100 Love Notes, 1 Year Later

In November 2015, a widower walked around Charlotte passing out love notes in honor of his late wife. Within a few days, Hyong Yi’s story went around the world. Here’s how his life has changed since then.


Published:

Hyong Yi, an assistant city manager, became the face of love in Charlotte last year when he walked around uptown, handing out notes to strangers.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOGAN CYRUS

AFTER HYONG YI'S WIFE wife died at age 41 in November 2014, he wanted to stay in bed and hide from the world. Motivated by Catherine’s public fight against ovarian cancer, Yi instead catalogued his grief, sharing in Facebook posts the suffering he went through. As the one-year anniversary of her death approached in November 2015, he wanted to pay tribute to her.

COURTESY 

Catherine Zanga, Yi’s late wife, in 2001.

He wrote 100 love notes that chronicled their courtship, marriage, and struggles as she succumbed to ovarian cancer. On a brisk Friday before Thanksgiving last year, starting at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets, he walked around uptown giving those love notes away to strangers. His and Catherine’s two children, Anna, then 10, and Alex, then seven, helped. 

The notes, which Yi posted at 100lovenotes.com, were simple and profound, funny and mysterious, full of universal truths and inside jokes. He told everyone he encountered—or at least everyone who stopped long enough to listen to him—not to take the love in their lives for granted. 

He called the project #100lovenotes, and the story about it that ran in The Charlotte Observer went viral immediately. Photos of Yi, love notes in hand, arms stretched toward passersby in uptown, were published by news organizations all over the world. Yi, an assistant city manager in Charlotte, lost track of all the languages his story was translated into. He ran some stories through translation software and laughed at the gibberish that came out. Love is the international language, indeed.

COURTESY

Hyong Yi took his kids, including son Alex, around Charlotte handing out love notes last year.

The attention continued for months, so much that he asked aloud what it was all for. It helped him grieve, he says, and it helped him teach his children not only about their mother but also about the phrase Yi uses to describe her life—live fiercely, live completely—which he has tattooed on his left arm. “When you extend that circle, to the third ring, your neighbors, your community, I want for them what I would want for everybody,” Yi says. “For them to have relationships that matter, to have a strong connection to their community and to be tied to their community the way I am, to understand it, to want to be part of it, to acknowledge how powerful community can be.”

On the two-year anniversary of his wife’s death, Yi, now 43, doesn’t plan to hand out more love notes himself, though his foundation will have a table set up at Trade and Tryon to hand them out for him. Plus, getting to 100 the first time was hard enough. Writing 100 more might be impossible: “100 Love Notes, the Sequel—it just doesn’t sound right,” he jokes. “Or 200 Love Notes, Bigger and Better. It doesn’t sound right.”

His foundation is in the process of developing activities for future “Love Notes” projects, including the release of his book, 100 Love Notes, in January. No matter what he does, he says, he wants people in other cities to spread love wherever they are. “Share your love story,” he says. “Everybody has a love story.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Charlotte magazine earlier this year, he shared his love story.


LOGAN CYRUS

Hyong Yi begins a new love note in September.

1. 'Not the life I expected'

CM: What has life been like since the day you were walking around uptown handing out love notes?
HY:
It’s still a little surreal, how life is. People know me now. It’s not like I’m an A-list celebrity. It’s like, “Hey, do I know you somehow?” Eventually they’ll figure out, “Oh, you’re the love notes guy.”  

I did a panel about Charlotte (this past spring), for some developers, about how we should develop this 1,000-acre property. They were waiting. Is he going to talk about the love notes? And I didn’t. And they finally asked the question, “Can you talk about the love notes?”

 

You couldn’t foresee any of that, could you?
This is not the life I expected to have. I had not planned to be the poster child for love in the city of Charlotte. This is not what I thought my life would be.

I would have settled for a family of four, living a good life, doing good work in the city of Charlotte, and raising good kids. When I went to school, my aspirations were: I want to go into politics, I want to get into government, and I want to change the world. It got smaller and smaller: You know what? I’m OK just making life better in the city of Charlotte. I can live with that. And live a good life, be happy, raise good kids. 

