The Bright Hour

Nina Riggs’ stunning memoir, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, was written in the last two years of her life. At the age of 37, with two young boys and a dying mother to care for, Riggs was diagnosed with breast cancer, “just a spot,” that accelerated rapidly to become terminal. This astonishingly moving, never maudlin book, is not filled with the sadness that one might expect to find in these circumstances, but instead is made up of episodes, small and large, presented to us in Riggs’ forthright and humored tone. Riggs, once a poet, writes of hours and days simply and eloquently, reminding us that these moments are the ones making up her life, no matter their content. This book is infused with anecdotes from the front lines of motherhood and marriage, which just happened to be peppered with “dispatches” from the world of a fast-moving cancer and its treatments. Riggs is no stranger to the disease. Her mother has been living with and dying from cancer for the past 8 years. As her mother passes her last days in hospice she relays her regrets for Riggs, that she (Riggs) had been nicer and seen a dentist more often. This pairing of the profound with the trifling details of everyday runs throughout Riggs’ memoir and lends itself to the poetry of Riggs’ words. “I’m terrified. I’m fine. The world is changed and exactly as before. There are crows in my hair. I have no hair.”

Riggs is brave to face cancer with as much acceptance and wit as she does. One wonders if some of her bravery stems from the precept passed down through generations by her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “always do what you are afraid to do.” Riggs looks to, and sites, Emerson often, as well as the French philospher Michel de Montaigne, and finds comfort in their viewpoints toward the natural world, life, and death. There are moments though, when Riggs finds it difficult to summon courage and understanding, and they are heartbreaking, as when she thinks of leaving her children. “Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right within all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.”

Also heartbreaking is that we will never get more writing from Riggs. This book reads as if she is in conversation with her reader, often in the present tense, imbued with humor and fine points, so that when it’s over we are left mourning the book’s conclusion as well as the life of its writer.