Here for You
The Mercy PapersRobin Romm
(Scribner · $22)
Writing about death is a tricky business, especially when the format is memoir and the death is premature and robs the author of her own mother. Yet local writer and College of Santa Fe instructor Robin Romm deftly avoids the pratfalls of self-pity and sentimentality in her powerful new book The Mercy Papers. While subtitled “A Memoir of Three Weeks,” this particular death by cancer is protracted, agonizing, and up close and personal. This is the tale of a woman who does not go gently into that good night.
Romm is only 19 when her mother, a civil rights lawyer and beloved former dynamo, is first diagnosed with breast cancer. So even though the book chronicles the last three weeks of her mother’s life, in truth, Romm had been living with this impending loss for most of her 20s. Even at this young age, there is wistfulness when she considers the boyfriend and “normal” life she has stepped away from:
“When I go back to Berkeley, after this is done, maybe he’ll make sense again. He is part of that world of people in their twenties. Part of the jobs and bills and trips and restaurants and breakups. But right now, he is the ghost boyfriend of a ghost me—and both of us are besides the point.”
Populated by various hospice nurses, her father, friends of her mother and the new dog Mercy—chosen for all of her puppyish exuberance and devotion as a counterbalance to all the doom—her childhood house in Eugene, Ore., takes on its own life, an isolated bunker of illness and mortality that the outside world cannot possibly understand.
“He is here for me. I hear this, over and over again. My friends say it, too, over voice mail. Here for you. Here for you. What does this mean? When I hang up, I’m alone … No one but my mother is here for me. She is the only one.”
At a January reading at the College of Santa Fe, her first from the new memoir, Romm acknowledged that the memoir sprang from a journal she kept during the last weeks of her mother’s life to help her process the emotional enormity of the event. The first 90 pages were put in a drawer, not to be developed for quite some time, never intended for the eyes of the outside world. Yet the book never feels self-indulgent, and Romm manages a certain levelheadedness, even during the most difficult aspects of her mother’s death. Her writing is so sound that the most disturbing observations take on a strange beauty: “The clear patches look innocuous, but this will kill her. Overwhelm her liver, which has been eaten away to a dark lace.”
Most poignantly, there is the way the family wrestles with the issue of medication: suffering vs. clarity. The hospice nurse Barb is seen as a virtual emissary for assisted suicide, a pill-pushing eager beaver: “Barb comes every few days to clip my mother’s socks so her swollen feet will fit or to administer more morphine, more Percocet, more fentanyl. She’s building a boat to sail my mother out on … and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty … she’s uncomfortable, but she’s been uncomfortable for years. And these years have been full of talks on the sofa and walks with the dogs, sandwiches, cupcakes and stories.”
It is these stories that make up a life, a childhood, even a death. This knowledge is ultimately the best solace, and The Mercy Papers serves as a moving tribute to an ordinary life.