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  Table of Contents  
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 56  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 191

The bright hour: A memoir of living and dying

Department of Prevention and Community Health, George Washington University, Milken Institute School of Public Health, USA

Date of Web Publication2-May-2019

Correspondence Address:
Nilakshi Biswas
Department of Prevention and Community Health, George Washington University, Milken Institute School of Public Health
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijc.IJC_195_19

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How to cite this article:
Biswas N. The bright hour: A memoir of living and dying. Indian J Cancer 2019;56:191

How to cite this URL:
Biswas N. The bright hour: A memoir of living and dying. Indian J Cancer [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 26];56:191. Available from:

Author : Nina Riggs

Publisher : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

Published : June 6, 2017

ISBN : 978-1-5011-6937-3

Price : 16 USD

No. of pages : 310

Cover Design & Illustration : Samantha Hahn

Has someone ever asked you the question, “what would you do if you could live forever?”. For many it elicits hope, and for others it elicits, perhaps, boredom. Either camp of thought, though, still indirectly acknowledges their own mortality, and the certainty of it. We live through life knowing it shapes us but never really stop to think how it does. Nina Riggs, faced with the prognosis of terminal metastatic breast cancer, not only acknowledges it but prepares for the certainty of it in her poignant, heart-wrenching, yet life-affirming memoir.

Touted as “this year's When Breath Becomes Air”,[1] I was skeptical if The Bright Hour would be able to live up to the soft and insightful life accounts of Paul Kalanithi, but Nina Riggs' almost-poetry-like prose gives us something new. Reading these books consecutively, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's words rang true: “Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded”. Different from Kalanithi's perspective as a doctor and scientist, Rigg's pulls from her perspective as a poet, writer and shapes her view through what the Romantics would call transcendence and what she calls “magic”, the beauty of something fleeting, “the bright hour” just before the sun rises. She celebrates this magic of life in both the good and the painful days of her life with breast cancer.

Rigg's novel, written during her last 2 years of life, accounts her journey from “a bright spot” of tumor to a terminal prognosis. It opens with the difficult, simultaneous diagnoses of her breast cancer and her son's type 1 diabetes. As her husband, her kids, and she deal with the grief of this news, she compares her way of coping with loss of hair, pain, nausea to her mother and others in similar circumstances. But this narrative is peppered with wit, humor and complicated emotions. Should she feel guilty for missing special treatment from strangers when the cancer is clearly outwardly noticeable? Or why does she feel unsettled returning to civilian life after completing treatment? And is there an instruction guide to creating videos for your children from beyond the grave? Through the roller coaster of hope of remission and deep sadness and disappointment of metastasis, she shows that her daily life, grief, joys, relationships all intensify with the finality of it all, but still remain somehow so relatable to us. As Riggs put it, still just living “normal human drama”, within the shadow of her diagnosis. There is sadness in what is happening, but there are so many bits of joy that she wants us to share in. As she writes about her struggles with disengaging expectations of the future from her remaining life's beauty and happiness, she draws from Emerson's and Montaigne's writings on death-in-life, and how death's inescapable presence shapes our life decisions; except with hers, she notes that the one to one decision making is a lot clearer.

Knowing her time is running out but not knowing how quickly, makes for an emotional read but I think what Rigss' wants us to take away are the small moments. The moment when she realizes that there is no use distancing herself from her family now, or when she helps her son ride a bike. She helps you see that there is still life to celebrate. Come for the content, stay to learn how to find funny in the mundane and love each day despite knowing there is a last.

Even with its beautiful, deep writing and insights, this novel did not stay with me as strongly as other books that also ponder on what makes life meaningful. But this may only be because of differences of lived experiences and priorities. Despite this, I do recommend reading this novel and believe with every reading it will reveal something more at different times in life. It is difficult to understand how to deal with death in life, but we can read it from those who have contended with death and written to tell the tale.

  References Top

Bhatia P. Book review of 'When breath becomes air'. Indian J Cancer 2017, 54:589.  Back to cited text no. 1
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