The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying By Nina Riggs; Simon & Schuster, 310 pages, $25
Nina Riggs doesn’t say straightaway, in her stunning and consequential memoir “The Bright Hour,” that she is the great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Nor would this matter, in the greater scheme of things, except for the fact that it is the 19th century American essayist’s words that often sustain his young descendant during the penning of, as her subtitle puts it, “A Memoir of Living and Dying.”
Living and dying, she tells us, comprise her towering and incontrovertible truth: At 38, and with months of successful-seeming chemotherapy and radiation behind her, she has suddenly broken her back: “This was the MRI where they found the cancer had spread to my bones,” she says. “This was the MRI that suggested I had eighteen to thirty-six months to live.”
Riggs then looks back those few months to the day a physician first told her: “Cancer in the breast. One small spot.” One small spot, she had thought, “is fixable. One small spot is a year of your life. No one dies from one small spot…”
Riggs’ great gift in the dire situation, her saving grace – and ours -- is that she is a poet, a writer, a woman able to put into words what it is to be told you have a potentially fatal disease when you love your life, your husband, your eight and five-year-old boys. Early on, she is drawn to the sixteenth-century Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, father of the essay and a strong influence on Riggs’ literary forebear, whose thoughts frequently turned to man’s transience.
Montaigne, she tells us, referred to such reflection as one’s being in “suspicious country,” a phrase she borrows for her blog, precursor of this memoir -- which, in turn, takes its title from one of Emerson’s musings re small times of respite from serious sickness.
But “The Bright Hour” is far from a scholarly book, grave illness being one of life’s great levelers and the percipient Riggs being acutely aware that she is one of many come untimely toward her end.
Her close friend, Ginny, in fact, is also dealing with a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer that, like Riggs, will metastasize beyond curing. The two text constantly, comparing notes (and, with dark humor, referring to well-meaning acquaintances as “casserole bitches” while planning to co-found an imaginary business, “Damaged Goods”).
Riggs’ mother, Jan, is also facing cancer and will die eighteen months before her daughter. But, although all the prognoses here are grim, “The Bright Hour” is far more a book about living than dying and, as Riggs sees it, the two are inextricably wound, one about the other.
“I’m terrified. I’m fine,” she writes. “The world is changed and exactly as before.” Death, she notes later on, sometimes “looks exactly like life.” She also looks back and asks, “What do sick people think about? How do you know when you start to be a sick person?”
She finds an inexplicable calm at times (“calm and furious”). She lists “capital F fears,” and lower-case ones. She realizes that “the terrible thing” she has feared all of her life has come to pass. She thinks of Emerson saying, “The universe is fluid and volatile.”
Most of all, she considers her boys – Freddy and Benny – who are funny and insightful and way too young to be losing their mom. She looks at John, her capable and loving spouse, and at her wonderful dog MacDuff, the four constituting her world.
She thinks, but does not say out loud, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry for what I am about to do to you.” And we want to lift this burden from her, want to keep her from knowing whatever comes next – for it will surely be too much to bear.
Yes, this is a book you read while holding your breath, hoping for the impossible, becoming tearful and frightened – and unwilling to turn the final pages: “The Bright Hour” is that beautiful, that achingly alive. Riggs (her husband John tells us in the book’s acknowledgments) intended “The Bright Hour” as a legacy to Freddy and Benny “to help them to know her and understand the love she had for them better as they get older.”
But Riggs’ memoir is a legacy to all of us, a gift of the human spirit – and a poetic rendering of what it is to undergo a mastectomy, strange test after strange test, the scrutiny of strangers and the specter of the Unknown.
At one point, Riggs regards her post-mastectomy scar: “I hadn’t really noticed before, but the scar is a stretched S-shape – kind of a meandering river – snaking about eight inches from my sternum to just under my armpit. John sees a sideways Superman-type S. I see a lazy question mark with no dot. The whole area is numb, so tracing it with my fingers is the disorienting gap between the expected and the perceived. It is not lovely, exactly, but it is -- to my fingers – the new world. I cannot stop wanting to know it better.”
In another, she describes emerging from a bone scan machine to watch her skeleton showing up, from skull to feet: “It’s like watching a teacher grade your test in front of you. It’s like watching live feed of the plane that you are flying in land while you’re in it.”
Sometimes her word gift to us is but an image: “In the grass, a brown bunny waits still as a yard ornament.” Other times, it is a portrait of the family vacation home: “Here is the summer house – the picnic dishes, the drawer of dull knives, the white sheets on the line that work the air of the cooler days like sails, like lost souls, like wings that need more imaginings, filling the yard – huffing and brimming. Here are the seventy-year-old antlers, the glass buoys, the miniature cairns of white pebbles, yellowed paperbacks, checkers, frayed semaphore flags…”
Riggs lives every moment that is left to her with her eyes wide open, aware of what she calls “the shortness of everything,” never stopping to be “amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.”
Toward the end, now nearing 40, she is told she is experiencing a “tumor burden” that is making it hard for her to breathe: “Tumor burden,” she thinks, “like a backpack you might put down, like a worry you might unload, a crime you might confess …”
Her thinking remains clear and remarkable, her thoughts often with her forefather Emerson who once said, “Permanence is but a word of degrees”-- and his literary forerunner Montaigne who famously asked one of humankind’s oldest questions: “Did you think you would never reach the point toward which you were constantly heading?”
Riggs did. And then she didn’t – and all of us are the better for it.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and frequent News book reviewer.