Nina Riggs spent the last six months of her life writing The Bright Hour—a hilarious, heartbreaking book about how to go on living when you know you’re dying. It’s about parenting, love, sex, grocery shopping, finances, chemo and radiation—the mundane and the absurd, the spectacular and the terrifying. Nina died in February this year, leaving behind her husband John and their two small boys.
The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans. Let’s not linger on the thin light sifting into our bedroom as I fold laundry, the last leaves shivering on the willow oak outside—preparing to let go but not yet letting go. The heat chattering in the vent. The dog working a spot on her leg. The new year hanging in the air like a question mark. The phone buzzing on the bed.
It’s almost noon. Out at the school, the kids must be lining up for recess, their fingers tunneling into their gloves like explorers.
Cancer in the breast, the doctor from the biopsy says. One small spot. One small spot. I repeat it to John, who steps out of a breakout session when he sees my text. I repeat it to my mom, who says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Not you, already.”
I repeat it to my dad who shows up at my house with chicken soup. I repeat it to my best friend, Tita, and she repeats it to me as we sit on the couch obsessing over all twenty words of the phone conversation with the doctor. I repeat it brushing my teeth, in the carpool line, unclasping my bra, falling asleep, walking the aisles of the grocery store, walking on the greenway, lying in the cramped, clanky cave of the MRI machine while they take a closer look. One small spot.
It becomes a chant, a rallying cry. One small spot is fixable.
One small spot is a year of your life. No one dies from one small spot.
“Oh, breast cancer,” I remember my great-aunt saying before she died at age ninety-three of heart failure. “That’s something I did in the 1970s.”
My friend Ginny who lives down in Charleston has the same kind of breast cancer as I do, and we like to text each other with ideas for a line of morbid prefab cancer patient thank-you cards to real and imaginary people that Ginny calls the “casserole bitches.” She’s a trust and estates lawyer, so she’s an expert in casserole bitches and their eyelash batting.
Our business is going to be called Damaged Goods and we plan to leave our children wealthy.
Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.
Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better. Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.
All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.
Xanax is white, Zofran is blue, steroids make me feel like throttling you.
When they found Ginny’s cancer, a few weeks after they found mine, it had already jumped into one of her lymph nodes. Ginny is a Carolina grad just like I am, so naturally she named her evil cancerous node after Tar Heel nemesis Christian Laettner. Neither of us know what to make of relying on Duke to save my life. She named her breast tumor after another famous Dookie, Bobby Hurley. “The chemo is going to blast those motherfuckers to obscurity,” she texts.
“Where will your breast go,” Freddy asks, “you know, after they cut it off.”
“Probably a drawer in a basement lab somewhere at Duke,” I say. “Well, they keep the tumor for future testing, but I guess they maybe throw out the breast.”
John teases me later. “That’s a great image for a kid to have in his head. Emotional Trauma for five hundred please, Alex.”
“What in the world was I supposed to say?” I ask. I never know what I am supposed to say. Honestly: neither does John. We look into getting therapists for the kids. “It would be so awesome if someone knew the right things to say,” I text Ginny. Ginny’s kids are two years older than mine. Her daughter, eleven, on the cusp of understanding everything. “Amen,” she says.
After the surgery, when John and I walk together down a corridor at Duke, he’ll sometimes make his voice all high-pitched and eerie. “Niii-na, where are you? It’s your breast here. I miss you. Hellllp meee, Niii-na.”
Ginny’s lung metastases make her eligible for immunotherapy because the tumors can be biopsied and measured more precisely than mine. She’s been looking for a clinical trial, and it seems there is a really good option at UNC. But even after signing a thousand consent forms and having painful bronchoscopies and long days of lab work, there is still an epic waiting period to find out if you qualify. They have to send part of Ginny’s tumor to Europe. And apparently some European bureaucrat has been holding things up—or at least that’s what the trial coordinator at UNC says. The days pass—a couple weeks. In cancer time, that feels like years, decades—like the remaining days of your life are soaring by on a busy interstate.
“Still no word on the trial of course,” Ginny texts one night. “I did two shots of vodka and then got into bed.”
“What matters is that you’re taking care of the important things,” I text back. It’s not yet 8:00 p.m. and I’m in bed myself.
