It’s a tricky thing, a memoir of a death: you know how it’s going to end. The challenge for the writer (not only with regard to the conclusion) is making the inevitable unknown. At this, Robin Romm succeeds by pugnaciously resisting received ideas of what a dying person’s loved ones are obliged to feel, and what they might want to hear.
Romm’s chief emotions in The Mercy Papers, a book about her mother’s death from cancer, are theatrical irritability – she’s not going to be your huggable griever – and anguished resistance to letting her mother go. This is why she starts the book with an elaborate description of the hospice nurse, of all people: a couple of pages of Romm’s resentment at Barb’s professional complacence in the face of this tragedy. Barb is part of a cadre of “boat builders” – those intent on sailing her mother out of life and on convincing Romm and her father to help launch the death craft. Romm won’t do it.
The opening is puzzling until the reader realizes that this is the central conflict in the book: Romm vs. everyone trying to make her mother’s death easier, especially easier on the daughter. Romm isn’t always certain where her parents stand on this, but feels seeping triumph in the moments when they appear to take her side, since she wants a) her mother to stay with her as long as possible so she will not be so alone, and b) people to take her side – also so she will not be so alone.
Grief comes in many forms and flavors, and Romm’s is relatively pure. She and her mother appear to have been friends, their relationship largely characterized by complicity:
“Before the drugs, night was our time. After my father went to sleep and she straightened the kitchen, I’d come and sit on the sofa, ask her for advice or tell her the latest gossip…” It is the loss of this time that Romm is raging against, particularly because she will be left with everyone else in the world but her mother, including her father. He’s the parent she identifies with, making for a more complicated relationship. While Romm sees her mother as decisive and transparent, she says of her father and herself, “We are the conflicted ones, the hand-wringers, the ones who pace around the house in the middle of the night. We are the brooders.”
Romm and her father are competitive, in this way and others:
“I know he thinks that me saying I will stay with her during the day, but not at night, is the most selfish thing he could ever imagine, but I don’t care. And the reason I don’t care is that for the nine years my mother was ill, he checked out. He didn’t sit with her week after week in that little square room with its armchairs and small television sets, while they pushed red chemicals in though syringes. He worked like a lunatic hour after hour, paycheck after paycheck, saving the lives of total strangers while leaving her to wrestle her demons alone… I’m sure I failed and continue to fail, but he’s failed, too, for more years, with more proximity – and just because he’s willing to sleep in his own bedroom with his wife now does not make him the hero.”
While she acknowledges that she may have failed as a daughter, she is not specific about how, though she dissects her dad’s shortcomings with scary precision. This tit-for-tat sounds strangely adolescent: Romm knows all she has done for her mother but cannot know what her father has done in her absence, only what he failed to do in her presence.
While she and her father do get up to some of that nocturnal agonizing, Romm presents, for much of the memoir, as pretty damn clear about where she stands. She puts the emotions and events of these three weeks under a microscope for us, enlarging them so that they stand in for the nine years since the diagnosis, as well as the long years of a bereaved future. The ways that impending death destroys her mother’s aesthetic is a particular preoccupation: Romm’s mother was a fiercely committed lawyer who dressed in silks and hose and curled her eyelashes, and whose beautiful house is now invaded by mess and medicines and bad food brought by well-meaning boat-builders. Watching a couple of workmen artlessly arrange some rocks in the garden, a last project of her mother’s, Romm fantasizes another sort of invasion:
“I wish I could package it up, the stupidly placed rocks, the dappled earth, the sound of the river, the thudding of Mercy’s tail on the dirt path, the determination in the young men’s eyes, the deep stains on their canvas pants. The smell of the warm grass, cold water old wood, a fallen tree, mushrooms growing out of wood rot, even my own sweat. I want to take all this world and push it in through that front door, crack open the house. I would run the river right through the hallway, pour dirt over all that expensive furniture, and then I would take my mother by her swollen hands, and go tearing into the dark, cold water, howling.”
Romm’s memoir is excruciating as often as it is gorgeous, but Romm hopes its honesty will offer comforts she failed to find in the instructional pamphlets given her by the boat-builders. Our experience of a death is not something to be molded and judged, she implies; it’s an idiosyncratic expression of life and, in that sense, amoral.
Earlier that year, when Romm learned the cancer “had begun its victory lap,” she decided she had to get a dog. It’s a funny story – the maladjusted dogs she paged through in trial adoptions before finding Mercy. The humor in The Mercy Papers rides on the back of desperation, but is always spot on, including a moment when, at a dog-training class, Romm and her dad egg each other into helpless laughter over the ridiculous teacher. It gives a sense of hope, in the course of this sad story – hope that Romm seems conscientiously reluctant to offer. This is not a book about healing, after all, it is about “the loud and ferocious… truth of loss.”
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