Death is the great unknown. Yet it is something that we will all have to experience one day. Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living & Dying contemplates some of these very things, as well as some other big existential questions. The book is an excellent meditation on life and death, and serves to remind us all to stop and take a moment to appreciate the things that really matter.
When poet, writer and teacher Nina Riggs was 38 years old she received some terrible news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. It initially seemed to be manageable and she was determined to put in a good fight. She started chronicling her experience including her treatments with chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the setbacks and joy she felt along the way.
The Bright Hour draws together all of Riggs’ writing, and is divided into four “stages”, just like cancer. Some of the chapters are brief vignettes, while others look in more details at the themes of motherhood, friendship, marriage and life in general. During the course of her illness, Riggs’ mother would also succumb to multiple myeloma. Her own grandfather had passed away from breast cancer when Riggs was a girl and her aunt would also be diagnosed with this same cancer several decades prior.
Riggs also describes her life with her husband, John Duberstein and their two young sons, Freddy and Benny. She also includes thoughts about her book club, which she seems to love and enjoys, and also makes reference to the philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, and her own ancestor, the essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In other parts, Riggs illustrates her treatment and discussions with fellow cancer patients, including conversations where they plan to go and get nipple tattoos after their breasts are reconstructed (as they had lost these through mastectomy).
Riggs’ memoir is one in a growing number of books in this category, When Breath Becomes Air is about Paul Kalanithi’s decline from metastatic lung cancer, whilst famously, author Christopher Hitchens also wrote about his own terminal illness before he passed away. So it seems that Riggs is in good company.
In The Bright Hour, Riggs’ prose is eloquent and accomplished, she deals with the sensitive subject matter with a deft hand. Riggs also finds the perfect balance between light and dark moments, finding the humour and absurdities in situations that most of us would find dire and hopeless.
The Bright Hour is Nina Riggs’ magnum opus and it’s a great legacy. This memoir is an absolute gem which will offer great relief and comfort for people finding themselves facing similar circumstances either in their own illness or through their loved ones. For the other readers this work is a poignant and stirring reminder of how to live life to the full and to appreciate the things you love, and to accept the things that you cannot change. It’s so incredibly heart-breaking and gorgeous. Thank you Nina.
The Bright Hour is available now through Text Publishing