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June 28, 2017

The Bright Hour

by Anne Paddock

In 1838, 35-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson sat down and wrote in his journal:

I am 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.

Nearly 200 years later, Emerson’s great-great-great granddaughter, Nina Riggs found profound meaning in that entry and named the book she finished a month before her death at age 39, in February, 2017, “The Bright Hour.” When the reader fully absorbs that journal entry, it’s as if the generations between Emerson and Riggs disappear and that these two people born 174 years apart shared a connection, a knowledge of how hard it is to live when the body is failing, and the beauty of experiencing something so simple – daybreak – to alleviate the suffering.  Although Emerson recovered and went on to live another 44 years, dying at the age of 78, Riggs was not so lucky.

In 2015, 37-year old Nina Riggs was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a year and while she was being treated with chemo and radiation, the cancer had metastasized rendering her diagnosis terminal. She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother (of two very young boys), poet, writer, and a professor.

In September, 2016, the New York Times published a piece called “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” in the Modern Love column in which Riggs talks about how important it is for her to pick out a couch after receiving news that her cancer has metastasized. The response to this column was overwhelming resulting in a literary agent convincing Riggs to expand the essay into a book, which she did in a matter of months.

The Bright Hour is the story of Nina’s journey with cancer and her determination to find meaningfulness in the time she has left. She divides the book into four sections – Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, and Stage 4 – signifying the stages of cancer as she gets closer and closer to the end of her life. Although the story is profoundly sad because the reader knows the outcome before the first page, the words that make up the story are incredibly meaningful, real, and often laugh-out-loud funny (While on a water taxi at Universal Park, Nina ask “Does a boat captain for a real boat on a fake canal driving real people to a fake world require a real pilot’s license?” And, of the medical field:  “You must understand that we don’t totally understand.”). Nina Riggs’ sense of humor is always present so the reader feels more like Nina’s best friend than an admirer from afar.

Riggs draws strength from her famous ancestor’s writings along with the works of Michel de Montaigne (A french philosopher who popularized the essay as a literary genre) whose words resonate with her own struggles. Although Emerson, Montaigne, and Riggs led very different lives, the three shared a love of words and the pain of loss (Emerson having lost his first wife at a very young age; Montaigne having suffered from kidney stones and the loss of 5 daughters in infancy). Making sense of their lives through words connects the three in a way that allows Riggs to embrace life. As Riggs writes, it is up to all of us

….how to distill what matters most to each of us in life in order to navigate our way toward the edge of it in a meaningful and satisfying way.

It is just unquestionably hard to do this when you are in your late 30’s with two little boys and your oncologist keeps delivering bad news. And, your mother is dying of multiple myeloma. In a way, Nina’s mother’s death 6 months after Nina’s original breast cancer diagnosis paved the way for Nina to deal with the unknown. Emerson and Montaigne may have given Nina confidence (at one point Nina imagines Montaigne hollering “break it open, look inside, feel it, write it down.”), but Nina’s mother gave her courage by walking through the storm first – barefoot – all the while leading the way showing Nina how to navigate one of life’s scariest journeys.

For me, faith involves staring into the abyss, seeing that it is dark and full of the unknown – and being ok with that. And, if I can achieve that – BREATHE. STOP BREATHING. BREATHE – even for a quick moment, that is truly something.

Critics have compared The Bright Hour with When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (the 38-year old neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer in 2015) but the books are vastly different. Although both authors share similarities – diagnosed in their mid-30’s with Stage 4 cancer, talented, gifted, on the cusp of life with bright futures ahead, and their determination to find meaning in the time they have left – their stories are their own. When I closed the last page of The Bright Hour, I thought of Joan Didion’s book Blue Nights in which she wrote:

Blue Nights are those evenings when the sun is beginning to set in late Spring when summer “seems near, a possibility, even a promise.” As the sun starts to set, the sky becomes bluer with the color deepening.  During this period, the thought of the day ending doesn’t seem possible but it will end and when it does, the summer is gone and the days are shorter.  Blue Nights are a warning that the end is near.

The difference between the two books is that Riggs opted to focus on the “bright hour” of the morning as a way to escape her fate for a moment and embrace the day while Didion acknowledged the finality of the day in trying to understand the death of her 39-year old daughter.  There is no escaping death but we each have the ability to choose how to deal with grief and despair if we open our hearts to the only thing that really matters in this world:  love.

Remember says the world – you must die.

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