The New York Times
The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeksby Robin Romm
When Robin Romm's The Mother Garden was published, The New York Times Book Review called her "a close-up magician," saying, "hers is the oldest kind [of magic] we know: the ordinary incantation of words and stories to help us navigate the darkness and finally to hold the end at bay." In her searing memoir The Mercy Papers, Romm uses this magic to expand the weeks before her mother's death into a story about a daughter in the moments before and after loss.
With a striking mix of humor and honesty, Romm ushers us into a world where an obstinate hospice nurse tries to heal through pamphlets and a yelping grandfather squirrels away money in a shoe-shine kit. Untrained dogs scamper about as strangers and friends rally around death, offering sympathy as they clamor for attention. The pillbox turns quickly into a metaphor for order; questions about medication turn to musings about God. The mundane and spiritual melt together as Romm reveals the sharp truths that lurk around every corner and captures, with great passion, the awe, fear, and fury of a daughter losing her mother.
The Mercy Papers was started in the midst of heartbreak, and not originally intended for an audience. The result is a raw, unsentimental book that reverberates with humanity. Robin Romm has created a tribute to family and an indelible portrait that will speak to anyone who has ever loved and lost.
The New York Times
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Romm (The Mother Garden) here details the last weeks of her mother's lost battle against cancer. Written in the moment and not originally intended for publication, the prose has an immediacy often missing from books that focus on the aftermath and healing. Anyone who has lost a loved one will find the experience echoed here, as Romm gives voice to the unprecedented grief lying between the realization that death is imminent and the loss itself.
"There is comfort in the unflinching honesty of Robin Romm's astonishing memoir. I sought such truth after my daughter died, and grew angry at the platitudes, the cowardice, the lack of acknowledgment of what life and death hold. But Robin faces it head-on, and I am grateful to her for being brave enough to share her story." Ann Hood, the author of Comfort and The Knitting Circle
"Robin Romm takes on the hardest subject (the death of a person you can't live without) the hardest way (no easy answers, no gratuitous nod toward redemption, and not a whisper of sentimentality). Only a very fine writer could create this slam dance of sorrow, rage, helplessness, and laugh-out-loud humor; a book that is unapologetically raw and undeniably artful at once." Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and Sight Hound
"Romm's piercing and personal look at loss will speak to anyone who has coped or is coping with the death of a loved one." Booklist
"A piercing, heartbreaking reminder that loss doesn't end." Kirkus Reviews, starred
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Barb, our hospice nurse, has bluish teeth and frizzy black hair styled to look like a hunting cap. The skin around her eyes droops and when you talk to her, she takes too long to respond. She wears loose cotton blouses with patterns of clocks or vines. The woman needs to be startled. In one of the many fantasies I've concocted over the last few weeks here, I own a mess of owls and they wait, talons clutching the branch in their ornate cage. When Barb comes -- when she looks past me to my mother, past my mother to that voice she listens to when she's not listening to any of us -- I will set them free in her face.
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. She has no interest in my mother's life, the thoughts she had, the cases she won, her family. Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty.
I sit on the bed in my childhood room, my cattle dog, Mercy, beside me, and wait for Barb to leave. Sun beats through the small window and skylights, warming the dog's fur. I hold on to my toes. I'd like to ask Barb if she likes her line of work, if there is a particular thrill in being so close to it: someone else's tragedy -- how much she gets paid and if she thinks work like this will get her into heaven faster.
Barb must be single. I imagine that she goes home at night, takes off her blouse, unhooks her flesh-colored bra, unbuttons those pleated pants, and slides off her mushy sandals. Maybe she turns on one of her tribal CDs, the sound of drumming thrumming through her condo. Maybe she dances a hesitant little hand dance as she runs water in the tub, leaning into the bathroom mirror to inspect her eyebrows. Some nights she thaws chicken from the freezer and stir-fries it with frozen string beans and crinkle-cut carrots. Some nights it's just cottage cheese and a glass of wine, her feet aching, the television filling her apartment with blues and grays and noise, keeping out the singing of the ghosts of all the people she's sailed.
I can't help thinking that when Barb dies, she'll have to have a hospice nurse. Or maybe she'll get hit by a car and not need one. But if she has a hospice nurse, I wonder what she'll think. I wonder if she'll comply with the way that nurse builds the boat or if she's gotten used to a boat of her own making. I wonder if, in the end, there will be a duel between Barb and her hospice nurse, each struggling over planks and nails. Each trying to get to heaven faster.
"It needs to be where you can always find it," Barb says. In the kitchen, I find my father rummaging in a drawer for some tape. He paws through a tray of pens and, finding the last dregs of a roll, secures the paper crookedly to the fridge. do not resuscitate, it commands. My mother sits rigidly at the table. Just a couple of days ago, with a weak chin and shaking hands, she signed her name.
Barb organizes her secret file. She looks at me, squinting a bit, as if she wishes she could shrink me down into a little figurine. She seems to understand that I will complicate the boatbuilding. You, she seems to say, look like trouble.
She gets up from the table. "'Bye, Jackie," she says to my mother. She doesn't bother with me. My father walks her out.
Once she's safely down the hill and out of sight, we take our drinks to the deck, presumably to enjoy the sun. One of Barb's hobbies is to mess with my mom's meds, upping the doses until her jaw hangs slack and her gaze turns watery. But today Mom looks lucid. The afternoon light bleaches her skin, revealing the spattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Beside her, in old wooden planter boxes, are the remains of the summer flowers. They're starting to turn gray, though the ferns among them are still vivid -- green as a child's idea of a crocodile, green as a crayon. The glass table has accumulated a thin film of algae from the wet Oregon winters. Everything here turns green eventually: moss on the roof, the pavement of the overgrown dog run, the trunks of towering fir trees. My mother can't have coffee anymore because of the meds, and besides, her hands have started jerking (a new development -- something to do with lack of oxygen). So my dad's given her a big plastic glass of water which she asks me to set on the ground.
