How Nina Riggs Found Brightness in Her Darkest Hour


One problem central to memoirs of terminal illness is that the person we meet on the first page — magnetic and vulnerable and brave enough to go about the task of writing — will be gone by the last. Knowing this, The Bright Hour sat untouched on my shelf for many months. I knew it would be a good book: It was a Times bestseller, named on NPR’s best-of-the-year list, and beloved by people I care about. The copy lent to me contains an inscription from Riggs’s widower: “Don’t cry.” So I knew it would be good, but also tough, and it was.

Nina Riggs was in her mid-thirties when she learned her mother had breast cancer, thirty-seven when she learned that she herself had breast cancer, and thirty-eight when she learned her cancer was terminal. She was a wife, a poet, the mother of two young children. Her first book, a volume of poetry, is titled Lucky, Lucky, and that’s as good a clue as any to the tone of this final manuscript — glinting, thrumming, regarding prose. It’s divided into four sections. Each marks a stage of cancer.

Grief, like love, is nonfiction’s endlessly unplumbed topic. There are the memoirs about grieving: Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, about the loss of a child, a book whose cover I stared at for years, not realizing that two letters in a shimmering, defiant shade of blue lighter than the others spelled out a word: “NO.” Or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book about the journey, literal in her case, which follows the death of a parent.

And then there are the memoirs written by the dying themselves, which have their own singular defiance: a last word. Last year, there was Cory Taylor’s unsparing account of brain cancer, Dying: A Memoir; the year before that was Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude. 2016 also saw the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s memoir about dying, When Breath Becomes Air, top bestseller lists. With that book, from the very beginning, there were uncanny parallels with The Bright Hour, the most significant yet being the news, this week, that Paul Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy Kalanithi, and Nina’s widower, John Duberstein, were brought together by the books their spouses wrote and fell in love. But that’s another story — maybe even another book.

In this one, Riggs’s book, the author contends with the ideals of a meaningful life — Ralph Waldo Emerson was her great-great-great-grandfather — a daunting task for anybody, but especially for someone living on a deadline. Chapters shift between scenes specific to illness (doctor’s offices, head-buzzing, mastectomy) and the earthiness of daily life (carpool lines, barbecues, literature.) She’s full of self-deprecations and a very funny writer, one you grow to feel close to. The elaborate process of searching for a couch became a Modern Love essay, “When a Couch Is More Than a Couch.” At times, her accessibility reminded me of Anne Lamott’s nonfiction — warm, disarmingly wry.

The voice that I recognized most acutely, though, was the voice of a poet — someone like Marie Howe, maybe, who contends with astral grief through the mechanics of silverware and spilt coffee. Riggs has the language of a poet (during her first pregnancy, her son has a “spine curving like driftwood…[a] thunderous heart”), but also the mind and movement of one, drawing quicksilver parables from small encounters. If poetry requires economy, so does terminal illness. During the course of writing the book — two years — her mother, Jan, dies, as does a close friend, Ginny, who also has cancer.

Memoirs about illness, along with virtually any kind of nonfiction written by women about motherhood or grieving or sex, tend to get a gendered treatment, classified as emotional and sidelined to the book club circuit. It’s unfortunate that The Bright Hour — which made the book club rounds — hasn’t yet found a wider audience, given the tacit strength of its language. Riggs isn’t an especially sentimental writer, by which I mean there are no bids for pity or slickly packaged morals, but she is also not self-conscious about the topic: Dying is sad, and there is a bald, messy core at the center of the story. She wants to stay alive. “Because you are human,” she writes in a letter to her boys, “it is in your nature to ask for more.”

I never met Nina Riggs (though I wish had, and — more than anything — the book will make you wish that you did, too), but I did share close mutual friends with her, and read her blog for years (the book originated in that blog, Suspicious Country.) One night, a couple of warm Decembers ago, I found myself in a dim booth at the local bar with those mutual friends and Nina’s father. Both Nina and her mother were still alive at this point, and afterward we went to his house, where Jan was on the couch, in the final stage of her illness. I remember feeling astonished at how sweetly ordinary it all felt: sitting in this room drinking beer, petting the dog, admiring the trellis of cancer cards strung round the room. There was no question about the level of feeling everyone shared, but the jokes were free-flowing and crude, the dog slobbering. “What was dying supposed to look like, anyways?” I remember thinking. “I don’t know, but surely something close to this.”

Strangely, finding answers to that type of question seemed to provide some comfort throughout 2017. Most of the time I found myself on my unlovely blue couch at 2 a.m., reading bad news: first in 140 characters, then in 280. Trying to be hopeful felt like roller-skating across an ice rink. Improbably, in all this, I found myself turning toward literature about death — books that emphasized bodily helplessness in a world that already feels thusly so. My own despair, political and otherwise, has often been inward-looking; these were works that reminded me about the worthiness of forging connection and, as Riggs writes, asking for more. The Bright Hour is not instructional or breezy, but it is honest and deeply felt.

One scene, toward the end of the book, felt especially adhesive to me. The family falls in love with a dog from the pound and takes it home for a trial period, only to discover that the new dog makes life unbearable for the dog they already have. They make the difficult decision to return it.

The kids, of course, are sad, but they quietly take the new dog outside to play basketball, savoring their last hour with it. Riggs videotapes the whole thing, questioning, as she does, the decision to document the inevitably painful. You can hear, in her vivid writing, the acoustics — the basketball bouncing, the dog running freely between them, barking. And you feel, too, the essential sting of choosing to carefully love something that you may lose. It’s a raw act, documentation. But there is a world of brightness in it.