Three memoirs of mortality suggest that even for the terminally ill, universal truths are elusive.
By Laura Miller
"When Breath Becomes Air and The Last Lecture assure their readers that remarkable men have the same hopes and troubles as the rest of us, that death is both a great leveler and chance for them to prove their mettle. Nina Riggs, who died at age 39, was a published poet, but not especially celebrated or influential in the world beyond her family and friends before she got sick. She was already much like the rest of us, with the exception of being Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great-great-great-granddaughter. Hers is one of those haute-WASP families whose fortunes have petered out over the generations, the grandparents’ estate sold piecemeal and the grandchildren applying for disability. One thing she does appear to have inherited is cancer, which has ridden roughshod over both branches of her ancestry; even her paternal grandfather had breast cancer. Riggs’ distress over her own illness was cruelly compounded by the fact that her mother died of the disease during Riggs’ treatment."