Book Review: The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

Review by Anne Pitman, OICC Yoga Therapist

I ate this book.  Really.  Within a day I was done and sated.  Perhaps this is a strange (and maybe inappropriate) thing to say about a book that is mostly about metastatic cancer and ultimately, death.  But this book is delicious. 

It is a warm and compelling rendering of a life facing cancer, one that includes both the fervent desire to live and the seemingly opposite (but not) way of keeping death well acknowledged and well in view.

I opened the book as I started making dinner one evening – frying some onions for soup – thinking I’d just read a couple of paragraphs as I stirred.  Adding a few mushrooms, and other vegetables, I could not stop reading.  I might have burnt the soup.  I don’t know.

Now, it’s true that I love a good book about something real; adventures in travel, books about children and families and yes, books about human suffering; cancer specifically, since it is my area of experience, interest and work.  I have read dozens of books on the subject.  But this book gutted me especially.  It’s a beautiful, rich and ‘real’ read.  Hopeful and tragic, both.

It is not, thankfully, a prescriptive read about how to do cancer well (with insistent positivity).  Instead this book begins with “one small spot” – a breast cancer lump found and thought able to be dealt with simply; a lumpectomy, maybe some radiation.  And then the story and unfortunately, the cancer, grows.

Nina (the author) has a remarkable voice – honest, witty, sincere and warm, she weaves her experience of cancer with snippets of wisdom from Montaigne (a loved philosopher of the French Renaissance) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (her great-great- grandfather).  She allows us to witness her parenting, her marriage, her friendships, all in this shattered post-diagnosis time.  

This book is friendly in its details, both of life and multiple medical treatments.  From Chemo school (“Everyone was fiercely upbeat as we learn not to eat rare tuna and how to tie a square scarf and what kind of mouthwash is good for mouth ulcers”), to surgery (“I hadn’t really noticed before, but the scar is a stretched S shape – kind of a meandering river – snaking about eight inches from my sternum to just under my armpit.  John sees a sideways Superman S.  I see a lazy question mark with no dot”), to being accepted into a drug trial (“Yay” her friend Ginny wheezes, “We are now both official guinea pigs of the medical system”) to musings on oncologist’s meetings called tumor boards; “the term kills me each time I hear it.  What is actually a group of doctors from different specialties discussing the specifics of your case together around a table sounds like a cancer court-martial or torture tactic. You could call it a “patient review meeting”. You could call it “checking in with my colleagues”  You could call it “exaltation of oncologists””).  Eventually, we realize where all this is going as she says, for the first time, out loud to her cousin “So, it turns out that I’m kind of dying”.

When she talks about her two young sons, her husband of sixteen years, her mother (who dies of cancer shortly after Nina has been diagnosed), her Dad – this is where the knot in my throat spills over into tears: “After school I denounce homework and the boys holler and mud-kick out into the wide yard….I am still short of breath and weak, but I come sit on the steps of the back deck in a T-shirt and sweat pants and feel the light on my skin: There is life – this bright hour”. 

The Bright Hour is a gorgeous book about living and dying, both, and I was sorrowed to read of Nina’s death.  I loved her the way she thinks, the questions she asks, her life. In writing this book she has, without trying to, dropped breadcrumbs on the trail of how we might live our dying.  
Do good people die, and die early or too soon.? Yes.  

Can someone lead the way, dying in such a way as we, the living, might be informed about how to walk the path? Yes.  

Can you miss someone, very badly, that you never even met?  Yes.  Yes, I can.