Before she met Yip-Williams, Kagan heard her speaking on a piece of tape recorded by her Pineapple Street Media colleague Henry Molofsky, producer of Missing Richard Simmons, Surviving Y2K and Running From Cops.
“In it, Julie is talking about her daughters and the legacy she’s going to leave them,” says Kagan. “She says something like ‘They’ll always have my voice from the podcast, so they’ll be able to listen to me and know that I’m with them.’
“I involuntarily burst into tears. That’s when I knew this would be something really, really special to work on. I met her a week later.”
Part of me was thinking ‘Do you really want me there in these precious final moments?’
What she found was a terminally ill woman who did not fit any stereotype – she wasn’t cancer battle warrior or rah-rah positivity queen. Instead, she was remarkably frank about the pain, the anger, the fear, the despair and the frustration she was experiencing. She was definitely no pessimist, but at the same time she didn’t hold on to false hopes.
Through it all she was genuinely curious about the deterioration of her body and the journey she was taking towards death. She was also very practical (recording a video for her husband and kids about the food and medical needs of their dog) and very funny (repeatedly teasing her cousins that she would come back to haunt them).
“The first day I met Julie, she started listing all the scenes she wanted in the podcast,” says Kagan. “It would never have happened without her being very intentional about what she wanted to do.”
Kalgan knew that Yip-Williams was very open, but she was still surprised to be granted so much access in her final weeks. One Friday afternoon, Kagan got a call from Random House book editor Mark Warren, saying that Yip-Williams’ sister and cousins were gathered in her room at home sharing personal stories as they knew the end was near. Yip-Williams wanted Kagan to be there to record it.
“It was such a privilege,” says Kagan. “Part of me was thinking ‘Do you really want me there in these precious final moments? Do you really want a relative stranger with a microphone to be in the room with you?’ But that’s what Julie wanted. I think she wanted an opportunity to preserve these moments for her family.”
It turns out Yip-Williams’ family had a terrible secret. When she was 28, she discovered that when she was a baby, her grandmother, who was the powerful matriarch of the family, told her parents to take her to a herbalist who could administer a fatal concoction.
Her reasoning was that no one would ever marry a blind girl, she would become a burden and it would save everyone a life of grief if she were gone. Her parents took her, along with gold bars the grandmother had provided as payment, but the herbalist refused to do it.
In the podcast, Yip-Williams asks her mother to tell her the whole story. To say it’s a raw and emotional moment is an understatement.
Yip-Williams died on March 19, 2018, aged 42, just two months after Kagan met her. The funeral was on a late winter’s day under a cloudless blue sky. Kagan was there and remembers both the heartbreak of watching the family grieve and the weight of the responsibility she felt in telling Yip-Williams’s story.
In the end, the podcast is about living as much as it is about dying. Has the experience made Kagan re-think previous ideas she’d had about death?
“Prior to all this, death was a topic I felt very uncomfortable speaking about. I think Julie demonstrated this idea that we can get through our fear of things by looking at them rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist.
“I’ve been really grateful that what most people seem to get out of the podcast and the book is a sense of optimism. Folks have said that it’s made them reconsider some things in their own lives and made them live more curiously and more intentionally.”
At the end of each episode, Kagan says, “And Julie, if you’re listening, thank you for sharing your story.” And in the final episode of the podcast, people in Yip-Williams’ life, from her family to her book editor, share stories of how they have felt her presence after she died. Is it the same for Kagan?
“Oh definitely. There was this moment when I was at home playing a trailer of the podcast for my partner, and our light started flickering in a very peculiar way, and I was like, ‘Oh, Julie’s checking in to make sure I’m doing a good job telling her story.’
“She pops into my head all the time and I just think, ‘I hope that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s everything you hoped it would be.’”
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.