Posted August 26, 2017 by jimhigley
I’ve been thinking about my list of “favorite books” read over the years and I realize there’s a common theme: they all deal with death or dying from one perspective or another.
Were you to ask me the names of those books five years ago, I would have told you about:
A year ago I would have added When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – a brilliant story, written by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This raw and powerful account from a doctor-turned-patient is not only insightful and profoundly moving – it is one of the most beautifully written manuscripts I’ve yet read.
Today, I add yet one more book to my blue ribbon list.
And, as you likely suspect, the subject matter is death. And, while the storyline evolves about inevitable death – this is a book that is grounded in life.
Written by the late Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour, in many ways combines every single quality I love about the four above-mentioned books. Dripping with strip-downed vulnerability, this a story that is heart-breaking and humorous and haunting – many times all on one single page.
Author Nina Riggs died in February 2017 of metastatic breast cancer. She wrote The Bright Hour in the final few months of her life.
Let that sink in for a second.
In September 2016, the New York Times published an essay of Nina’s titled “When a Couch is More than a Couch.” The piece, originally a blog post, explored her personal thought process in selecting a new family couch – with the reality of her own terminal illness looming in the cushions of her own life. The essay was widely praised. And it led to an opportunity with a publisher to chronicle her remaining days.
Fortunately – for us – she said “yes.”
While reading The Bright Hour, I regularly asked myself how any one living out their final months could find the strength and fortitude to put pen to paper in such an eloquent way. Perhaps that is one of the many qualities that makes this book stand alone. Every chapter – some with less than one hundred words – is a carefully woven recipe of wisdom from the mind – and heart – of someone who was clearly saying, “Here’s what it all feels like.” Her description of her own life – and the stories that filled her every days – made me want to live my life with more meaning.
There’s one particular chapter that hangs in my head. I’m not even sure why. But weeks after reading it, it still lingers. Towards the end, Riggs was cuddling in bed with her young son, Benny – who asked her if she knew what “scrummling” was. Benny proceeded to tell his mom – as he ignored the at-home oxygen compressor kicking on and off – that it’s a secret sound that only brand-new puppies who haven’t opened their eyes know how to make.
“It’s kind of a digging sound,” Benny said. “Like scrumma scrumma scrumma, scrumma scrumma scrumma. Like you’re moving towards something, even though you’re already happy where you are.”
“Oh yes, I definitely know that sound,” she replied.
I cannot imagine the volcanic, spiraling, world of emotions this everyday-loving mother had in moments like that.
I’ve come to know Nina’s husband, John Duberstein – as well as their two boys, Freddy and Benny, in the months following Nina’s death. The boys are campers at Camp Kesem and our worlds were brought together by author Kelly Corrigan. In fact that introduction also included Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy. The world is remarkably small.
In June, after a book reading featuring The Bright Hour in San Francisco, I had dinner with John and the boys – and a crew of other friends and family. I drew the lucky straw – getting to sit next to Freddy and Benny for the following 60 minutes. We were outdoors. On a ferry dock. A ferry dock, outdoors on a chilly San Francisco night.
And in those ensuing 60 minutes – as the boys and I ate our burgers and fries – I’m pretty sure I felt their mother’s presence. The same live-in-the-moment-and-be-your-authentic-self voice I heard in The Bright Hour – was in living color before my eyes.
Nina Riggs left the world a lasting, timeless gift in her manuscript.
And she also left a reminder to us all that the most important gift we leave lives on in those we loved.
Nina’s book has been a best-seller since it was released. You can find it on Amazon here.