The Bright Hour

A memoir that matters

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Recommendation: If you want to transform a traumatic life event into something bright and even beautiful, ask a poet to tell the story. At 37 years old and the mother of two small sons, poet Nina Riggs was diagnosed with breast cancer—just “one small spot”—that within a year turned into a terminal diagnosis. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying is a poignant, laugh-and-cry account of the last two years of her life; a meditation that embraces all the emotions of the experience.

In September 2016, the New York Times published an essay by Riggs entitled “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” in their Modern Love column. Her cancer had recently spread to her bones, causing her back to break. The essay describes her obsession with surfing the Internet to find the perfect couch on which to convalesce and gather her family around her. After publication, hundreds of readers sent emails and donations, wanting to help, and this “hug of the world” inspired her to begin working on The Bright Hour manuscript in earnest.

The title of the book comes from a journal entry about morning by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also happens to be Riggs’ great-great-great grandfather: “To cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.” Having grown up figuratively in the shadow of Emerson (and literally in the same area of Boston), it was as an adult that she came to share his passion for finding transcendence in the natural world and wonder in the ordinary.

In addition to weaving references to Emerson throughout the memoir, Riggs follows the beacon of the 16th century French philosopher Michele de Montaigne, whose essays about how to live, she says, taught her much about not fearing death. Her deep meditations on these two authors’ writings provide a resonant counterpoint to descriptions of day-to-day life in suburbia—taking care of the kids, fixing the house, keeping a marriage going—and to the details of the inexorable progression of her illness.

The specter of cancer loomed large over Riggs’ life even before receiving her breast cancer diagnosis. Her paternal grandfather had a radical mastectomy, as did his sister. There were multiple cancer diagnoses on the family trees of both her mother and father, and, in fact, shortly after Riggs received her own diagnosis, her mother was determined to have blood cancer and died six months later.

With so much illness and loss, it is hard to imagine how author Joyce Maynard could describe this memoir as “exploding with life.” With signature wry humor, Riggs jokes about her prescription for a “head prosthesis,” sends “rock star” chemo treatment selfies to her best friend, and relates tender moments shared with her husband. She also leaves a beautiful legacy to her two boys, who will have perpetual access to her wit, bravery and honesty in these pages.

Like bestsellers Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Riggs’ journey is an inspiration to courageously examine our mortality and cherish each day though living in its shadow. 

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

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