**5 Goodreads Stars**
“Remember, says the world – you must die.”
“Even tourists have their maps. No one else looks to be wandering in the street with a time bomb strapped to her body, thinking of saying to those she loves the most: I am sorry, I am sorry. I am sorry for what I am about to do to you.”
“When it comes to death – those darknesses – it seems we are still so very much Plymouth Pilgrims – all fear and fretting and fortifications, and a strong sense of our own alienness in a hostile land. We don’t begin to know what to do with ourselves. We cross our arms over our chests and try to look on the bright side as we starve.”
I started off 2018 reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, who sadly passed away before the book’s publication. This is one of those books that everyone needs to read; it’s filled with sharp reflections on living, on dying, and on what it means to be human. If you manage to finish it without sobbing, you must not be of this planet.
Riggs was a poet and was the great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favorite writers. Riggs, a mother of 7 and 9 year old boys, was diagnosed with cancer at 38. What looked to a small, treatable with chemo spot on her breast morphs into terminal breast cancer over the course of 18 months. Riggs’ mother, who has lived a full life and been able to see her grandchildren, is also struggling with terminal breast cancer, their family being BRCA carriers. The breast cancer gene is so strong in her genes that while Riggs does not have the BRCA gene, she still manages to get breast cancer. Apparently family members of BRCA carriers are at a higher risk for contracting breast cancer than the general population. Riggs’ grandfather even managed to have breast cancer. We not only watch Riggs struggle (and eventually pass away from) breast cancer, but also witness the passing of her mother.
Yes, it is a tough, emotional ride, but obviously nothing compared to what the Riggs’ family has lived through. The road is made a little less bumpy because of Riggs’ elegant prose; she turns the familiar, quotidian parts of life into unusual, noticeable objects of affection or interest, such as her neighbor’s application of Roundup to weeds and the horrible noise of the MRI machine:
“All that time of my sweeping, I could hear Dan puttering. For hours, he’d been slightly hunched over his patio, spraying steady lines of Roundup between the infinite bricks, eradicating the chances of anything unwanted taking root. At one point as he walked up the back steps to his house, he paused and looked over at me sweeping – he who does not make easy eye contact even when someone is not bald in their pajamas – and we nodded at each other, as though acknowledging that the thing rattling loose in both of us was the same.”
“The next day at the hospital, inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band…”
This isn’t a book of someone who has come to terms with her death. It is a book about living through the inevitability of death, which she argues does not make her unique as we are all going to die. Death, she reminds us, is everywhere, lying in wait for all of us:
“A bus. A cough. A rusty nail: Death sits near each one of us at every turn. Sometimes we are too aware, but mostly we push it away. Sometimes it looks exactly like life.”
Letting go of the finality of death means letting go of “mothering,” which she refuses to do:
“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.”
Riggs describes how there is so much unfinished life to be lived, mostly embodied in her two very young boys. She wishes she had the chance to grow, the chance that many of us are given, a blessing denied to her and her boys:
“I am trying to know myself. I want a better sense of what kind of mother the kids will remember me to be. It’s hard: I am not done becoming me. I am still in the works. I still aim to be softer in some places, firmer in others.”
If you are looking for a preachy book on how to live your life with cancer, this isn’t it. This is a book about facing the reality of it, of the nitty-gritty details of being down in the deepest pits of despair head on as a mother of two children and a woman who adores her husband of 16 years. There are moments of hope, but above all the beautiful life Riggs lived is what shines through this book. Knowing that death is knocking at one’s door, she writes, helps one “distill what matters most to each of us in life in order to navigate our way toward the edge of it in a meaningful and satisfying way.” And perhaps that’s what’s so shattering about it: that she could not continue to bask in the loveliness that is her family and her life, that she will never see her young boys grow old and have their own children. How could we ask anyone to come to terms with the loss of all of that?
This book is right up there with Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, two of my favorite books. I read Riggs’ book in one evening and it will stay with me. I highly recommend this book.