to do, I figured, was bend my knees a little, then grip the two suitcase handles, turn sideways, lift both cases, and negotiate the first step. I bent down, counted to three, and stood up. My shoulders and arms sagged with the weight of my favourite things: the big suitcase held the dictionary-sized reference books and more notebooks; six hundred manuscript pages; five files of research and clippings. The smaller suitcase contained my trusty laptop and portable printer with all its paraphernalia, plus enough clothes for two weeks.
My arms and legs went rubbery.
Didn’t Karl say he would help me when he got back in from loading Marie’s van? Didn’t he say, “Wayson, I’ll just be ten minutes”?
No. I can do this by myself.
I stiffened my back.
I can handle this.
My cough echoed down the staircase and through the empty house. The black-and-white floor tiles rose and fell in a wave. A meow rose from the kitchen below. Curious Belle trotted down the hall and sat by the bottom step, tabby tail flicking, to see what the madman from the attic was doing. I shrugged off the coughing. Allergies.
No time to waste. I gripped the suitcases and lifted them even higher. A gasp and half a cough escaped from me. I held my breath, tightened my lungs. The cough stopped.
With the baggage swaying about me, I turned sideways, and my foot landed on Step Two.
The damn cat has no deadlines to worry about.
My foot landed on Step Three, and a sudden sneeze threw me entirely off balance. The two suitcases banged against my legs. Briefcase and Mordecai Richler swung out. I began to pitch forward. But the weight of the briefcase swinging from my left side yanked me back against the railing. My body was bent at an angle.
Belle sat staring up at me.
I paused a few seconds to check for pain. Feeling none, I straightened up, too quickly. At once the shoulder strap on my briefcase began to slip down, freeing the bulk to arc away from me. The thing went flying, aiming on its return flight to smack the back of my knees and send me tumbling. Hissing through bared teeth, I twisted my head sideways, chomping my front ivories onto that tough strap of old leather. With clenched molars, adrenalin surging through me, I jerked the stiff loop back onto my shoulder. As the case swung back, I yanked the strap hard: the briefcase thumped safely to rest against my hip.
In my head, the trumpets of jubilation sounded: I was still standing.
My jaw aching, my neck throbbing, I thanked my stars that my front teeth, however imperfect, were my own. A pair of dentures would have spelled disaster.
On the other hand, no more book deadlines. But everything else to lose, I thought, and quickly added, No, not yet.
"A story of heroic transcendence of uncertainty."
— The Globe and Mail
"A harrowing, enthralling and incandescent memoir . . . a work that blends tension and sadness with joy and contemplation. And it is a reminder, as if we needed one, of why Wayson Choy is beloved, as a writer and as a man."
— Edmonton Journal