A direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs inherited a love of the written word and graduated with an MFA in poetry. She went on to have a book of poetry titled Lucky, Lucky published in 2009. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. She decided to document her experiences on her blog Suspicious Country where she shared what it was like to be a married, young mother of two with this disease.
Readers are fortunate that Nina was able to write her story, The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying before her death in 2017. This book is a bittersweet one that left me with gratitude for her ability to transform the ordinary bits of day-to-day life into opportunities for deep reflection.
Her writing is honest and exquisite. She bares all and explores all of her emotions – from dark humor to joy, hopelessness, horror, magic, and beauty. It’s all part of the landscape. She sees the good and bad in all of this and says, “I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.”
Nina’s writing is evocative. She describes people, moments, relationships, and landscapes much in the way that Emerson does. The relationship she has with her mother – the ups and downs, and the details of her decline and subsequent death in some ways set the stage for much of what Nina covers in this book. It’s a memoir of her experience as a daughter who accompanies her mother into death, and then not long after- faces her own. Nina’s love for her children, husband, father, and friends shine throughout these pages. Her appreciation for nature is also featured prominently, and she sees herself reflected in all of it. She punctuates her story with many details from history and a variety of facts – all of which help to serve as anchors for her experience.
She cleverly names the chapters of this book based on stages, and this serves as a way to see both the progression of the disease as well as the decline and realizations that come from the passage of time. The book begins with her speaking to her mother having terminal cancer and then months later; she is in treatment for incurable metastatic cancer. The Bright Hour is an attempt to describe the indescribable. She offers her insight into the landscape of the medical industry and the language of cancer via her experience. Nina writes with the knowledge that she’s dying and she’s so honest about it all.
The Bright Hour is a philosophical examination of illness and of life and death. It’s a gift that she’s left for readers – a vehicle for us to see what it’s like to travel on uncharted waters into the face of one’s mortality. It tells the story of family and how we fumble through our relationships, make mistakes and do the awkward dance of being honest and hiding for fear of hurting our loved ones. It speaks to what it means to live and die with authenticity and helps to advance the death positivity movement. To read Nina’s words is to be fearless and brave and glance into a life that is coming to an end and the powerlessness that can be felt from this reality.