Last words

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Image by PorterBriggs.com.

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.

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Nina smiles.  Photo courtesy of John Duberstein.

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.

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How a couch became a book. Illustration by Brian Rea.

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.

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Capturing Nina.

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.”

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My copy glows in the dark.

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.”

Wind chimes…

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.

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I want a bushel of Nina’s writing.

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.

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Go Nina! Photo courtesy of Marysue Rucci.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Final drafts

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Lenten Roses. Photo by Anne Cassity.

“None of this was supposed to happen.”  Nina Riggs

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Nina Riggs

Modern Love has long been my favorite weekly read in The New York Times. For the uninitiated, it is a series of essays submitted by readers that focus on all aspects of contemporary relationships. Some of them are funny but most of them crack my heart wide open and a few of them simply gut me.

Such was the case with two essays written by Nina Riggs and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Nina’s piece appeared in September of last year and Amy’s was published just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if these two writers knew each other – Nina lived in Greensboro, NC and Amy was a longtime resident of Chicago. I do know that their lives are inextricably connected by the most morbid of coincidences.

You see, Amy died on Monday from ovarian cancer – the same day as Nina’s memorial service. Nina died on February 26th, after a two-year Armageddon with breast cancer.

I never met either of these women yet I am haunted by their deaths. Amy was 51 and Nina was 39.

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“So many plans instantly went poof.” ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I have reread both of their Modern Love columns several times in the last couple of days and beyond the unfathomable reality of dying at such hideously young ages, I am fixated on how much these two women would have liked each other.

They are both mothers – and I am deliberate in using that tense. My own mother has been gone for almost 15 years now but I am still aware of her mothering. I am still a daughter and I still need to be mothered. No, I can’t take her to brunch on Mother’s Day but I do strongly feel her presence in my life.

I desperately hope that the children Nina and Amy leave behind feel that, too. Nina has two boys – ages 10 and 7. Amy has three children – 20, 22 and 24 years old. I can only quote my wise friend Jennifer once again, “Cancer is an asshole.”

These children still have their fathers – who from the cheap seats appear to be kind and good men who share the blessing of marrying well. They are also well-loved by their wives.

“I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.” ~ Amy

Amy’s Modern Love essay was about, of all things, trying to find a new wife for her husband. It was, in essence, one last love letter to her husband written with humor and grace and a blindingly bright love. And it pretty much broke the internet.

Oh, and she finished the essay on Valentine’s Day. It was published 10 days before she died. I bet even Amy would think that plot was overwritten. Real life is like that I guess.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting John at a summer job at 21, I had already mentally signed on for life – although I waited at least a week to tell him that.” ~ Nina

Nina’s essay was about a couch – if a couch was a metaphor for life and family and home. She is desperately searching online for the perfect couch for her family – “An expansive bench that fits all of us. Something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead – the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”

I don’t know if she ever found her couch but she certainly found her voice – a voice brimming with emotional clarity and lyrical humor as she lived until she died. Her memoir, The Bright Hour, will be published posthumously in June by Simon & Schuster.

I know, I know. If it were a movie you’d say it was too over the top.

I pre-ordered Nina’s book on Amazon the day I learned that she had entered Hospice care. It felt like the only hopeful thing to do.

I’m grateful that Nina and Amy’s words are just a click away for eternity for it is only through their writing that I know them.

And I want more.

This was one of Nina’s final posts on Facebook – a few days before she died:

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.

Her post reads like a great short story to me – or better yet, a prayer for the living.

May it be so.

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Rewriting some wrongs

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“I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognize. And I lost my sense of self.”

Those are the words of Monica Lewinsky spoken last October at a Forbes conference. She was speaking out for the first time on cyber bullying.

I know something about this and these could be my words, too. Je suis Monica.

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Monica Lewinsky

I wouldn’t blame you if that made you giggle. Lord knows I had many laughs at Monica Lewinsky’s expense and I feel rather ashamed about that now. She was a 22-year-old woman who made a mistake almost all of us have made at least once – getting involved with the wrong person. The difference is that most of us are not shamed and humiliated about our mistakes on a global stage.

I paid a heavy price for some wrong choices, too.

Several years ago, I went through a private breakup that became very public for reasons that I’m certain that I will never completely understand. It’s a long story, as they usually are, and the particulars aren’t really important now but the plot is very simple. Someone made up some awful things about me, got a few other folks to believe them and set off a wildfire that scorched every inch of my life – my family, my friends, my work, and my soul.

It was the worst time of my life and that includes a seven month period when I watched both of my parents take their last breath. In short, it almost killed me.

I learned how quickly perception can become reality, particularly on Facebook. And I learned that trying to stop it – the sheer force of a cyber beat down – is like trying to mop up a tsunami with a dish towel.

I would tremble when I logged on to Facebook – fearful for what I might see. I was the butt of running jokes online, jokes made by people I had considered friends – people I had hosted for dinner in my home. I was called everything from crazy to cunt.  Yes, that word. I can remember seeing it attached to my name and feeling the color drain out of my face while my heart pounded like a bass drum.

Lewinsky says that we are living in a world where “humiliation has become a commodity.” I guess that makes the Internet the Dow Jones.

You’re probably wondering why I just didn’t abandon Facebook, the source of so much of my torment. There are two very disparate reasons. One, I felt like I needed to protect myself – to know what was going on as best I could so that there would be no surprises. You see, I learned early on during my ordeal that what you don’t know can indeed hurt you. The other reason will strike you as ironic – I desperately needed the connection to people and community not caught up in the storm.

Photo courtesy of David C. Smith

“The moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk to.”     ~ Carl Sandburg                   Photo: David C. Smith

There were surprising connections, too, from folks that I had never considered close friends. David was foremost among those. He lives in another city but always seemed to know when I was starving for an ounce of compassion. He would send a brief in-box message that was perhaps most beautiful simply because in that moment of utter aloneness , I knew that someone was thinking about me.

I began to write some very personal essays during this time. I was lost but was finding my voice again through my writing. I had a column in my local newspaper and strangers began emailing me to tell me how they connected with my stories. They felt heard through my writing and that was such a balm for my own healing.

Hemingway famously wrote that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This has been true for me. I did get stronger and over time, the din of the bullying eventually ceased. It wasn’t dramatic, more like the end of a candle when the melting wax eventually extinguishes the flame. It put itself out.

The memory of it can still startle me at times. As Lewinsky said in a New York Times feature a few weeks ago, “It lives as an echo in your life. But over time the echo becomes softer and softer.”

She’s right.

I’m in a very good place these days. I have a wonderful wife who loves and celebrates me every day, an abundance of good and genuine friends, and work that inspires me. Maybe that’s why I can finally write about what happened to me.

I believe in resurrection and I believe in myself.

Lewinsky ended her recent TED talk by saying, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”

I’m grateful I could write mine.

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