"The problem is, Jackie, that if the oxygen tubes come out, and you can't get them back in by yourself, you'll suffocate," my father explains, working the rubbery grip of the wheelchair handle around and around.
My mother trains her eyes on the planter boxes. She seems to be willing the flowers to do something -- jump or die, I can't tell which.
She fell again -- in the night when no one was with her. My dad and I both heard it: the thud. We ran from our respective bedrooms to find her dazed and annoyed on the navy rug, staring into the woven patterns of men with donkeys and carts like they caused her fall.
Falling is hardly the problem, and we all know it. Maybe the problem is God, the lack of God, the lack of mercy, of grace. She's been sick nine years, since she was forty-six. So she takes all these pills and weaves around the house alone. She's attached to tubes to help her breathe. She used to come home from work and run the dishwasher, slap chicken in apricot sauce, gripe about my father's bad habit of leaving plum pits in glasses along the sofa's back, provide our dogs with bones and bowls of mushy food. She'd prowl around after midnight, the late news droning, organizing stacks of bills and baskets of keys into some mom-system my dad and I inevitably messed up. She knew who to call if the roof sprang a leak, if the washer broke, if the little knob inside the fridge fell off. She hired friends of clients to help her move furniture or boxes. She made things happen. Now she's been told she really shouldn't go from the bedroom to the kitchen without the wheelchair and a chaperone.
We keep trying to talk about the problems, but we don't know how. The minute we bring one up, it metastasizes. Maybe the problem is that we keep looking for a problem, something to fix or, at the very least, blame.
"I think we need a night nurse," I say, because it's concrete, a tiny dam to control one part of this flooding. And because the two weeks I've been here have proved we really need one.
My mother turns her scowl on me.
"Where's Lily?" she asks. Lily, my mother's new kitten, has eyes the same color as the table's algae -- and they're huge, as if they belong on a much larger animal.
"I don't know, inside somewhere." The other cat, the old cat, Arthur, lies near us on the deck, next to my parents' two vizslas on their ropes. Before the latest downturn, my mother worried over Arthur's declining health. He's lost about half his weight. You can feel the bones beneath his fluffy white fur. Recently he suffered a seizure and my mom sat him under his favorite lamp, nursing him back to health with soft food and soothing words. But right now, no one has energy to worry about the cat -- the funny way he jerks his head.
"I think we should bring Lily out here with us."
My mother keeps doing this. She must have a glass of tea right as I'm leaving the house to walk Mercy. She must have a particular cup that no one can find, a brand of chocolate that I have to drive all the way across town to buy. It's a way of rebelling against the wheelchair, a way of continuing to feel effective. I know this. But I'm tired of running pointless errands.
"I don't think Lily wants to come out," I say. "Why don't you pet Arthur?"
"Of course Lily wants to come out," my mother says. She widens her nostrils, sets her jaw.
Before she got sick, my mother won arguments for a living. A trial attorney with a penchant for sleuthing, she found kidnapped children in foreign countries and brought the dirty men to justice; she secured back pay for harassed women, helped disabled sports stars play in the big leagues. My mother believes in yes and no, good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. Unless my conviction matches hers, I won't get anywhere.
I walk stiffly to the sliding doors and shove them open. Arthur follows me into the house, his back leg collapsing in as he lurches forward. Lily lounges on the sofa, licking her leg. She glances up at me, blinks, and begins her rattling purr. Outside, I plunk her on my mother's lap. Her gray bathrobe creates a little nest. She scratches Lily's ears and the kitten drools.
"Why does she do that?" my mother asks quietly. Lily flings her head up toward the sound of my mom's voice and a little fleck of cat saliva sails into the air.
"What do you think about a night nurse?" my dad asks. He's behind my mother. For a moment, he stops messing with the handle grip. He looks terrified. He's looked this way for a year -- his sideburns totally white, the skin around his eyes so soft that his eyeballs look like they might fall out.
Lily jumps onto the porch. I grab her and she gyrates in my hands, flipping her bottom half round and round like a propeller.
"Put her down!" my mother yells, shooting forward in the wheelchair. I drop the kitten. The kitten and I stand there, pressing paws and feet into the wood. "Stop trying to control the cat! You try to control everybody! Why are you so controlling?" Her arms and neck are dotted with red, her hair matted to one side. It looks like we've all been caught in a sudden windstorm, blown sideways for a moment, then frozen.
I feel an ache slowly bloom inside my chest. When it hits my throat, I start to cry. I can't stand the way she's glaring at me -- as if I'm causing this decline. And so I spin around and run into the house, up the stairs to my bedroom in the loft. Mercy's lost in her ray of sunlight. She perks up when she sees me and thumps her tail on the comforter.
Copyright © 2009 by Robin Romm
Meet the Author
Robin Romm is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection, The Mother Garden, which was a finalist for the 2008 PEN USA Fiction Award. Born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, she currently lives in Berkeley, California, and New Mexico, where she is assistant professor of creative writing and literature at the College of Santa Fe.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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When this book was published, my dad had just died. The book helped tremendously with the grieving process. It's well written, and the immediacy is captivating. It takes an exceptional author to make a trauma read like it's happening right at the moment. I've recommended the book to several other people.