Now it’s: I want to raise cancer awareness, do something about love, help people understand how important it is to honor love they have in their life. That’s a lot of work. 

 

I got a kick out of the love note that said your wife’s response to your proposal was she wanted a written essay from you explaining why she should marry you.
She had just flown back (to Washington, D.C.) from visiting me in Boston. I called her and asked her, on a Tuesday night, around 9 o’clock. I just asked her on the phone, I said ...

 

You proposed to her on the phone?
I did. And on a landline, at that. That’s how long ago it was. I just called her and said, “Hey, do you want to get married?” Of the two of us, I tend to be spontaneous, and she tends to be very planned out. Her response on the phone was, “Let me call you right back.” So she hung up. I knew what she was doing: calling her mother. She called back half an hour later. It was a very logical discussion. Why should I marry you?

We went around that for a while. 

(I said) It sounds like you just want an essay.

(She said) Yeah, that sounds great. How about an essay of why I should marry you?

So I made plans to fly down and see her. I had a week to really think through what I was going to write. This is where the performance art comes in. I’m not going to write an essay. I’m going to think through why we should get married. And then I’ll wing it, and it will be great.

She picked me up on Friday night at 11. This is 2002. She drove us to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We found an unoccupied park bench. She sat down. I proposed again. By this time, I had a ring. I did it better. And she said yes.

 

Another love note that struck me said, “It’s with greatest love that I cause you pain.”
Your body exchanges fluids from your upper body to your lower. Apparently there are tunnels, and the fluid exchanges through the tunnel. The cancer blocked those tunnels, so the fluid, like a dam, backed up in her chest. It was crushing her lungs. She couldn’t breathe.

When the cancer was winning, we had to drain her chest. She had a tube inserted in her upper cavity. Every three or four days, I had to untape it, disinfect everything, I had to connect it to a vacuum bottle and drain it from her chest so she could breathe.

 

Jeez.
It was an incredibly painful procedure. To see that fluid come out of her body—it’s like a red color—was not a good thing. But you do it because you know if you don’t, she’s going to die. It was painful for her. And painful for me. But I knew I had to do it. When you love somebody, you’re willing to go to any lengths to make them as comfortable as you can.

 

How did you come to grips with the reality of that? That stuff coming out of her …
You don’t really have a choice. It’s one thing to hear a doctor say, “She’s got cancer.” You can’t see it. All you know is your wife is not doing well. But you spend so much time with that person in the hospital, in the cancer center, getting tests, getting test results, talking to doctors. You’re almost part of her medical team to keep her alive every couple of days. It’s a very real thing.

I would drain between half a liter and a liter of fluid out of her chest every time. Think about that. One-liter carton of milk coming out her chest every two days. It is a very real thing, when you hold that bottle in your hand, and you can feel how warm it is. It’s 98.6 degrees. It’s body temperature. I will tell you, I didn’t see what choice I had. I had to. It was not a choice, I had to do it. 

 

I’m sorry for asking this question. But what did you do with that warm liter of fluid? Put it in the trash?
Yup. I asked the doctors. What am I supposed to do with this after it’s out of her body? Just put it in a trash bag and throw it away.

 

Did you try to hide Anna and Alex from that?
They never saw it. We always tried to do it when they were asleep. Or make sure the TV was on, or something was on, so they were far, far away. Make sure they never saw it.


2. 'Live fiercely, live completely'



LOGAN CYRUS

Top: Yi’s tattoo is a reminder to “live fiercely, live completely.” Bottom: In her last months, Yi’s wife was on a mission to touch as many animals as she could. In the summer of 2013, she held a sea lion in the Bahamas. She also touched lion and tiger cubs at Tiger World in Rockwell, North Carolina, a giraffe at Zoo Atlanta, and an otter and dolphin at the Georgia Aquarium. Yi often made her origami animals.

