There’s a certain kind of light you sometimes see on winter afternoons: sharp, saturated, so glittering and vivid it’s as if the sun is turning the sky an entirely new color that’s never exited before. This book was like that. Every sentence shimmered, so bright it hurt.
I had heard that that this book was both beautiful and heartbreaking, but I was not prepared for how deeply it moved me. Nina Riggs wrote with astounding clarity and grace, not only about the experience of living with cancer and facing her own mortality, but of all the tiny sparks that comprise our lives. In these pages, she captured all of the mixed up messiness of life: tender moments at bedtime with her young sons, the hilarious conversations that can only happen with children, fighting with her husband, the particular tastes of one dinner in Paris. She wrote with equal curiosity and profundity about the ugly, unsexy, unpleasant details of living with disease and about all the shades of beauty and connection and joy that flow through a life.
The Bright Hour is funny–at times outright hilarious–devastating, wise, wry, profound, mundane, earnest, irrevrent. I cried, but I also laughed out loud. There were parts that I could hardly bear to read, let alone imagine writing, or living, and yet the whole book was so accessible, so relatable, so deeply present. Much like life, it was, at times, too beautiful to look away from; at other times, too painful to look directly at.
Through this memoir of ordinary and extraordinary moments, Riggs threaded the work of two writers that had influenced her over the course of her life: Ralph Waldo Emerson, from whom she was directly descended, and Michel de Montaigne, whose essays she reread while she was dying. It was beautifully structured, and never felt forced or overly analytical. Instead, it was a gift: to wander with Riggs through such vast territory, as she continued to quest–to delve into and excavate the world–for as long as she possibly could.
But what I found most moving, and what set this book so far apart from other memoirs that explore death–and especially grief–was the particular vantage point from which she wrote. Most books about grief are written from the perspective of those left behind. What Riggs captured so beautifully was not the grief of the left, but the grief of the leaving.
Yes, this book is absolutely heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to think that the woman who wrote it is no longer in the world, that the people she brought to life in these pages, the people she loved, now have to move through their lives without her. So much of what we understand about grief has to do with wrestling with loss and relearning how to live in a world utterly changed by absence. But The Bright Hour is not about moving through loss, but about moving toward it. We are all, of course, moving toward loss, but that momentum crystalizes when you’re given a terminal cancer diagnosis. In the book, Riggs wrestled with and mourned the knowledge of how her death would affect her children, but she also wrestled with her own loss of them.
At the heart of the book is this impossible, inevitable contradiction: I do not want to go, she says, over and over again, in a hundred ways. And then: I am going. I do not want to go; I am going. It’s vulnerable and bald and plaintive and deceptively simple. Somehow, she cuts right down, through all the layers, to what lies at the center of our lives: we do not want to go; we are going.
There’s one line in particular that I can’t stop thinking about: “We are breathless, but we love the days.”
Whether or not you’ve ever suffered loss, whether or not you are in the midst of dying, whether you are a parent or not, partnered or not–this book is for you: finite, feeling, human.
Note: I listened to this one on audio, and though I wept through portions of it, I highly recommend it in that form. Cassandra Campbell narrates and she is fantastic. I’ll be buying the print version as well, because I know it’s one I’m going to want to return to again and again, but I found the experience of listening to this one especially moving, given that Nina Riggs died shortly before it was published.