What ‘The Bright Hour’ Can Teach Us About Living and Dying

Commentary
By Mallory McDuff 6-23-2017

This summer, I opened the pages of Nina Riggs’ memoir on living and dying, The Bright Hour, the same day that I walked into a cancer treatment center for the first time in my life. I’d waited for the publication of this book after reading about her embrace of daily life in Greensboro, N.C., as she faced a terminal diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. During the short period chronicled in the book, the author watches her mother and her best friend Ginny die of cancer: To say that Riggs — and here I just have to call her Nina — has a familiarity with grief is a bit of an understatement.

After the first few pages, I want to be Nina’s friend, sharing a drink on the porch as her kids run around the backyard, or even taking selfies before heading into a chemo treatment. Her story reflects a love affair with the mixed bag of mortality, teaching a son to ride a bike, even as she trips and breaks one of her vertebrae, laughing at book club with her mother and friends, even as her mom is dying.

After reading her poignant descriptions of the chemo treatment room, I arm myself to pick up a close friend who has gone through radiation, immunotherapy, and now low-dose chemotherapy (and why, I wonder, do they call it therapy?). My primary role for the past few months has been dropping off quarts of “sopa de pollo,” soup from the local Mexican restaurant, with its steamy pieces of chicken, thick chunks of avocado, and warm corn tortillas on the side. In Nina’s book, her husband has a name for women like me: “casserole bitches!” But I’m a casserole bitch who shares a history with my friend, as we offer congratulations or condolences on the everyday lives of our teens.

“I think they are doing pretty well, don’t you?” I’ll ask on the phone, my voice rising an octave, as I assess our daughters’ well-being in a relative vacuum of concrete information.

“Definitely,” she says. “They both have good heads on their shoulders. Now they don’t want to talk to us at all, but it could be a lot worse.”

Indeed, she would know, as she faces cancer as a single mother with two teenagers. But before this day, I had never accompanied my friend to chemo, an almost intimate encounter that exposes my total lack of experience with what writer Nora Gallagher calls “Oz,” the land of the sick and ailing, another universe understood only by those with critical illness.

“Pick me up on the third floor of the Cancer Center, and I’ll be in chair 33,” my friend e-mails me, as if giving directions to CVS or Trader Joe’s. I imagine 33 cancer patients sitting in a row with signs indicating their number in the chemo queue. Strangely enough, she looks healthy for someone who is undergoing chemotherapy. While her grey hair is sparse, her skin is radiant, almost glowing. Everyone says that the short pixie cut looks hip on her, and the lack of wrinkles on her face makes her actually look young.

It’s like I can see the fullness of her face now. She says her face is rounder because of the steroids, which have their own negative side effects. I marvel that she manages to meditate for two hours a day and exude some sense of calm, striking to me as the taxol drips into the port in her chest. I’m scared to need this sense of calm, I admit to myself, even though I know that no one is immune. My friend closes her eyes and pulls the blanket to her chin, while I pick up the adult coloring book on the table, filling in an image of a mandala with the stroke of a violet colored pencil on the page.

* * * *

While I don’t have a lot of experience with cancer and mortality, I do have experience with accidents and death, which is different from the slow drip of chemo in a hospital room with an exquisite view of the mountains. As I race through the pages of The Bright Hour, I’m trying to understand my compulsion to write and talk about my own parents, who died in mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both hit by teenage male drivers. The irony is that they simplified their lives as they aged, biking to most destinations rather than driving, cooking with local produce they harvested, hiking long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. When we were growing up, they integrated their Christian faith with stewardship of the earth by giving up trash and even driving for the 40 days of Lent, a true novelty in our small Southern town before the advent of recycling. As I read memoir after memoir about grief, I am meditating, sometimes obsessing, on my parents’ story as the primary gift that I can give my two daughters, in a world where change seems so disruptive, especially now.

* * * *

In that spirit, I reach out to another friend named Sophie sitting in Charleston, S.C., by the bedside of her elderly mother. Her death seems imminent, the hospice workers say. In a message on Facebook, I tell her that she is a loving daughter and mother to her two grown daughters, whom I’ve known since they were little. As an aside, I also mention this book she would love by Greensboro poet Nina Riggs.

In seconds, I see the floating dots on Facebook, signaling that a response is on its way. “Wow, look what I found on the side of Mama’s bed,” she writes, attaching a photo of the cover of The Bright Hour, with its pastel pops of color — blue and orange splatters — like soft fireworks on a white background.

“OK, I have chills all over my body,” I reply. “That is cray-cray, as they say, which is to say this feels like love to me, like we are surrounded by something larger than ourselves. You will love this book, which fell into your lap, while you were sitting with your mother.”

In the minute that follows, Sophie must have consulted her sister about the coincidence:

“As it turns out,” she writes back, “My sister was friends with Ginny (in the book), who asked her to pre-order the book. Truly cra-cra.”

I wonder for a moment about the correct spelling of “cray-cray,” a phrase I have actually never before typed in a sentence. (It turns out that we are both correct, which seems oddly appropriate.)

“Oh my goodness, the Ginny who died one month before Nina?” I write. “So here you are with your mother, looking at a book about living and dying, a book I’ve been reading to understand my own parents’ death. As my mom always said, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

In The Bright Hour, the descriptions of the chemo room include “the keen eyes of the hazmat-suited nurses, the steady drip-dripping of the IV, laughter, the smell of French fries, ginger ale tabs fizz-popping open, texts pinging in all directions.”

During this scene, Nina asks herself if she’s doing OK, checking in with her own body in this space that involves a coin toss of healing and loss. With her vivid observations, she makes us believe that we will be OK too. If she can cherish this “beautiful, vibrant, living world” and face death mere months before her story comes into our world, then somehow I believe that we can too.

Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of the books Natural Saints (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012) and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015).

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