GREENSBORO — Since his wife’s death less than 15 months ago, John Duberstein has stepped into unfamiliar and daunting roles.
He has become solo parent to their two young sons while working as an assistant federal public defender.
And he sustains the literary legacy that his wife, Nina Riggs, left with her critically acclaimed book, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying,” published posthumously in June 2017.
That role thrust Duberstein into the national spotlight. He has been interviewed by Katie Couric on Yahoo News and by newspapers, magazines and public radio.
It has helped him process grief over the loss of Riggs at age 39 from aggressive breast cancer.
“I wanted the book to do well, obviously,” he said, taking a break at the dining room table in the family’s Westerwood neighborhood home. “I wanted Nina’s work out there. I wanted to support her in any way that I could. But it was also really great for me. You have to gather your thoughts in a way you wouldn’t have to, in order to talk to people.”
On May 19, Duberstein, 42, will discuss Riggs’ memoir at Greensboro Bound, the city’s inaugural literary festival.
“I really just want as many people as possible to get ahold of her book and to get to know her through the book,” he said. “And I know she wanted that.”
From Friday through May 20, 10 venues — most of them in downtown Greensboro — will host more than 70 world-class authors, 50 readings, panel discussions, workshops, exhibitions, book signings and activities for all ages. Events are free and open to the public.
At Greensboro Bound, Duberstein will talk with Tita Ramirez, one of Nina Riggs’ closest friends. Ramirez teaches creative writing at Elon University. Her husband, Drew Perry, helped edit Riggs’ book.
“It’s always weird being the stand-in for a writer,” Duberstein said.
“Obviously I figure in it, and my family is largely the subject of the book,” he said. “But I’m not the writer, and so we are trying to tease out as much as we can about ... how she conceived of this project, what kind of space the book was meant to occupy in the literary world, what she hoped for it, and how she was able to do it.”
Riggs wrote much of “The Bright Hour” in the final five months of her life.
The touching collection of essays together demonstrate what makes a meaningful life when time is running out.
The great-great-great granddaughter of essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, she found her muse in 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
“He lived his life in a very different way, in that he always wanted to be thinking about death,” Duberstein said of Montaigne. “And not in a morbid way. His whole point was, ‘Why are we so preoccupied or so worried about the place we’re all headed?’ ”
His wife confronted terminal illness with her mother, Janet Angela Riggs, who died in 2015 after a long battle with multiple myeloma.
Then Riggs faced terminal illness herself.
“In Nina’s case, once it’s decided for you that you are going to confront mortality before you are ready to, how do you make meaning and how do you derive meaning and pleasure from the experience of everyday life?” Duberstein asked.
“Her determination to do that,” he added, “is the defining characteristic of her, to me at least, of both her confrontation with cancer and mortality and her creative process.”
Duberstein tells audiences: “If you read the book, you will laugh out loud at least as many times as you cry, if not more.
“She didn’t write a tearjerker,” he said. “She wrote what is happening in our lives. We have two goofy little kids and we have dogs and we have in-laws and we’ve got all the stuff that everybody has that is absurd and silly and it just kept happening, even though people were dying.”
“The Bright Hour” received critical praise from such authors as Joyce Maynard.
“Nina Riggs could have written a memoir about dying,” Maynard wrote. “Instead, she has given us a book exploding with life. In the end, this book is not about crushing loss but about the richness of love and its power to uplift and sustain us.”
“The Bright Hour” has sold more than 70,000 copies in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.
Discussions are underway about turning it into a movie, but they are in the early stages, Duberstein said.
At Greensboro Bound, Duberstein had planned to discuss the memoir with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi of San Mateo, Calif. Her husband, Dr. Paul Kalanithi, wrote “When Breath Becomes Air,” about his final years as he faced lung cancer.
In January, The Washington Post wrote an article about how Duberstein and Lucy Kalanithi began to communicate at Riggs’ suggestion, met after she died and gradually fell in love.
But a few months ago, they broke it off.
“It wasn’t anything dramatic,” Duberstein said. “There were some differences that just were latent, that we didn’t discover until we started to really try to make things work, in terms of actually living a life together. It just didn’t work out.
“Now I’m dealing with a sort of compound version of grief,” he added.
Riggs and Duberstein met at a summer job in Carlisle, Pa., where they were both teaching assistants at a camp for gifted children.
Two years after they married in 2000, they moved to Greensboro from Paris. Riggs received her Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from UNC-Greensboro in 2004.
They moved to Chapel Hill for Duberstein to attend law school, then returned to Greensboro in 2007 with their first son, Freddy.
Riggs published her poems in journals and in the book, “Lucky, Lucky,” in 2009.
In January 2015, six months before her mother’s death, a biopsy detected a small spot of cancer in Riggs’ breast. In December of that year, an MRI revealed that it had metastasized to her spine. It would continue to spread to her hips, other vertebrae and finally, to her lungs.
Riggs wrote on a CaringBridge website, in a blog called Suspicious Country, in essays in The Washington Post and in online journals.
On Sept. 23, 2016, The New York Times published Riggs’ essay, “When a Couch is More Than a Couch” in its “Modern Love” column.
She described her search for the perfect couch, knowing that it will hold their family through what lies ahead — “the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”
The essay caught the attention of publisher Simon & Shuster. Riggs signed a book deal within two weeks.
She wrote the rest of the book in little more than four months, handing the manuscript to her publisher in mid-January 2017.
She died Feb. 26, 2017.
In the throes of grief, Duberstein helped with editing and wrote the book’s afterword and acknowledgements.
He thanked family and friends and those who cared for her. He gives special praise to his father-in-law, Peter Riggs, calling him “one of the best human beings I have ever met.”
He praised her editor and others at Simon & Schuster.
“I wanted to be involved,” he said. “But it was all happening at once. It was a total maelstrom of stuff.”
The maelstrom has calmed somewhat. But the dips and plateaus, the ups and downs continue.
Duberstein parents sons Freddy, 11, and Benny, 8.
“I love being a parent,” he said. “They take care of me, too. They’re good kids. They’re thoughtful and they have enough of their mom in them ... that I think we have a common cause. We have an idea of what we want our family to be like and to look like. But it’s hard, because my feeling is that I have a deficit that I can never make up.
“I can’t keep it like it was when Nina was alive,” he said. “But there was so much good stuff that she brought to our family dynamic that I do want to try and cultivate as much of that as I can. And then help the kids remember.”
Before she died, Riggs suggested that her husband remodel and expand their house if he planned to stay.
So he did.
The light tan leather couch that Riggs purchased remains in their living room.
His surroundings and Riggs’ memoir remind Duberstein of how she dealt with terminal illness while writing a book and still tending to her relationships.
“She really accomplished a kind of amazing thing,” Duberstein said. “I am continually blown away by it every time I go back to the book.”
As he prepares to speak at Greensboro Bound, “One of the things I love about this festival is that I want Greensboro to claim Nina,” Duberstein said. “She is not from here. We didn’t grow up here. But this is the place where we made our family and we made our home.
“I really love the idea of her being part of the literary scene here,” he said. “I think she would have really been proud of that.”
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.