She tells me she’s started thinking about taping lectures to her kids as future teenagers that her sister could email to them when the time is appropriate.
To her son, who is the same age as Freddy: “Keep it in your pants unless you are alone in the privacy of your own room or your own shower, and do not make your aunt clean up stiff/crunchy socks from around your room. It is perfectly fine to jerk off. Just be polite about it.”
She assures me I can borrow that one if I want.
To her eleven-year-old daughter: “If a guy ever grabs the back of your head and tries to pull/put your face in his crotch, that is a deal breaker. (Unless he has just gone down on you . . . and even then I think it is probably time to leave.).”
I say a silent hallelujah. I have always wanted a girl, and I’ve always been jealous of moms with daughters. But the idea of parenting a teenage daughter from the grave sounds worse than terminal cancer.
Ginny texts me another one: “Kids: if you ever get freaked when you are making out with someone and you suddenly think oh shit my mom can see this, please know that if heaven exists, and if I am there, and if I can watch what you are doing, I will politely draw the curtains and give you your privacy. At least, I think that’s what I’ll try to do. No, maybe I will watch to make sure you don’t do something disgusting.”
I love that one; oddly, it’s something I’ve thought about in terms of my own mom since she died, as though dying makes us more powerful parents than the living version of ourselves. Does she somehow magically now know how seldom I clean the downstairs shower? How bad I am at balancing my checkbook? That I’ve worn this pair of jeans three days in a row?
When our kids were littler, John and I convinced them that the word supervision meant a superhero-like all-seeing power possessed by some people—particularly grown-ups: Adult Supervision, Parental Supervision. And that we had it. For example, a sign on a hot tub that read Parental Supervision Required indicated that your parent must possess Supervision in order for you to go in that hot tub, so that they would know how you were behaving, whether they were watching you or not.
A run of good luck and intuitive guesses on our part have kept the ruse half-alive, but maybe when I die it will be strengthened just in time for tweenhood. I don’t want to make them paranoid, but I don’t mind fibbing to keep them honest. It’s not anywhere as diabolical as the stunt that Ginny’s friend Lee and her husband pulled with their kids by telling them that when the ice cream truck’s music is playing that means the truck is out of ice cream.
“What if we keep our email accounts open and give your sister and John our passwords?” I reply. “That way they can get a direct ‘mother is watching’ email whenever necessary.”
“Perfect,” says Ginny. “We can have them all ready to go and my sister and John can just press send: ‘Freddy, it has come to my attention that you have been looking at porn on the laptop. Not cool. Not cool at all. Disrespectful to women, and it can cause blindness. Please use your time more wisely. Love you, Mom.’”
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Finally Ginny gets the go-ahead for the clinical trial. As long as she doesn’t get too sick in the meantime and as long as she’s not in the placebo group, she now has a one in five chance of the immunotherapy working its magic.
Twenty percent. Ginny’s oncologist tells her that when it works it’s a miracle, but when it doesn’t it’s a total dud.
“At least there’s no stress at all there,” Ginny says. “No giant pressure to wake up under each day.”
The day before one of Ginny’s lung biopsies for the clinical trial, we meet up at a fancy hotel in town for the night. Ginny brings her best friend Lee with her, and I bring Tita, and we all four sit on the patio in the fall evening, drinking cocktails at the hotel’s restaurant—just like ladies out on the town. The waiter comes over and lights the gas fire pit.
“Good to see you girls out early having fun,” he says. “Nice night for it.”
We are, in fact, out early—since Ginny can’t have anything to eat or drink after midnight. At one point in the evening, she leans toward me from her luxurious oversize patio lounger, and I lean toward her from mine and she says: “Is it fucked up that I keep buying clothes for the kids for when they’re much older? Yesterday I went to the Gap outlet near the cancer center and spent a fortune on twelves and fourteens in boys’ pants. And I’ve been browsing prom dresses.”
“Totally fucked up,” I say.
Meaning: My friend, that’s one of the sanest things I’ve ever heard. Meaning: I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.
Copyright: Nina Riggs, 2017
This is an edited extract from The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, Text Publishing Australia. RRP: $29.99. A digital version is available here.