“That was grief, I say to myself. It makes us dark and a little crazy.”
Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour
I cried when I finished reading The Bright Hour. I suppose a lot of folks will, too. I mean, come on, a beautiful and vibrant mother of two dying from breast cancer at 39 is the stuff Lifetime tear-jerkers are made of. Oh, and no spoiler alert needed here – the full title of Riggs’ book is The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.
Before you even turn over the cover you know how this story ends. That’s not why I cried. I cried because there would be no more beautiful words to read.
Nina Riggs was one hell of a writer.
I first read her words in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last September. Her piece was entitled When a Couch is More Than a Couch and she stood me still with her words – her luminescent and lyrical words – as she wrote about her obsessive search for the perfect living room couch while propped up in her bed weak from the venom of metastatic breast cancer.
She writes of being able to let go of a lot of things – like plans – but she cannot figure out how to let go of mothering her two young boys.
“So maybe I don’t try to figure it out. Maybe I just aim to get the couch right: strong bones, high-quality leather, something earthy and animal and real. A surface that knows something of what it was to be alive, that warms to our touch and cools in our absence.”
I read many parts of this piece and her book out loud – just to myself – so that I could hear the words – lovely and melancholy at the same time – like wind chimes in the distance on a breezy summer night. You are soothed but a little unsettled by the storm you sense is coming. You linger in the sound, savoring a moment that has already passed.
It’s funny. I genuinely loathe summer but something about Nina’s writing reminded me of the best parts of it. If you could capture her writing in a photograph – an old school photograph taken with a real camera like my father’s Argus 35 mm, I think the image revealed would be a mason jar filled with fireflies. The darkroom illuminated by her prose.
One of my favorite passages in The Bright Hour – and there are many – my copy is drenched in yellow highlighting – is the chapter entitled What Death Is. Nina writes about her father taking her youngest son, Benny, on a ride on his motorcycle. She has decidedly mixed emotions about allowing this saying “this is objectively not a prudent idea – or possibly even legal one. It’s something else completely: perilous and fantastic.”
Her father tells her about a time that he could tell Benny was falling asleep on the back of the bike – he could feel his grip slacken around his waist. He gently jostled his grandson and told him that he had to stay awake to hold on. Benny says, “But it sure felt good.”
“I think of this feeling sometimes – and I can imagine that sort of letting go: warm, dangerous, seductive. What if this is what death is: The engine beneath you steady; those that hold you strong; the sun warm?
I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to fall into that, to loosen the grip at the waist, let gravity and fate take over – like a thought so good you can’t stop having it.”
There’s also a brilliant tiny chapter, Say Please, that will make you never hear that word quite the same way again. She makes a list for her boys about why “please” is so important:
“Because the s in please is the sweetest sound, like steam rising after a summer shower, like a baby whispering in his bed.
Because you are human, and it is your nature to ask for more.
Because want, need – those unlit cul-de-sacs – are too perilous unadorned.”
Those sentences remind me of fresh peaches. Sweet and juicy, their stickiness hard to shake.
Nina is never precious with her words and has a wicked good sense of humor, no doubt reflective of her New England roots and I laughed out loud in several places such as her description of a “twentysomething-year-old grief counselor with a handshake like a silk scarf.” You know this handshake. Gross.
Nina’s mother, Jan, died 18 months before her daughter after living with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, for several years. She is in the shadows of almost every page of The Bright Hour – keeping watch over her daughter’s pilgrimage. Having lost my own mother an unfathomable 15 years ago, I had to remind myself to breathe at some of the passages Nina shares about her mom – like when her mother, after a failed clinical trial, declares that she does not want to do any more treatment.
“My mom: my map, my Sistine Chapel, my Lonely Planet, my beautiful ruin, my volcano.”
It’s hard to imagine how Nina was able to complete her memoir while living and dying and all the noisy in-between. I know she was inspired by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne – she references his writing several times in the book – but maybe she also heard the muse of the Swiss philosopher, Amiel, who advised to “Work while you still have the light.”
The Bright Hour is saturated in light and a reverent clarity that perhaps only limited time can give.
I never met Nina and I’ve felt a little like a cyberstalker since I read that Modern Love piece. I Googled her to find everything she had ever written and started following her on Twitter.
That’s how I knew she had entered Hospice care in late February. Her final tweet sounds like a Patty Griffin ballad – a little sad, a little hopeful. The kind of song that makes you want to have a slow beer with a good friend.
Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.
Nina died before the sun came up on February 26th and this week, The Bright Hour reached Number 14 on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list and was selected as an Editors’ Choice.
I’m not sure even Nina would have the words for all this surreality but if she did you can bet that they would surely slay me.