The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

the-bright-hour-9781501169359_lgThe Bright Hour is a wonderfully written memoir by Nina Riggs, who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer in February 2017. She was only 37. Nina, mother of two young boys, wife of 16 years, and great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a beautiful soul and talented writer. Her writing is emotionally raw; the conversations with her family members, her appreciation for nature,  and descriptions of her surroundings are thoughtful and true.  The Bright Hour, despite the heavy subject matter, is one of the most enjoyable and truly wonderful books that I have read in quite a while. I would highly recommend this book to all of you.  

I normally do not read nonfiction, but I make special exception for memoirs. I’ve always enjoyed them, because they are written with such heart and grit. It takes a lot of courage for a writer to pour out their most personal thoughts, hopes, and feelings on paper for others to read. Nina wrote her memoir, in part, as a tribute to her husband John and young sons, so that they might read it someday and get to know her even better, and really understand the depth of her love for them.

One of my favorite authors of all time, Elin Hilderbrand, recommended Nina’s book multiple times, and I knew that with her endorsement, I would undoubtedly enjoy reading The Bright Hour. I didn’t realize how quickly I would become immersed into Nina’s story, however, unable to put the book down because the writing was so beautiful.

Everything about this book is beautiful. Nina’s relationships with her husband, her sons, her dying mother, her father, her brother, and even her doctors are each unique and special. It is through these relationships with their well-times jokes, light-hearted humor, and even  the many tear-filled moments that Nina’s impact on each and every one of their lives shines through. She was a bright spot in so many lives.

Woven throughout the book are quotes and writings from Emerson’s works, as well as from French writer/philosopher Montaigne. Nina looks to both writers to guide her through fear and grief, allowing her to concentrate on living, really living with the time she is given.

The Bright Hour is not about dying, but more about how to live, which she discovers and shares with readers, as she is dying. Though Nina writes quite a bit about her experiences with chemo, radiation, and the many tests and hospital stays, she doesn’t sugar coat anything, but gives the unpleasant truth about cancer’s destructive path through her body and life as she knew it. As Nina is actually going through treatment, she loses her own mother to cancer, after a 9 year battle. I can’t even imagine losing a mother to cancer, but even worse, imagine losing your mother while you are also battling the greatest battle of your life, and knowing deep down that your time on Earth with your loving husband and precious children is coming to a close much sooner than you anticipated. It is heartbreaking and terrifying, but somehow Nina was able to get the most out of the days left with her mother, as well as her own time remaining after her mother passed on. She didn’t let grief consume her. She doesn’t focus on the cancer, but on her family, enjoying her days, and living with hope. If that isn’t strength and resilience, I don’t know what is.

Read Nina’s story. I promise you will come away from it with a better outlook on life and living.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I normally do not read much non-fiction, but I’m fortunate to have read and enjoyed this memoir from the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Paul’s writing is beautiful and his story is unforgettable. His passion for literature, neuroscience, the medical field, and living life fully shines through this memoir, written while he was terminally ill with lung cancer.

At the age of 36, as Paul was finishing with a decade of intense schooling and truly begin his career as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After having been a doctor to so many patients with cancer, Paul found himself trying to serve in a dual role as both doctor and patient. His reflections of various operations and patients that stuck with him throughout the years in the operating room add an even greater richness to his memoir.

Paul was a man of many talents, extremely bright in the medical field, but also a very gifted writer, holding degrees in English literature and philosophy. He references many great authors, philosophers, poets, and even the Bible. Perhaps the most notable is that of Samuel Beckett, whose words, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” become Paul’s mantra as his remaining time diminishes.

As Paul comes to terms with the limited amount of life remaining for him, he attempts to find out what makes a life worth living. He comes to realize that the long-term goals he had set for his life are no longer attainable, and he must go on regardless. The last 8 months of Paul’s life were especially important to him, as he was able to spend valuable time with his newborn daughter. His descriptions of the time spent with her, as well as his wife Lucy, are both touching, and heartbreaking. Paul was a man capable of profound love, conviction, and dedication to his passions in life.

Both the introduction by Abraham Verghese and the epilogue written by Paul’s wife, Lucy, are heartfelt and beautiful. Knowing that Paul wrote such a moving story, while facing what he did, is truly humbling. One of my favorite reviews of this book was from author Ann Patchett, who wrote, “This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.” There you have it, folks, When Breath Becomes Air, is truly a book for everyone. Enjoy.