One small spot.
Faced with the terror of a breast cancer diagnosis at 37, Greensboro poet Nina Riggs clung to those three words. They became a mantra. A balm. One small spot couldn’t be that bad. One small spot could easily be treated.
The truth is, with cancer – particularly Riggs’ triple-negative breast cancer, which is often more aggressive and harder to treat – it is rarely that simple. And deep down, Riggs suspected that. Cancer cast a long shadow over her family, claiming grandparents, aunts and even her mother, who succumbed after a years long battle with multiple myeloma in 2015.
“One Small Spot” is the title of the essay that opens Riggs’ new book, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.” The memoir is a collection of essays, broken into four sections representing the four stages of cancer diagnosis.
In the ensuing months after that initial diagnosis, Riggs traversed the craggy path of treatment: hair loss, the oily taste of chemo coating her mouth, the feeling of almost being outside one’s own body while hopped up on steroids that help stave off the chemo nausea.
And then, the setbacks. The discovery that one small spot was much larger and connected to a second tumor, neither of which seemed responsive to the chemotherapy. A mastectomy, followed by more chemo and radiation. A mysterious backache that only seemed to get worse, no matter what medications, exercises or treatments Riggs tried.
Just before Christmas in 2015, no longer able to endure the pain, Riggs complained to her radiation oncologist about her discomfort. An MRI revealed the truth – Riggs’ cancer had metastasized to her spine, actually breaking one of her vertebrae. The cancer would continue to spread – to her hips, other vertebrae and finally, her lungs.
Last fall, The New York Times published Riggs’ essay “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” in its “Modern Love” column. Witty and poignant, the piece chronicles Riggs’ search for the perfect couch, knowing it will be “something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead – the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”
Like so many others, including the publisher that signed Riggs to a book deal, I discovered her writing through that essay. At the time in the throes of my own battle with breast cancer, Riggs’ words shot right through me, and I couldn’t help feeling a strong connection to her. We were both the same age, both mothers of young boys, both writers, both living in Greensboro. Like Riggs, my family history was pockmarked with cancer deaths, and I had recently received the news that I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation, which explained a lot since it puts carriers at higher risk of developing breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
As I read Riggs’ words, I shook my own chemo-bald head in tearful recognition at her description of the gut-wrenching realization that she would soon no longer be around for her sons.
“Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this,” she says in the essay, which is included in her memoir. “I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.”
Though my prognosis is, so far, better than Riggs’– I’m currently considered cancer-free after multiple rounds of chemotherapy and several surgeries — I understood implicitly the feelings a mother has when facing her own mortality while her children are still young. The agony of even thinking about being forced to leave them is almost indescribable.
But Riggs manages to do just that – and so much more – in “The Bright Hour.”
As the great-great-great-granddaughter of legendary poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs’ writing talent seems almost a birthright. She honed her skills in UNC-Greensboro’s Master of Fine Arts program and published a book of poetry, “Lucky, Lucky,” in 2009.
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With “The Bright Hour,” Riggs leaves behind a literary legacy that captures both her incredible talent and her unwavering love for her family, particularly her husband, John Duberstein, and two sons, Freddy and Benny. Her lyrical, honest prose immerses the reader in her world; you feel the fear, the despair, the joy.
The book also tells a story we rarely hear – that of a person living with stage 4 cancer. With breast cancer, in particular, the metastatic and stage 4 community stays largely ignored as their stories don’t quite fit the perky pink paradigm of the breast cancer awareness movement. People want to hear the positive stories of survivors, not the scary, sad but ultimately real stories of those who lose their lives.
Riggs perfectly captures the strange, sometimes otherworldly feeling experience of cancer treatment. The unexpected sense of camaraderie and belonging a patient feels with her brethren at the cancer center, and the bizarre post-treatment world of growing hair and no longer bearing the obvious characteristics of a sick person: “In treatment, the wrongness I feel in my life is a wrongness reflected in my body – my steroid puffy face, my bald head, my lopsided chest. And spending my days at the cancer center: It’s something I’m part of. I make sense there somehow. A lot more sense than I make at the gym or the elementary school or the grocery store or work meetings – or all the other places I’ve sat outside of for too long in my car taking deep breaths as I attempt to return to civilian life.”
But though one might expect a tome of sadness and despair from a writer with only months left to live, Riggs fills her memoir with vivid, messy, beautiful life. The book illustrates how Riggs’ sense of humor never falters, with amusing anecdotes about her children – such as a birthday trip to a local parking attendant’s booth for her tollbooth-obsessed youngest son – to the hilarious exchanges between Riggs and her friend Ginny, also fighting breast cancer, that include a plan to arrange to send their children parental dispatches from the beyond via email.
Throughout the book, Riggs turns to two literary muses – Emerson and the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne – to offer insight. This could be distracting from a lesser writer, but Riggs seamlessly integrates both Emerson’s and Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death and health, adding a richness to her own experience.
Riggs didn’t live to see her book published. After a short stint in hospice care, she died early in the morning of Feb. 26. Early in the book, Riggs relays a spat with her husband after he declares that he hates these days of treatment. But Riggs disagrees; though terrifying and difficult, these are her days, and they matter.
In the last essay of her book, also titled “The Bright Hour,” Riggs explains: “We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”
Jennifer Bringle writes The News & Observer’s StyleWatch column. This review originally appeared in the News & Record of Greensboro.
“The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying”
By Nina Riggs
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages