The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs is a beautiful testament to life. And, like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, it is a terrible reminder of the lives cancer destroys.
Unlike Kalanithi's book, however, Riggs' memoir is without ego. It is not a telling of the different life she had imagined for herself, and a recollection of her successes so as to assert her legacy, but rather, it read as a diary of a contemplative, loving mother, daughter and wife across stage 1-4 of cancer - from one small lump in her breast to its metastasis in other parts of her body.
To note, Riggs' legacy was already carved out decades ago, as she is a descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She refers to his work through key parts of the book, making parallels to his life and hers. She also refers regularly to Montaigne's words, the great French philosopher, threading his prose together to bind the narrative of her life. This deference to the work of those before her instead of her own work made this a humbling read.
And living with cancer, I can imagine, is humbling. Tiny cells multiplying and spreading to turn her body weak. And, while it was happening within her body, it was also happening outside of her body, in the death of her own mother at the same time from myeloma blood cancer, and in her friend Ginny, whose cancer metastasized just months after hers. They joked about the 'casserole bitches' - awkward, good intentioned, community moms who had no idea what truth to add to such suffering in hardly middle-aged women, whose children were still under the age of 10.
There was a wonder to that - the humor in Riggs writing, whether it was at the expense of casserole bitches, or in the assessment of her lopsided body after one breast was removed, or when her family went through a lengthy search to find a new dog for the family, or when her father had to bring her the walker and portable commode her own mother had used before death.
Through all the death and suffering Riggs retells in this 300-page book is life - the barking of dogs, the queries of her young boys, the love of her family, the vulnerability of her husband. "My voice: I have to love these days the same as any other. His voice: I'm so afraid I can't breathe." Nothing makes life more beautiful than its finite quality. Nothing makes days more encouraging than knowing they are numbered. We know this but we forget it. I wish I could thank Riggs for the reminder.
I'll end with this paraphrased simile from the book. When you are diagnosed with metastatic cancer, it is kind of like walking indefinitely on a tightrope over a huge cliff. You know the cancer will never disappear, but you do not know if it will take your life in days, months or years. For everyone else, life is also like walking a tightrope over a huge cliff. We just have some fog and clouds and other things to hide death, its cause yet unknown, its end known all the same. This book is not about cancer. It is about treasuring life, walking the tightrope with eyes open, and hearts open wider.