A Search for Understanding…
I have been compulsively ordering books from the Internet since my breast cancer diagnosis in February. Every few days a new one arrives in my mailbox. I have The Emperor of all Maladies, Option B, Pink Ribbon Blues and Hallelujah Anyway stacked, partially read, beside my bed.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs is the only book I’ve finished to the end, consumed in three short days. Last January, when my diagnosis was looming, I stumbled upon Nina’s New York Times Modern Love essay. It was about the seemingly simple task of buying a couch, made complicated by the fact that Nina had metastatic breast cancer.
I started following Nina on Twitter. I pre-ordered her book, due to be sent to me in June. Sometime after my own surgery, in late February, a post popped up on her Twitter timeline. It said: Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.
I felt a great sadness wash over me. Nina Riggs died a few days later.
Nina joins so many talented women who we have lost to metastatic breast cancer, like Lisa Bonchek Adams, a heroine on Twitter whose quote is taped to my bathroom mirror: Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems. Another Modern Love essayist, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who had ovarian cancer, wrote You May Want to Marry My Husband, which was published a few days before her death too.
A Book of Life
Nina’s book The Bright Hour is not a cancer memoir; it is a book of life. Nina had a graduate degree in poetry, and it shows. Her words are meant to be savored; her writing is both accessible and complex. The layered meanings become clear when you take the time to go back to re-read a passage (and you should).
I want all of it – all the things to do with living – and I want them to keep feeling messy and confusing and even sometimes boring. The carpool line and the backpacks and the light that fills the room in the building where I wait while the kids take piano lessons.
As the cancer slowed her down, Nina became more and more reflective and eloquent. She spots a scooter parked outside a motel on her way to the hospital, imagines the life of the owner – and crafts her own fictional version of ‘The Girl on the Train.’ In response to her good friend Ginny’s cancer metastasizing too, she says, I never stop being amazed by how cruel and beautiful this world can be.
Nina didn’t forget the humour, the ridiculousness that is cancer treatment. She calls the Radiation unit ‘the nukes,’ and names her cane ‘Faith.’ But then there’s this: all day I am haunted by what I am unable to feel. Her own humanity is sprinkled liberally throughout the book.
I googled Nina Riggs and her Good Reads page comes up, with five star reviews. The very first review is by her husband, John Duberstein, which I think is the sweetest thing in the world. He comes clean that’s who he is and says, I’d be giving her five stars regardless, because I loved her more than anything…the book is filled with beauty, lyric and profane. John has taken on the important role of shepherding The Bright Hour into the world.
He’s right about the book. It is lyrical, and clearly written by someone who has an impressive literary pedigree as the great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She seems to adopt Emerson’s ‘always do what you are afraid to do’ as her mantra – taking a trip to Paris with her husband, trying out a writing retreat and I spotted a smiling picture of her on a scooter on the Internet deep into her treatment. I admire her unapologetic bravado.
Can’t Find Center
I’d imagine The Bright Hour will be read in narrative medicine classes, a combination of a ‘patient’ memoir and prose that could be carefully examined page by page by medical students for its beauty. Nina can help future doctors to crack open the right side of their own brains, to recognize that cancer patients are first people, not cancer.
Nina’s feelings are hidden in her words, at chemo, I can never find my centre anymore. It is like a big, empty ocean. I wish I had a friend like her to text things only she would understand: They injected blue dye in my nipple! My scar is so itchy! This oncology resident needs a prescription for a personality! I know she would laugh and text me something back clever, and we’d bask in the common and absurdity that is breast cancer. Her son has diabetes and mine has Down syndrome – another small commonality. Our boys also show us that nobody is guaranteed a pain-free life. It is in the shades of grey that you find the beauty, after you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and make the most of every day.
Ordinary, but Extraordinary
Many are comparing The Bright Hour to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. I love both books but for different reasons. Paul’s book is definitely written by a man whose identity is strongly associated with being a physician. The strength of his book is the 2-way intersection between literature and his profession.
Nina’s gift is her descriptions of motherhood and of an ordinary, but extraordinary life: picking out a rescue dog (and a couch), her beloved mother’s last days, her memories of her budding romance with her husband John. She is a keen observer of life and of death too. She reminds me want to pay more attention, to look up from my phone, to quiet my monkey brain, to just be in the here and the now. The Bright Hour is a soft reminder that this moment is all that we’ve really got, cancer or no cancer.
Sorcerer of Remembering
I am done with treatment, but have not yet been given the holy ‘NED’ (No Evidence of Disease) all-clear. I said good-bye – for now – to the radiation machine at the cancer agency last week, not wanting to jinx myself. Like Nina, I could be back. Or I could not. Nobody knows anything for sure. As one physician once told me: there are no ‘nevers’ or ‘always’ in medicine. This is especially true in the cancer world. Nina’s cancer went from one small spot to breaking her back in a matter of months. The power and cruelty of cancer is clear here, but Nina is not just her disease. She’s a mother, a friend, a daughter, a wife and a poet.
I’ve dog-eared The Bright Hour, folding over many bits containing words I want to remember: All the oh-everything-is-great stuff eventually gets carted off in a bag of medical waste, and I am teaching myself to say the scary things, and, drawing upon the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, did you think you would never reach the point toward which you were constantly heading?
Nina Riggs is a sorcerer of remembering. In one chapter, called The Machine, she vividly describes bringing her two young sons to see the radiation machine. I brought my own son to see the radiation machine a few weeks ago too, but I don’t remember much, except my husband tried to flee the room. Afterwards, my son concluded, ‘that was like a hospital horror movie.’ I fretted that I had damaged him even more than having a mother with cancer has.
Nina remembers every detail about her boys’ visit: I notice Benny won’t stand all the way inside the room and that he keeps glancing at the oversize radiation symbol on the 12 inch thick door, and the awareness that her boys are suddenly seeing her as on of the ‘Feeling Pretty Poorlies’ who crowd the Radiation waiting room.
All Of Our Days Are Numbered
Nina observes everything, and that is the grace of this crafted memoir, and yes, her admittedly-biased dear husband was right – it is a beautiful book. Its unselfconscious prose dances from short chapter to chapter. What do we do with our remaining days? Riggs gently reminds us that everyone’s days are numbered – some of us are more acutely aware of that solemn fact than others.
I’d humbly suggest spending a few hours savoring The Bright Hour and dipping into Nina Rigg’s life. This would be an excellent use of your precious time. While Nina wrote her book as her legacy for her sons to remember her by, it is a gift that we get to read it, too.
Towards the end, when there are just a few pages left, you will reach a chapter called Afterword. Then, it is okay to go ahead and cry.
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