The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

review: Marla Cantrell
By Nina Riggs | Simon & Schuster | 310 pages | $25

As the daughter of a woman who died of breast cancer when she was fifty-two years old, just looking at the cover of The Bright Hour set my heart racing. I picked up the memoir, held it in my hands, opened the cover as if I expected something dark and scary to jump out from it. When nothing did, I read the first brilliant sentence, and then the first perfect paragraph, and then the first profound chapter.


By the time I reached the end of this book, I felt as if I knew Nina Riggs, that if she were still around, I’d be sending an email, or better still, a hand-written letter. I’d be telling her how I opened her book, fell down the deep well of it, and how I discovered a thousand things about myself, and about the nature of fear, love, loss, and joy.


But I could not write to Riggs, who died of metastatic breast cancer in January, just a month after her book was finished, at age thirty-nine, two years after doctors found “one small spot” that needed their attention.


Riggs, a descendant of poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, grew up under the shadow of his immense talent. She recalled a photo taken of herself and her cousins when she was a girl, placing a wreath on his grave. For years, she wondered if she understood the rivers and ledges of his work, but as she faced the disease that would undo her, he became more and more real to her.


The title of her book comes from a line Emerson wrote in his journal. He was talking about leaving the prison of this sickly body, of becoming as big as the world.


As Riggs’ treatments failed and her doctors conferred, she saw the handwriting on the wall. She flew to Paris with her husband, the place they’d lived shortly after they’d married. She took her boys to Universal Studios, a trip she hoped would show up in their memory again and again.


Reading The Bright Hour reminded me of the last two years of my mother’s life, of how she continued to plan. How she held tight to hope even while filling out a notebook with instructions for my father. Here’s when the utility bills are due, she wrote. This is where I keep our important papers.


I remember seeing her standing in her front yard, her head tipped toward the sky. She was admiring the clouds, the images they formed, a game she’d played with me and my brother and sister when we were children.


I could not see the clouds the way she did. All I saw was death, a wolf that stood at the edge of the yard, ready to devour my mother. She must have seen the wolf too, but that didn’t stop her from the joy of clouds that turned into freight trains or kittens or the wings of an angel if you looked closely enough.


If I could write to Riggs now, I’d thank her for giving me back a bit of my mother, and for reminding me of just how wondrous every second of this life really is.


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