A Tiny Wellspring of Comfort: Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour

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I stumbled across Nina Riggs’s blog, suspicious country, on the afternoon of my first bone marrow biopsy. It was a drizzly day, the sky a Hugoian gray. My hematologist held my hand in a fluorescently lit room that felt much too big as the technician swabbed my bare hip with iodine, a lovely alluvial orange, and drilled into the soft, silty deep of my body—the iliac crest, he told me, an anatomical term that my mind, half-delirious on tramadol, kept wanting to change anagrammatically, to rearrange as something outside my body, far beyond it. Iliac crest, I thought, imagining him tapping into the perfume of some profusion of lilacs growing on a cliff edge. My marrow crackled as it was siphoned out, and the whole thing suddenly seemed like the most intimate intrusion. I shut my eyes. Until it was over, I repeated inside my head the only thing that came to me—the last line of poet James Wright’s “Jewel”: My bones turn to dark emeralds. My bones turn to dark emeralds. My bones turn to dark emeralds.

A few hours later, a frantic, fear-fraught Google search led me to Nina, whose writing quickly became a tiny wellspring of comfort, a whorling balm where medicine had failed. I felt an immediate kinship with her: Both of us were neurotic googlers, students of poetry, traversers of a shared geography. Both of us had doctors at Duke and wisecracking mothers who, when actually dying, would find it perfectly appropriate to text “the Bitmoji with a hand coming out of a grave that says, ‘Literally dying!’” And, of course, both of us were sick, though Nina much more gravely and gracefully so.

In her first blog post, penned beneath an image of floating sea-glass shards, fragilely strung by monofilament along rain-misted windowpanes, a thirty-eight-year-old Nina relays how “one small spot”—the phrase a doctor uses when informing her by phone that the pathologist has detected a malignancy in her right breast—turns into a calming mantra, a “chant, a rallying cry,” she later writes, repeated over and over. Devastatingly, that one small spot becomes many, spreading to her spine and eventually blotting out the breath in her lungs. By some miracle of sheer will, that one small spot also becomes The Bright Hour, Nina’s hard-gotten, heart-achingly beautiful memoir of living and dying.

As it must be, the book is arranged into narrative vignettes: luminous snippets, each its own bright hour, pooled into four sections that attempt to contain the stages of Nina’s metastatic triple-negative breast cancer—the structure of these sections like fences staked around something wildly abloom.

Beneath the quickening shadow of terminal illness, Nina’s memoir is a brave meditation on everything she loves: words, art, nature, travel, place, and, most importantly, family. Those she holds dearest are tenderly rendered to be as true to life as possible, unadorned with artifice. There’s her father, Peter, a steadfast, slightly off-kilter rock of a man. There’s her mother, Jan, a firecracker of dark wit who won’t let bone-ravaging multiple myeloma get in the way of leading one badass book club. There’s her husband, John, patient and thoughtful and disarmingly droll. And then there are her two young boys, Benny and Freddy, inquisitive and imaginative and innocent and endlessly loveable, as we wish all children to be. Whooping and hollering their way through, they practically shed bits of sparking light. Their pure voices shine everywhere. In a particularly poignant exchange, “Benny whispers to [Nina] that his birthday wish is that he could be a tollbooth operator when he gets older and that [her] breast would grow back someday without any cancer in it.”

Nina writes in the present tense, which seems as much a necessity as a conscious literary choice. Obviously, this old trick injects intimacy and immediacy into the text—it’s a kind of close music—but it’s also a painful reminder that Nina’s not writing from a distance, that she’s scribbling it all down in real time, as her own death, in its “enormous stillness,” creeps closer with each word.

To sift through the “something gray like grief” for whatever glinting gems lie buried there, Nina turns to tromps through the woods, obsessive gardening, and literature. She pores over the journals of salt-bitten transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who looms large as her great-great-great grandfather (literary leanings, like cancer, run in her bloodline), and the ruminations of French essayist Michel de Montaigne, whose writings offered solace to her mother and intellectual intrigue to her spouse, with his lifelong passion for philosophy. What seems to resonate most with Nina is Montaigne’s acceptance of fear, “not fearlessness exactly,” she writes, “but a fearlessness of being afraid.” Noting how Montaigne kept his castle unguarded and his doors unlocked, despite roving bands of thieves and never-ending political turmoil, she shares this line of his: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, not concerned about itor—still less—my unfinished garden.” Similarly, in a bloom of jellyfish adrift in the surf near her family’s beloved summer home, she sees Montaigne’s openness to fear. “We are hearts and stingers,” she writes. “We ride the tide. We believe in resistance; we are made both of fight and float.”

