Reading List: The Bright Hour

A couple of years ago, I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. You may have heard of it - it was a critically and commercially successful memoir written by a young surgeon with lung cancer. The book is a meditation on his life and impending death that explored his family, his practice, and the reality of shifting from surgeon to patient. I found the book both fascinating and very sad.

What really stayed with me is the final paragraph of the book, which is a brief (and heartbreaking) note to his baby daughter. Paul did not live long enough to see the book through to publication, so it closes with a thoughtful, poignant epilogue by his wife, Lucy. I recommend checking it out, or try his essays, My Last Day as a Surgeon and How Long Have I Got Left?.

Why I chose it

I say all of this because one can't seem to discuss The Bright Hour without When Breath Becomes Air. Both because they were beautiful memoirs about young people who are dying of cancer, and because of the extraordinary love story that followed. In an improbable twist, Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein (the husband of Nina Riggs) met and fell in love after their spouses passed away. Their story is outlined in a longtime favourite blog of mine, A Cup of Jo. The author of the blog is Lucy's sister, and it was her post about Lucy and John that led me to The Bright Hour.

After reading Kalanithi's book, I became aware that memoirs about death seemed to be released every week. I'm convinced it's because we are starved for insight into what it means to die. We stave off death with exercise, fortified teas, super foods, meditation, and, of course, medical intervention. We erase wrinkles, we dye our hair, we say "40 is the new 30," we document life's moments, large and small, in public-facing photo albums. We are obsessed with living, but this obsession has come at the expense of an openness about dying. The Bright Hour tells one story of death that so many of us want to hear, one of a woman who is both brave and afraid, accepting and furious, loving and loved.

My stolen summary

From The Boston Globe: "She was only 39 when she died in February, a mere two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “The Bright Hour” is a deadline memoir — a vivid, immediate dispatch from the front lines of mortality and a record of a life by someone who wasn’t done living yet."

  • It seems strange to say, but this very sad book was uplifting and life affirming. As I read, I became acutely aware of my own aliveness, feeling the air fill my lungs, the blood throbbing in my neck and wrists. I felt grateful for the weight of my dog on the couch beside me, for the sound of my partner moving around in his office upstairs
  • Nina is incredibly likeable and relatable, so much so that it feels painful to remember that she is dead because she feels so real and present in her words
  • There are none. Ultimately, it's a heartbreaking story, of course. But you must read it. 

Buy. Read it every year. That's my plan, anyway.

P.S. You can read Nina's essay, When a Couch is More than a Couch, in the Modern Love column or listen to Kate Winslet read it on the podcast.