It doesn’t seem to me that this has made you afraid of relationships. You don’t seem scared to be hurt again.
It depends on how you define risk. I think at the beginning, everyone’s afraid to open up and expose themselves, because they don’t want to be hurt. My experience chronicling the first year, on Facebook, was I put a lot of stuff out there. It’s like anything: The more you do something, the easier it gets. So sharing, making observations about things, taking a little bit of personal risk, becomes easier over time, especially when you’re getting positive reinforcement—Hey, thank you for sharing.

 

The motto, ‘live fiercely, live completely,’ suggests a boldness to life.
Take chances. (He holds out his left arm to show the tattoo with that motto.) Most of us posit it as a hypothetical question: If you had a week to live, how would you live your life? If you knew you were going to die, what would you do? Would you be doing what you do now, or would you do it differently?

For her, it wasn’t a hypothetical. It was real. She knew she was going to die, and she knew she was going to die soon. When you know that, you stop worrying about retirement. You say, “I’m 40, I’ve got two young kids, there’s a certain body of things I want to do with them, and to the extent that I can, I am (going to).” So for an entire summer (summer of 2013), Catherine said, “I want to be the one to dot dot dot—take the kids to a foreign country, take the kids on a cruise, take the kids to Cape Canaveral, take the kids to New York City.”
Catherine took Anna to Space Camp (in Alabama). We went to Boston, we went to Washington. We went to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Everything you could possibly do—take them to the beach, take them to the mountains, take them to Atlanta to the aquarium.

We crammed like five vacations into one summer. It was crazy. The kids loved it. We were pulling them out of school and flying them places. When you know you’re going to die, the risk-reward option is very different. You do whatever you can.

That’s a tremendously powerful lesson for the rest of us. You know what: We’ll go next year. We have time. We’ll wait until the kids are grown; then we’ll start traveling. What if you don’t have 40 years?

 

What would you do if you had a month to live?
Can I answer a different question?

 

Sure.
One of the reporters, when I was handing out the love notes, asked me, if you had another two minutes with your wife, what would you do? I would let her know that she was loved for a lifetime. 

My responsibility in that month would be to my kids—to let them know they are loved forever. And show them how to live, as best as I can. They would miss a lot of school. Probably the entire month.


LOGAN CYRUS

Yi often marvels at how his children, Anna (left) and Alex, develop their own personalities as they grow older.

3. 'I'm still so angry'

How has this changed you?
I’m much more aware of situations other people find themselves in. When people ask me for help—whether it’s a guy on the street just comes up to ask me for money so he can get lunch, or if it’s a friend, or if it’s a complete stranger who asks me for help—Hey, I have a relationship problem, (or) I think I have the symptoms of ovarian cancer—I will do my best to help them. It’s not a moral obligation. It’s not something I feel called to do. I think it’s the right thing. Based on all the help I’ve gotten, how can I not give to others?

 

Were you this expressive and transparent and open before …
Hell, no. I’m an introvert.

 

Oh, come on.
I am an introvert, by personality preference. Any test you want to give me, I’m an introvert. But as an assistant city manager, I have to be extroverted. 

The real turning point was when Catherine got sick, she made a critical decision. She decided to be public about her cancer process, in all its gory details. She held nothing back. So when she passed away, I made the decision that for one year, I was going to be just as expressive about how the family is dealing with grief. For one year, I would post stuff (on social media). I did not hold anything back. If I was not doing well, I wrote about it. If I was sad, if I was crying, I’d talk about it. 

 

You’re still a sympathetic figure in most people’s eyes, right?
I do have friends going back to my college days. They’re concerned for me, concerned about me, that I’m dwelling too much (in the past) and too long and not really making progress moving forward. I said, “That’s fair.” I said, “Give me a list of stuff to do to demonstrate to you that I’m moving forward.”

I actually got a list. Do this, do this, do this. OK, that actually might be hard, because it’s really expensive to take a trip to Seattle with my kids.

 

What else was on the list?
My Facebook profile used to be a photo of Catherine’s grave marker with “Dearest Beloved” from the 100 love notes. I changed that to a sketch that someone drew of me when I was speaking. The background is dawn of one of the days we were at Disney. 

 

Any therapist will tell you there are six or seven or eight or nine things that cause depression. Death of a loved one is  number one. 
Losing a spouse is life-shattering. It’s not like losing a dad or a mom. I know that’s still significant. But by adulthood, you’ve built a life independent of your parents. You’ve built a life with a spouse, doing it all together, everything is predicated on the assumption (that) there will be two of you to do this. When there’s not, it blows up your life. 

I find myself every day trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together. What day of the week is it? Where do the kids have to be? What time? What do they have to do for school? Who’s getting them after school? Where do they have to be after school? Did they take a shower yesterday? Do they have homework? Do they have anything else they need to do? 

Did I pay the bills?

 

I noticed you’ve only used the word “widower” once today, and you don’t use it in your writing. Is that on purpose?
I don’t use that word often. My dead wife, I don’t like that either. My late wife, I hate that. I still talk about Catherine like she’s Catherine. It’s one of the last things I’m moving on from.

I look at it this way: With each passing day, the ratio between my time with Catherine and my time post-Catherine changes. Right now, it’s predominantly with Catherine. My memories are predominantly with Catherine. Now, it’s 90 percent with Catherine, where it was 100 percent. Next year, it’ll be 80-20. 70-30. At some point, I’ll have 10 years without Catherine, and it’ll be 50-50. Think about that. At some point, it’s going to be where most of my life is going to be without Catherine. 

 

What has this done to your faith life?
It’s a really strange thing. We go to St. Peter’s (Catholic Church). I had a talk with Father (James) Shea one morning. On one level, my faith life is stronger. I pray to God more than I used to. But on another level, I’m still so angry.

 

At the risk of getting too churchy on you, people think they can’t be angry at God. Read Psalms. There’s guys screaming at God on almost every page.
As Father Shea says, “You have issues with God.” I’m fine with the church. My issues are with God. He says, “Well, then you should tell Him.” And so I do.

I’m not trying to disparage anyone’s approach to God or religion. People will post stuff on Facebook. My son was in a car accident. If the tree branch or the trunk had been six inches to the left, he probably would have died. Praise God … for saving my son. Think about that. That’s a very interventionist God. He has literally decided, This guy, in this car, I want him to live. I’m going to move the car this much, so it crashes on the passenger side and not the driver side.

Think about that. If God is actively intervening in life on earth to save people, that also implies He is actively not intervening to not save people. So why did Catherine deserve to die?

And I can’t accept that. That kind of interventionist God, it can’t be.

It ultimately ends up being luck or chance or serendipitous coincidence that people ascribe to (God). That’s their right to do that, just as it’s my right to not accept it.

So then you’ve got God who’s a non-interventionist God. I don’t know what He’s doing—watching life like a TV show.

 

The Great Watchmaker.
Yeah. Then what the hell’s the point?


LOGAN CYRUS

This note repeats words Catherine Zanga wrote to her husband before she died, about giving him permission to move on.

4. 'I see echoes'

You took Anna and Alex to Disney World a few months after handing out the notes. How was it?
We’ve gone enough that we have a pattern: Go to a park, go to a park, take a day off, go to a park, go to a park, go to a park, go home. This is the first time we’ve (gone) to Disney since she passed away. It was actually a lot tougher than I thought.

Everything we were doing, I could see the ghosts. One of the love notes speaks to that. Everywhere I go where she and I went, I can see echoes of how we used to be. 

 

Does that make you not want to do it?
I think we’ll keep doing it because my daughter loves it. Loves it. But what I realized is (that) next time we go on vacation, it’s got to be someplace new. 

 

It sounds like you’re in a pivot phase in your life.
I realize you’ve got to keep moving forward. That means new memories, not rehashing old ones.

 

Part of you wants to move on, and part of you doesn’t know how.
There is some truth to that. How do you move on? My original intent was, hand out these 100 love notes to honor my dead wife, then we’re done, we’re going to move on, we’re going to get on with life, all three of us.

This kind of worldwide response, now, what do I do with it? Do I let it go? Or do I actually do something with this brand that now exists, do some good? So let’s do some good. 

But what good are we going to do? We’re going to honor Catherine by turning it into a book. Hopefully, raise awareness about ovarian cancer and promote love. But how do you move on with the future if you’re still documenting the past? You’re sort of stuck. 

 

So you’re wrestling with this phenomenon you created.
Yeah. I didn’t have a plan for it. I’m trying to catch up with my own success. I think it’s great. I want to do some good with it. But trying to figure out how to live a normal life, I don’t think I know what that means anymore.

 

Has that helped the grieving process or compounded it?
The whole love note thing was a tremendous value to the grieving process. I didn’t know it at the time. I was just going to write love notes to honor my dead wife. I didn’t know I was going to use it for therapy. But it ended up being incredibly therapeutic.

Afterward, I thought, I’m ready to move forward. The love notes kind of don’t let you.

 

Have you dated? 
Yes. That first summer after Catherine died was really me navigating the world as a single man with two young children, something I have never done. What I remember about December is something a woman said to me. “You’re complicated.” There’s truth in that statement.

And now, almost two years later, I think the question isn’t “Have you dated?” but rather “Have you found love again?” This feels like the right question. But like learning to dance with a partner and finding an awesome parking spot, much of a successful relationship depends on timing. And that is a challenge right now. Asking any woman to be present while all this 100 Love Note stuff happens (the foundation, the book launch in January) is a lot to ask, maybe too much.  

But in a different world, I imagine the following to be true: 

“So, Mr. Yi, have you started dating? Have you found love again? What woman in her right mind would date you after this?”

I met this awesome woman who’s beautiful, smart, sexy, and incredibly well grounded. She and I complement one another. My experience has taught me how important love is. I am lucky, privileged, and fortunate to have found such an amazing woman to share my life and love with and be a part of her life in return.

 

You wrote about cleaning out your home office. That seemed like an important step for you in terms of moving on.
I had an entire room in my house that I couldn’t use. Everything that was cancer-related was just getting tossed in there. … Finally, I cleaned it up. It’s usable now. It feels like I’m making progress.

 

What’d you do with all that stuff?
It’s in boxes. … It’s important for the kids to understand, later, when they’re older, what this was all about.

 

I’ve read that four years old is when memories start to stick. 
My son was four (when Catherine was diagnosed). It’s tough. I talk about Catherine all the time, what she was like, this is how Mommy would have done it, so they understand what her personality was like, what she valued, so they can carry it intellectually if they can’t carry it from a personal memory.

 

Do you have audio and video?
I created two 15-minute videos of Catherine when she was fighting cancer, for her life, until she passed away. In it, there’s a clip at the end where she’s dancing with Alex. This is when she was near the end. This is the last time she ever got out of the bed by herself. So she spent two minutes dancing with Alex. I’m going to have that forever for him. I don’t know that he’ll remember that. It’s for him that I hold onto something.

 

Please tell me you have 50 copies of that, just in case.
It’s online. I’m not going to lose it. I have a responsibility to the kids. That’s what it feels like. Whatever responsibility or obligation I had to Catherine and her memory, I feel like I honored it with what I’ve done since she passed away. From even before she died, to her funeral and beyond, I’ve honored her memory. I think any husband would be proud to have done what I’ve done. Now, it feels like what I’m doing isn’t so much for her, but for the kids. 

If I only print two copies of the book, one for Anna, one for Alex, I’m OK with that. I feel like now that I’m doing it for them. Whatever happens now, I’m doing it for the public good. To raise awareness, to promote love. Who doesn’t want that?

 

MATT CROSSMAN is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Reach him at mcrossman98@gmail.com, or on Twitter: @MattCrossman_.

 

A gala is being planned to coincide with the release of Yi’s book, 100 Love Notes, on January 28.


This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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