Though the book is filled with imponderable loss—before losing her unfinished life, Nina loses a breast, her sense of femininity obliterated with it; her father loses his faithful canine companion, Clyde; and they both lose their beloved Jan (“my map, my Sistine Chapel, my Lonely Planet, my beautiful ruin, my volcano,” Nina writes)—it is bereft of maudlin wallowing. Where that could have been, there is instead refreshing gallows humor, which has worked its way into the frayed fabric of this quirky family’s everyday existence.

The landscape of Nina’s memoir is a strange, ever-shifting terrain, moving back and forth between the mundane and the momentous, which are never really separate things. A couch is more than a couch. Boxes of geraniums are more than boxes of geraniums. “Sad little yellowing packets of eyebrow pairs shaped of human hair” are more than the loneliest chemo accoutrements, huddled together on some overlooked shelf as the world hurtles through space. Nina considers all of these things with wit and wonder, the emotional lens through which she filters them rarely fogging or going safely rosy. She probes, dissects, observes. She holds the “hard thing” up to the light and examines it from every startling angle, revealing both its clarity and its mystery. Unsurprisingly, she never resorts to the tired battle jargon that obscures and reduces the real experience of cancer. She is not a warrior but a reconnoiter at life’s edge.

Nina is deeply reliant on her craft, but she comes to lament the confines of language and the trappings of those inescapable literary devices she employs so skillfully. “We contain things…in order to be less afraid of them,” she says. “The crafted idea does this. It’s why I write. The metaphor does this. The intact body does it, too.” She vividly describes a collection of 14th-century stone Jesuses that draw her in at the Musée de Cluny during a bittersweet trip to Paris. “Even in the most emotionally brutal pietàs, Jesus’s wounds were still depicted as the daintiest of paper cuts,” she writes. “No chaos. Reveal the pain, but hide the wreckage. I can hear Montaigne hollering: break it open, look inside, feel it, write it down.”

Guided by the “beautiful, intimate, messy honesty” that she so admires in Emerson’s journal entries, from which she gleans the title of her memoir, Nina takes on the grueling work of cracking herself open, writing herself out, through her pen ceasing “for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body.” In the mind-muddling haze of Xanax, Zofran, and steroids, she sometimes drops her guard, abandons her tools, and embodies Christopher Pearse Cranch’s sketch of the Emersonian eyeball, striding across the perilous ground on gangly legs in a top hat and a waistcoat, tails flapping like vestigial wings. “I am a ludicrous eyeball,” she says. “I edit nothing out.”

Of course, much has been meticulously chiseled and edited out, but the book’s power lies in Nina’s sincerity, which, like Montaigne’s, reaches to her sentences, outshining all polish and contrivance. Though the wreckage is never on full display, the messiness emerges from the smoke and mirrors of language—the peak of Nina’s Vesuvius breaking through the clouds. She is able to give each figure what confessional poet Robert Lowell called a “living name.” As Emerson said of Montaigne’s work, “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

For a long time, I lurked on Nina’s blog. I wanted to tell her how I would carry her living words with me, how they formed a vibrant, breathing, authentic armor against whatever might come, but I never left a single comment. I worried I would be intrusive. I worried I would say the wrong thing. I worried I had nothing to say. I worried too much. When her posts tapered off, I feared the worst. While I lingered behind, turning this way and that in Montaigne’s “suspicious country,” she had sailed on to the undreamed shore.

Nina died at sunbreak on February 26, 2017 in a hospice room with pale purple walls—purple, her mother’s favorite hue until she abruptly decided, on her deathbed, that the best color was orange. Orange—it is the color that washes through Nina’s pages like her Florentine watercolors, its chroma quietly intensifying, growing deeper and brighter as she lays her story down, the “spotless orange light of the morning” that Emerson sees “beaming up from the dark hills into the wide Universe.”

At its radiant core, Nina’s swan song is a last, exquisite, “perfectly imperfect” gift to her boys. It is her memory of them. Her words are the very shape she has taken in death: “I was here—right here—look at this ink, the curl of the N—and now I am gone, and I leave these things to you.”

By letting the rest of us in on her unflinching final reflections, her deepest vein of jagged jewels, she becomes “as large as the World.” She cracks us open, teaching us to make good use of our time, to see what is sweet and stinging, to “love the days,” to grasp for the bright hour even as, we let it go.

Lauren Morgan Whitticom is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories. Find her on Twitter @laurenwhitticom. More from this author →