The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs (2017)

“We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”

 

brighthourMy best friend Dinah died of breast cancer in 2009. It amazes me every day that I have been able to live without her and that we will not be rocking-chair old ladies together. I had never been closely involved in someone’s cancer fight before and while the pain of this loss is deep, the humor and wit she was known for is also part of my memories.

After decades of a close friendship Dinah shared easily her thoughts on her prognosis and living for almost 5 years with stage four breast cancer, the 3 ½ rounds of chemo and when she finally called it quits, the hair loss/regrowth and loss again and how she playfully exploited her baldness to get to the front of any line and the best table in restaurants, and finally her belief that Jesus would heal her, even when it was obvious she was going to die.

Through the years after her death, I have often picked up memoirs of cancer survivors or in the case of The Bright Hour, those who died. I am not sure what I want from these books, but I am drawn to how people live, not knowing the outcome, and how like Dinah they put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, keep living and experiencing life as fully as they can.

In The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs is a 37 year-old wife and mother of two young boys when she learns she has breast cancer. At first it is just “one small spot,” but chemo and radiation do not do their job and by the time she tries the last treatment available she is at stage four.

Between treatments she tries to live as normally as possible for her boys. She and her husband John are always honest with the latest treatment outcome. Freddy and Ben learn to live in an atmosphere of uncertainty over their mother’s health.

As if Nina’s fight isn’t consuming enough, her mother has been fighting breast cancer for five years and provides some of the lighter moments in the book. A dedicated book club member, even at death’s door she wants to keep up with the book selection schedule. With poignant moments, the clubbers understand.

Nina’s optimism carries her a long way, the title being a clue. As the great, great, great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she is trying to live in that bright hour and not “be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”

This isn’t a depressing book, but because I knew she was going to die there was a bit of dread at each page turn wondering when and how that would occur. Her writing style is contemporary and conversational which adds to this feeling of immediacy, but also gives a measure of comfort as if I was peering into the heart of my own friend. Nina does not gloss over the effects the various treatments and procedures have on her physically and in that regard the book may not appeal to everyone. But this is the reality I experienced with Dinah and no matter how gross or painful, this is the reality of our friends and family.

In the afterword written by John, we learn Nina finished the manuscript for the book in late January 2017. And with the prospects grim, entered hospice in February. She died on the 26th.

Nina leaves us with a good outcome, even though hers was not so good–live life as best as you can, because…well, you just don’t know what’s up ahead. Books like this help us turn our sadness into marveling at the human spirit that just wants to live well, no matter the prognosis.

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My Edition
Title:The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
Author: Nina Riggs
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 320
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Nonfiction Reading

A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith (2007)

Austen

I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.

 

This was the perfect book to cap my first Austen in August experience.  A work of nonfiction, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith helped with much of the back story to Jane Austen’s life and times that I mentioned in my Mansfield Park post and filled in some of the etiquette and culture gaps that perplexed me.

The Premise

Lori Smith is at a painful and difficult time in her life. Thirty-three years old she is unfulfilled in her job, frustrated that she is still single and though she does not doubt her Christian faith, she is struggling to make sense with all that is not working in her life. But the most difficult impediment is the profound fatigue and debilitating symptoms of an illness doctors cannot diagnose.

She learns to cope with the on again off again pattern of the illness and makes the decision to quit her job to become a full time writer. Long an admirer of Jane Austen, when a medication for an imbalanced thyroid gives her a reprieve from her symptoms, she books a trip to England with the goal of healing and reinventing herself through the life and works of Austen.

Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air….In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air.

A Travel Guide

Starting with a course at Oxford and by reading through all of Austen’s novels, Smith is armed with maps and tips for visiting cities and landmarks that figure in Austen’s life as well as in her novels: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Winchester, Bath, Box Hill and more. She quotes passages and ponders their connections to her own life.

Though I still have two more books of Austen to read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) it was easy to follow the parallels of Austen’s life with her novels that Smith points out (for example, at Steventon, she sees the barn where Austen “threw rousing family theatricals with her brothers,” and I just read Mansfield Park!)

Some of the Austen family material Smith shares was helpful to me, too, in knowing two of her brothers were in the Navy (William in Mansfield Park, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth and others in Persuasion), that one of her brothers was adopted into another family (Fanny in Mansfield Park), that James second wife was mean and jealous (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park) and Chawton Great House as the model for the Tilney home in Northanger Abbey.

This is a book for those new to Jane Austen and for the confirmed Janeite. For anyone planning a trip to England and their own walk with Jane Austen, consider this a comprehensive model.

Romance?

Finally, does Smith find romance? Of course, she does! Youth, England, summer, a course at Oxford. On her first day at the University she meets an American man studying for the summer who is kind, Christian and seems friendly. She falls head over heels, obsesses appropriately, has her future with him all planned out, but sadly, the feelings are not reciprocated. Although there are few resolutions for the issues Smith begins her trip

My days are still small. But the light is beginning to return. Just a couple of weeks ago I started being able to laugh at the world again, and that felt very good–soul healing laughter. I want more of it, to enjoy life, to love the people around me…I hope I will be healthy again.

And in health and all aspects of her life, I wish her well.

 

walkjane2

 

Lori Smith has written several books including, Jane Austen’s Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman.

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My Edition
Title: A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith
Author: Lori Smith
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2007
Pages: 235
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, #AusteninAugustrbr

 

 

 

 

 

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2006)

My Edition:yearmagicalthinking
Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Vintage International (Random House)
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2006
Pages: 227
For a plot summary

 

I like Joan Didion’s work, but when this was originally released my best friend was dying and I just couldn’t touch it. Even though the book wasn’t about cancer, I didn’t want to read about death, as if doing so would be a jinx. And ha! now I understand that was MY bit of magical thinking.

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”[i]

On December 30, 2003, as John Dunne was drinking Scotch and talking to his wife as she made them dinner, he had a massive heart attack.

Didion kept notes as a way to chronicle the many stages of grief she experienced during that first year after her husband’s death. I want to say right away this is not a depressing book. There are many moments of humor as is common even in the most grievous of situations. Instead, she chronicles the large and small thoughts and experiences as she tries to come to terms with his death.

The crazy thoughts that run through her mind ask—“could I have prevented his death in some way? Or could he? Were there clues to this impending tragedy that we both missed?”

~When John asked that they move back to New York City, she put him off, but if she hadn’t would that have affected his heart?

~If she alerted him to studies about the efficacy of low dose aspirin would that have saved him (even though she knew he was on the more powerful anticoagulant Coumadin)?

~In that last conversation before dinner he asked if the drink she made him was with single malt Scotch or the other Scotch, “because I don’t think you should mix them.” Did she miss the meaning there?

~Was he trying to tell her something a few years ago when he wondered if they were frittering away their lives and not really living?

“As I recall this I realize how open we are to the persistent messages that we can avert death.”[ii]

In the end, her grief turns to mourning as this first year passes into the second. Already some aspects of her husband are fading and she thinks of this as a betrayal. But she has to go on. She is still here.

Remembering bits of a conversation when they were swimming to a cave where the tide had to be just right to swim in, John said, “You have to feel the swell change. You have to go with the change.”[iii]

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[i] p. 3.
[ii] p. 206.
[iii] p. 227.