Democracy Dies in Darkness

Books

A dying mother’s memoir is this year’s ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

By Nora Krug

June 1, 2017 at 7:00 AM

by Nora Krug

Two days before she died, Nina Riggs made a request: Don't be afraid to read my book.

There's good reason for such a plea. Her book, "The Bright Hour," is a memoir about the last two years of her life. She completed it in January; she died the next month, at age 39, of metastatic breast cancer. Her book comes out Tuesday.

In an email interview from a hospice in Greensboro, N.C., Riggs, who had two young sons, remained remarkably upbeat: "I think a real gift that this experience gave me was forcing me to appreciate my life/death, not just my life. I had to embrace the experience of having cancer, because that experience was part and parcel to my experience of my husband, my kids, my dearest friends. So I would say I really hope the book I wrote will make you feel much more joy than anything else."

The book will make you feel joy. Riggs writes beautifully about her family, her love of literature and nature, of beach vacations and watching her son learn to ride a bike: "Don't let me go yet!" he screams, as she does. The book will also make you feel sad.

But heed the author's request. "The Bright Hour" is a stunning work, a heart-rending meditation on life — not just how to appreciate it while you're living it, but how to embrace its end, too. It is this year's "When Breath Becomes Air."

Riggs, a former teacher and a poet, raised her family in Greensboro. Before becoming ill, she was, by her own account, a fairly typical young mother. Amid the play dates and trips to Target is an amusingly irrational sense of doom that will feel familiar to many readers — Web searches about what fate might befall her boys if, for example, they ate too much playground mulch or had "an unnatural passion for ceiling fans and kitty cats." In 2015, during a mammogram, doctors found "one small spot," and her perspective quickly shifted: "It has happened, I keep thinking. The terrible thing. This is what the terrible thing feels like."

Riggs had a family history of breast cancer; her paternal grandfather died of the disease, along with several other members of her extended family. But knowing this ominous genetic makeup offers little assurance or comfort when the diagnosis is made. "We are certain only that there is so much of what we are uncertain," Riggs writes.

Related: [Nina Riggs: ‘A family tree entwined by cancer’]

And yet Riggs barely pauses to pity herself or her family. She trudges forward with the kind of strength and humor that make reading her account a bittersweet pleasure. Her wit is sharp and her observations lyrical: "I understand what it is to dawdle in the sun on a perfect day and feel winter and grief in the warm breeze and in the dry rustle of the grasses and in the waves in the bay newly tipped with white," she writes.

Riggs was surprised by the speed at which her disease progressed. And though readers know the end that this narrative is hurtling toward, still we feel the suspense, the hopes and the disappointments along the way. In the midst of it all, Riggs is also coping with the slow death of her mother, a woman whose lines zing even in her final moments, when she tells her daughter, "You are a great person in many ways, [but] I wish you were better about going to the dentist."

A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs sought solace in his work and that of the philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Like Emerson, Riggs was drawn to "finding beauty and magic . . . in the natural world, and in our smaller, everyday worlds," she said. "When I found the Great Seer of my family had already dealt, beautifully, almost ecstatically, with these issues, it was a real source of inspiration."

The book's title comes from Emerson's journal, where he writes about being "cheered with the moist, warm, glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World."

Riggs died in the morning, her favorite time of day, as her husband notes in a poignant afterword. Before her illness, "she used to bounce out of bed at first light, and she insisted on open blinds when we went to bed, even if we were in a hotel with eastern exposure in the desert," he writes.

Riggs said she hoped her book would help readers better understand how death and life are entwined. Montaigne appreciated this, she explains. "He left all his doors unlocked. He acknowledged the terror that could come. But by considering it and allowing it in, he resolved to live with its presence: 'I want death to find me planting my cabbages, not concerned about it or — still less — my unfinished garden.' "

Related: [Before I go: A mother’s hopeful words about life in its waning moments]

Death found Riggs in an unfinished garden. Her children are 7 and 10. But her life flourishes in the pages of this book. Written in the present tense, it feels present, as if Riggs is in the room talking to you — that witty friend who makes you laugh and ponder big thoughts even as she quietly suffers. It makes the last pages especially moving.

Still, in her final interview, conducted with the help of her husband, Riggs expressed hope that readers would not greet her book's dark subject with fear: "Even the scary parts are deeply intertwined with all the bits of life we cherish most," she said, "our partners, children, passions, work, friends, music. So many wonderful, beautiful, amazing things that are going on right there under death's nose all the time."

Nora Krug is an editor and writer for Book World.

The Bright Hour

A Memoir of Living and Dying

By Nina Riggs

Simon & Schuster. 310 pp. $25


Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.

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