Feb 1, 2018


The Bright Hour, A Memoir About Living and Dying by Nina Riggs is a tough book to write about. 

There are two major reasons why this book did not elicit the same reaction in me as when I read, When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalathani. While both authors are writing knowing that unless there is a miracle with their illnesses they are going to die, The Bright Hour did not grab my heart like When Breath Becomes Air did.  

I preferred Kalathani’s writing style and voice much more, and because he wrote so eloquently about becoming a doctor, and being sick with the knowledge and insight of a medical professional, it made me think so much about my DAD.  The second reason, Kalathani focuses more of his memoir on the valiant and honest anguish of dying.  He wrote his memoir in a much more compact timeframe, 3 or 4 months before he died.  I cried much of the time I read book, the account of his experience made me sad. When I read the book I could appreciate his brilliance and the wonderful, kind, passionate man that he was, in addition to being a son, father, husband, and soon a practicing neurological surgeon.  

The Bright Hour was more about living with cancer.  Nina Riggs wrote the content of her book over a 2 year period. The first 2/3 of the book, Nina Riggs writes about everyday life, casually, almost like I was reading daily posts from her blog.  I did some research and confirmed the book did start as a blog and evolved into the book project. Don’t get me wrong, it is an amazing accomplishment to write a book, to get a book published and especially if the book is about dying.  If you read both books, I would be interested in your review of them.

Because the author, Riggs, is the great great great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, there are many quotes and references to her relation with RWE and how this family ancestor influenced and informed her life.  While some of the references and quotes from Emerson make sense, I think there was too much use of the reference. She also does this with quotes and references to French philosopher, Montaigne.  The references and passages at times seemed forced, like fancy accent wallpaper in a house that has bright colored walls.

What was gripping in the Riggs memoir, her detailed account of having to deal with her Mother’s death from cancer.  She details how her Mom’s illness and decline affects her and her family, her DAD.  She is in essence a student of death and dying, the book is about the author's Mom living and dying with cancer and also Nina, living and dying with cancer.

Nina had a horrific illness, metastatic triple negative breast cancer for two years. And she was so young, she died at age 39. Her cancer was aggressive, delinquent, it spread from the breast to her spine to her lungs to her bones, it was awful. As a reader you get a very detailed account of the medical process, procedures, tests, check ups, her relationships with doctors and with other people she knows who also have cancer. She had a mastectomy, she had radiation, chemo, she even participated in a clinical trial, the cancer was not abated, her battle was fierce. 

Towards the end of the book Nina goes to a retreat to focus on her writing, the retreat location happens to be at a convent, and in this part of the book she shares her acknowledgement that she is dying, that she is going to be gone from this world and that she is leaving her amazing boys, Benny and Freddy. And her wonderful husband, John Duberstein.  This part of the book made me cry.  The anguish is in every word.

The afterword written by her husband is eloquent and moving. He loved her dearly and he did everything he could to help her with all facets of her illness, the practical, the emotional, the medical, the privacy, the craziness, the planning, the up and the downs.  They also did wonderful family things, taking their boys to Disneyland two months before she dies. She also surprises her husband with tickets to Paris, they have a wonderful time in a city they both love and had lived in when they were young.

It is uncanny, you can visit Nina’s blog today, and her husband John, has written several posts after her death.  He is a very good writer himself. And the story continues in that John, Nina's widow, and Lucy, Paul Kalathani''s widow, are making a life together with their 3 children. 

Regardless of my preference one book over the other, if you have any interest in reading, I recommend both.  It’s not often that you accept an invitation to be side by side with someone who is dying. What stays with me after reading each experience is that regardless of the universal truth that we are all mortal, everyone has a different story.