“I am not done becoming me. I am still in the works.”
Author: Nina Riggs
When I read a book that exposes a little pocket of the universe I didn’t know existed, I feel compelled to track down the author to share my gratitude. If I poke around online, it’s mostly easy enough to find an email address so I can dash off a note of thanks. (Occasionally I even get a response, which blows my mind every time.)
Upon finishing The Bright Hour, a real-life story conveyed in tender and meticulous language, I wanted to email Nina Riggs right away. I needed to tell her that I loved her memoir more than any memoir I’ve read in months. It was bold and brave and funny. It made me cry, and it made me want to sip whiskey with her on her front porch in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I don’t even like whiskey.
But then I remembered that Nina Riggs is no longer alive, and it was like a punch to the gut. She completed the manuscript for The Bright Hour in January 2017 and passed away a month later. This loss of her is shattering: not just for her husband and two sons, but for the many readers like me who might be a little obsessed with her command of words.
Riggs, who died a few weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age 37. What started as one small lump morphs into something incurable and metastatic, and all hope for long-term survival is lost. Without hysterics or self-pity, she tells her husband, John, “I have to love these days in the same way I love any other. There might not be a ‘normal’ from here on out.” And she sticks with it: she drinks beer with friends, takes John to Paris, and shops online (obsessively, hilariously) for the perfect couch for her living room. The Bright Hour is about these exquisite ordinary moments she carves out for herself and her family—shoved in between hospital visits and chemotherapy sessions.
A poet and the great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs split her memoir into four sections, Stage One through Stage Four. In slim, unsentimental meditations, she describes everything from her passion for Montaigne to her dog, who unceremoniously eats her fake-breast cushion (referred to as the “pink critter” by her boys). She also works through more weighty matters, such as her son’s diabetes and the death of her own mother. As Riggs negotiates her simultaneously cruel and beautiful last weeks, she is reminded of the jellyfish she and her sons watch on the beach: “We ride the tide. We believe in resistance; we are made both of fight and float.”
The Bright Hour is a gift for any reader who opens it. As Riggs’ experiences unfold, so much tumbles from the pages, landing in a warm, comforting pile in our lap: courage, insight, wit. And—of course—a reminder never to squander what we have: “There is life—this bright hour. ‘Let us make good use of time,’ whispers Montaigne.”