Dying—and living—with breast cancer

Nina Riggs's love of the world shines through her memoir, even as the ground shifts beneath her.

Ancient Egyptians brought skeletons to their feasts, exhorting guests to drink and make merry while they still could. American Puritans in the 17th century kept skulls as warnings to sober up and focus on the afterlife. Memento mori, the gruesome reminders were called: remember that you must die. People died suddenly, and young. They wanted to be prepared.

Nina Riggs did not feel prepared when she learned that a small spot in her breast was malignant. Cancer ran in her family: it had taken three grandparents and several aunts, and her mother was in treatment for multiple myeloma. But Riggs was only 37. Her sons, Freddy and Benny, were eight and five; she was not ready to leave them. Merrymaking had its place, but it didn’t address her concerns. And the afterlife, if it existed, was unknowable.

So Riggs, a published poet, turned to writing as a way to shape and contain her experience: first an online journal, Suspicious Country, initially to keep friends and family informed; then an essay in the “Modern Love” section of the New York Times; and finally, during the last six months of her heartbreakingly short life, this memoir, her memento mori for 21st-century readers. “I see the young mother’s double take, the kids who stare, the waiter’s nervous glance, my friends who jump to adjust my chair,” she wrote late in her illness, after a lunch out. “Maybe the skeleton at the feast is me.”