“We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”
I struggled writing this review. Not because I didn’t like this book but because I loved it and that is a weird thing to say about a memoir where the writer is dying of cancer. I think I can say I loved it out of respect and admiration for Nina. I am astounded at her strength and ability to write a book she knew she would never live to see published.
Nina Riggs was just 37 when she was diagnosed with cancer. It was just one small spot that within a year became terminal even after aggressive treatment and years of fighting. She was the mother of two young sons ages seven and nine and was married to John, her best friend. While Nina’s situation was tough, John was right when he said “I’m so afraid I can’t breathe.” I couldn’t imagine watching the love of life dying, then die, then have to go one with life and raise your children without them. It’s heartbreaking to think about. One of my favorite things I experienced reading this book actually came after I had finished. When I was reading other peoples reviews about The Bright Hour on GoodReads, I saw that her husband John had written a 5 star review for his late wife’s novel and what he wrote was so sweet. (I copied it below for you to read) I thought I had finished crying, but clearly I hadn’t.
Nina said many amazing and heartbreaking things about her kids and how she felt knowing she was leaving them. One thing in particular touched me very deeply. She said “When you fall in love with your kids, you fall in love forever.” Like I have mentioned many times, I have two young boys myself and many times I put myself in her shoes and just about choked on the terror and sadness that arose in me.
Nina’s honesty and journalistic attention to details made me feel as though I was living her life and feeling her pain, sadness and strength as I read. She wrote down the questions we would all have in her situation like “How does one live each day, unattached to the outcome? How does one approach the moments big and small, with both love and honesty?” and “What makes a life meaningful when one has limited time?”
Nina found humor in her situation and made me laugh even as I was crying. One thing she said that made me laugh out loud was “There are so many things that are worse than death: old grudges, a lack of self-awareness, severe constipation, no sense of humor, the grimace on your husband’s face as he empties your surgical drain into the measuring cup” Ha!
As if Nina’s situation wasn’t dire enough, her mother was also dying of cancer when Nina is diagnosed with her own. One of the most hard hitting moments she writes about is when her mom is being cremated. Her father chooses a ridiculous Tupperware pitcher that they had made lemonade in since she was a child as her urn. She tells her father that won’t work and he he runs back inside to find something else to use. Nina sends a photo of the pitcher to her mom’s phone number and says “Please come back. Dad wants to put you in this.” In that moment she realizes that this is the first of a million non replies she will receive.
Nina was an incredible woman who was beloved and I pray that she has found peace. This was a heartbreaking memoir that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from even as they filled and spilled over with tears. I urge you to read it because I truly believe it is something that will touch your heart and make you live each day more fully.
PS: I think this would be a wonderful pick for a book club. Not only is there a ton to discuss, Nina and her mom were both part of a book club that was very special to them.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
An exquisite memoir about how to live—and love—every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.
Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?
Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”
Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.
I would like to say my five star review is rooted in my own literary acumen and this particular book’s compelling, beautiful, almost lyric prose. And the book is filled with beauty, lyric and profane. But since it was written by my wife, I feel like I have to come clean and say I’d be giving her five stars regardless, because I loved her more than anything. I love my kids a TON. They’re amazing little guys, my favorite living people in the whole world, and I’d literally lay down in Boston traffic for them. But I’d swap them every day of the week for Nina. Sorry guys. Twice on Sundays. (Why Boston? Well, it may not be the worst traffic, but I think it’s maybe got the drivers with the most mens rea of any city I’ve ever been to.).
Seeing the book come together, getting to witness the transition from idea, to concept, to manuscript, now to nearly final publication, has been a treat not only because of the publication itself, but how much its helped me and my family focus on the important things Nina left us. Her talent, her wit, charm, beauty, and her complete refusal to let terminal disease ruin the few bright days she had left after her cancer ran wild. The Bright Hour will be a tremendous legacy for our two boys as they grow and learn to live with their loss, and anytime they want access to Nina, a huge part of her will be right there on the page. But I also hope as many people as possible will share in that legacy and get to know Nina as well as anyone can now that she’s gone. And not just because of the loss at such a young age, but because of the amazing person she was and the tremendous talent she had for sharing her vision for leading a good life, even under the shadow of terminal disease. Trust me: She was the absolute best and it comes through beautifully here in The Bright Hour.
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