The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying


“You’re holding on so tight,” the therapist told me. “You think you will be obliterated if anything bad ever happens.” Now, lying in my bed, obliteration feels like peace, like drifting toward sleep. This is the terrible thing.

How would your life change if you were given the news that you have terminal cancer? I think it’s something many of us can envision, but how can we truly know what that means until it applies to us personally?

My mama was diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer on April 30, 2008. She was given a 25% chance of being alive in 5 years; sadly, she passed away on November 18, 2013 – just 6 months longer than the doctors predicted. Her illness and death have been the biggest challenge I’ve had to face; it’s a tough reality to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t include your mama. She was my biggest fan and she fiercely loved my family and I. While it’s been almost 4 years since she passed away, she is at the forefront of my mind all the time. I catch myself thinking at least a hundred times a day, I can’t wait to tell mom about this! Or, I wish she were here to see this! Or, I wish we could just sit down and have some coffee and conversation together.

Grief is a tough process. It’s unending, and just when you think you may be getting a grip on it, another wave rolls through and knocks you back down. I am learning that I will never stop grieving my mama and even though the grief is hard, it’s also a testament to the amount of love I had for her. That perspective change has allowed me not to resist the sadness and loss as much; now I just look at it as needing some time to sit with my feelings and reminisce about the amazing woman I was lucky enough to call ‘Mom’.

When I saw The Bright Hour (Simon & Schuster) by Nina Riggs around #bookstagram and on the shelves at Target, I knew I had to read it. I bought it awhile ago, but every time I picked it up off my shelf, I quickly talked myself out of it and picked up a different book. With a friend’s urging (thanks, Claire!), I decided the time had come, and am I ever grateful I did! Once I dived in, I couldn’t stop. Sometimes I read with tears streaming down my face, other times I read vigorously nodding my head up and down as it completely related to my experience with my mama’s cancer journey. While it’s a tough read to get through, it is also filled with so much wisdom and hope. It full of encouragement and resiliency and reminds its readers to live every single day as if it’s your last.

“These days are days,” I say, calm and furious. “We choose how we hold them.”

Literally the only thing we are guaranteed in this life – is death. Through my mama’s passing, I have learned to cherish the time I have…now. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring – I could get a terminal diagnosis, I could die in a car accident, I could have a heart attack – but I have right now. I am breathing – in and out, in and out – and I will honor that miracle for what it is by appreciating this moment.

But what he is working toward in his difficult exploration is unquestioningly beautiful: how to distill what matters most to each of us in life in order to navigate our way toward the edge of it in a meaningful and satisfying way. (In reference to Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal)

At the end of my life, I hope I can look back and see that I am satisfied with the way things turned out. That I lived a good life, was a good person, loved well. I want my children to be proud of me. I want to feel grateful. I believe my mother’s death taught me lessons I couldn’t have learned otherwise, and while I would give anything to have her physically back on this Earth, I also know that her presence never left me.

A retired rabbi – the friend of a friend – writes me an email out of the blue about how he lost his mother when he was nine years old. In the message, he lists all the things he remembers about his mom and all the ways she remains in his life: her favorite flower, the books she read to him, her sense of humor. “She is far from a hole in my life. She is an enormous presence that can never be replaced.” His words are a gift that I pull out some nights and let swirl through the room, brush over my skin like a tincture.

I remember my mama’s love for gardening. How she was the tannest of all the moms because she spent hours outside with her flowers. Her love for reading which I’m so glad she passed on to me. Her incredible sense of fashion. Her smile. Her laugh. Her distinctive voice. Her hands – the tiniest and softest I’ve ever seen. Her strength. Her resiliency. The way she loved my brother and I. The way she sacrificed everything for her grandchildren. The love she gave that has sustained me every day since she was last able to give it.

I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.

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