In this love story, he's Beloved, she's Dearest.
Love note No. 1: Dearest, Hi. I'm not asking much, just a partner for a bike ride, a buddy so I'm not alone. –Beloved
Hyong Yi, SPA/BA '94, SPA/MPA '95, met Catherine Zanga in church one divine Sunday morning in August 1999. He was smitten by her razor-sharp smarts and her drive; her beautiful brown eyes and crazy curly hair didn't hurt. But the woman who became the love of his life was a reluctant first date.
No. 2: Beloved, I'm not interested in dating, but I am new to DC. OK, I'll go. Will there be food? –Dearest
There was. Sushi became their favorite. They rode bikes along the C&O Canal, sipped wine at vineyards in her native Virginia, and were regulars at the opera. Not that there weren't hiccups along the way. He took a job in Boston, while she stayed back in Washington to practice law. Long-distance romances are rarely easy, but they managed.
No. 17: Dearest, Having covered so much distance, I'm beginning to understand my place in the world. I think it's beside you. –Beloved
Then one late Friday night in 2001, he dropped to one knee by the Tidal Basin and asked her to marry him.
No. 24: Beloved, yes. It's yes. From the beginning, It was always you. –Dearest
Life came next. They had a daughter, Anna, and a son, Alex, whom Zanga quit her job to raise. Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an assistant city manager, became home.
No. 49: Dearest, Everything you do, you do for us. Everything I do, I do for you. These are our daily acts of love. –Beloved
Following a summer vacation in the mountains out west, Zanga had trouble breathing. They thought it was a lingering cold. The cold turned into bronchitis, which eventually became pneumonia. The pneumonia required an X-ray, which sent them to the nearest hospital. Further tests revealed the worst. Ovarian cancer.
No. 72: Beloved,I'm tired and in so much pain. I know the drugs are not working. I have no strength to fight and I'm scared. –Dearest
No. 75: Dearest, Hold still. I have to drain fluid from your chest. It's with the greatest love that I cause you pain. I want you to breathe. I want you to live. –Beloved
They tried to remain positive, but cancer is a pessimist. Chemotherapy proved no match, and Zanga began planning a future for her family without her. She ordered socks for her husband, a subscription to Amazon so household necessities would be delivered regularly, and planned the details—readings, songs—of her funeral. At 8 p.m. on November 20, an ambulance took her to a hospice care center. Five hours later, Yi got a call from the nurse, who told him to rush back. From the darkest hours of the night until just before dawn he talked and talked and talked to her, before exhaustion overwhelmed him and he dozed off by her side.
No. 89: Dearest, I am so sorry I fell asleep. I did not see you go. I carry the guilt of not saying good-bye. –Beloved
No. 90: Beloved, Hold your head high. Be proud. No woman could have asked for more. I left while you slept to ease your burden. –Dearest
Catherine Zanga was 41. But her story was far from over.
In the days, weeks, and months following Zanga's funeral, Yi lost himself in caring for the kids, concentrating on his work, and trying to survive each day. He was lonely, to be sure, but that was easy to ignore compared to the immense sadness and anxiety he began feeling as an anniversary he had never even considered he'd have to mark approached.
"By the time I got to September, the problem I had was I could count down the number of days to the anniversary of her death," he says. "It very much felt like a hurricane had built out in the Atlantic, it was going to come ashore and hit me, and there was nothing I could do except hold on and deal with the wreckage. I thought, what can I do to turn this around? How can I make this, instead of a day of mourning, a day of celebration?"
It took two weeks for the epiphany to strike. He'd take pen to paper and write little love notes to his wife. So he began scribbling on a scrap sheet or on the back of a random receipt, telling her things he knew she knew, and others he never got the chance to say during their 15 years together. But 50 short stanzas in, something felt wrong.
"Half of them actually sounded like Catherine," he says. "It occurred to me that this is really a conversation between the two of us about our time together."
His project evolved until he had written 50 notes from Beloved to Dearest, and 50 from Dearest to Beloved, then organized them into a comment/response format. The first 60 tell the story of their time together—meeting, dating, marrying, working, parenting.
The next 30 deal with cancer—fighting, fearing, succumbing.
The last 10 are even more conceptual. In those, Yi imagined how his wife would respond to his grief, to his anger, to his loss, to his new reality.
No. 98: Beloved, You've shed enough tears. Live fiercely. Live completely. Don't ever forget you are never alone. —Dearest
Recording his thoughts and emotions, and what he imagined Zanga's would be, was therapeutic for Yi. Yet he still felt vaguely unfulfilled, until a second, somewhat more out-there idea struck. He would distribute his love notes to strangers.
"It was important to me not just to recognize Catherine and the love we had, and to share that story, but to build community by spreading love," he says. "What I wanted to do was try to get people to take time to reflect on the love in their life, because I know what it feels like to not have it anymore. I want people not to take it for granted."
That's how it came to be that on the morning of November 20, 2015, 364 days after Zanga passed away, Yi, Anna, and Alex took to the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets in the heart of downtown Charlotte to hand out love notes to total strangers. Each package also contained a blank card with a plea from Yi for the recipient to write their own note to a loved one.
One or two pedestrians didn't break stride, but most paused to accept. A few stopped to read on the spot, and more than one approached Yi to offer condolences, tears in their eyes.
The family was trailed by several local television news crews, and it didn't take long for the story to go viral. Good Morning America, the Today show, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Upworthy; traditional and new media ate it up. It seems love translates to all mediums.
And in all languages. Pieces soon ran in France (amour), Italy (amore), Spain (amor), Croatia (ljubav), Vietnam (than ai), Finland (rakkaus), Germany (liebe), The Netherlands (liefde), Turkey (ask), South Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, the Bahamas, Australia, and New Zealand.
Yi started a website (100lovenotes.com), a Facebook page, and a Twitter hashtag (#100lovenotes) where people began sharing their own stories of love and grief. He intends to write a book and, come November 21, be out on the streets of Charlotte again, this time with as many people as he can gather, passing out love notes and asking each recipient to take a moment to tell someone special how they feel about them.
All of which begs the question, why?
"Love is universal," he says. "Everybody understands it regardless of what country, culture, language you're from. Whether it's your parents, or your siblings, or your spouse, or even a pet dog or cat, everybody understands love. Everybody has a love story. Everybody. There's no exception to that. Some people may say they don't; it just means they haven't really thought about it long enough. People understand love, and this is a love story. It is not about death, or cancer. It resonates with people, because it's not just my love story. They empathize with it, and then they can reflect on the love in their life, and what that means."
Like many among us, Hyong Yi loves his job, his children, and always and forever, his wife. But like only the luckiest few, Hyong Yi also is in love with love.