Afew pages from the end of her book “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying,” Nina Riggs is back in the hospital again. The cancer that began in her breast has reached her lungs, and she is wheeled down for a breathing test. En route, she passes room after room where the TV is on, each screen showing the same face. It is January 2017, and Donald J. Trump is the new president.
Even if you have read the author’s bio, which speaks of Riggs in the past tense, and even if you have sneaked ahead and seen that her husband, John Duberstein, wrote the book’s brief epilogue and its moving acknowledgments, there is a startle factor to this mention of a cultural moment barely in our rearview mirror. Riggs was alive so very recently.
She was only 39 when she died in February, a mere two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “The Bright Hour” is a deadline memoir — a vivid, immediate dispatch from the front lines of mortality and a record of a life by someone who wasn’t done living yet. But there is nothing maudlin in it. A poet who grew up mainly in Massachusetts and spent part of each summer at her family’s house on Naushon Island, off Cape Cod, Riggs was a New Englander to the core. Her capacity for staving off florid emotion serves the memoir well.
That Riggs developed cancer in the first place wasn’t exactly surprising; her family tree abounds with it on both sides. “Oh, breast cancer,” a great aunt said. “That’s something I did in the 1970s.”
For Riggs, it began with what a doctor called “[o]ne small spot,” a description that made it sound vanquishable, not fatal — not the sort of thing that would keep her from seeing her sons, Freddy and Benny, then 8 and 5, grow up. And anyway, her mother, Jan, was the one who was terminally ill, with multiple myeloma. “Her favorite reply to any text intended to cheer her up is the Bitmoji with a hand coming out of a grave that says ‘Literally dying!’ ”
Riggs tells us in the prologue, though, that her own cancer will not be cured, and she structures her book like the progress of the disease: Stage One, Stage Two, Stage Three, Stage Four. She takes her title from a journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “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.”
A touchstone of hers, Emerson is her great-great-great grandfather on her father’s side — an association she makes too much of, as if it somehow boosted her credentials as a writer. She is fonder still of Montaigne and quotes him frequently, but when she suggests to her husband that they name their new dog after him, he says, in effect: Let’s not be jerks. Good call.
When she riffs on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” though, rewriting a passage about snow to make it about chemotherapy-induced hair loss, the result is pretty glorious: “It had begun to fall again. She watched listlessly the hair, silver and brown, falling obliquely against the lamplight . . . ”
“The Bright Hour” has rough patches that might have been smoothed if Riggs had had more time, but it gains confidence as it goes. It tends to work best when she is most down to earth, willfully dispensing with some of the standard trappings as she tells the story of her cancer experience. You will find no pink ribbons in this tale, and none of the usual rah-rah talk of beating the disease. After her mastectomy, her oncologist dissuades her from reconstructive surgery. “That’s a survivor issue,” the doctor says. “We’re not there yet.”
The book chronicles what Duberstein aptly calls his wife’s “journey through the stygian realms of metastatic breast cancer,” but she does have company on that voyage: him; their sweet and worried sons; her gentle, steadfast father, Peter; and for a while at least, her mother — who is deeply sorry, as Riggs herself will be, to leave a child who needs her.
There are others, too, of course, but this is Riggs’s closest circle, and her warm portraits of each of them are a large part of this book’s emotional power. So is something we don’t notice fully until it’s gone: the strength and clarity of Riggs’s voice, which never faded on the page, and which we won’t get to hear again.
THE BRIGHT HOUR
A Memoir of Living and Dying
By Nina Riggs
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $25