Posted: January 3, 2009 in literature

cover of the book

cover of the book



Book review
A Memoir of Three Weeks

By Robin Romm
213 pp. Scribner. $22

Rough Crossing

Published: January 2, 2009 NYT

The foundational condition of being human is that we’re going to die. Almost as basic a truth is that we seem incapable of believing it. The collision of these inconsonant facts is the spark that ignites Robin Romm’s memoir, “The Mercy Papers,” a furious blaze of a book. The title is inapt: there is little mercy in these pages. As Romm herself writes, “Maybe the problem is God, the lack of God, the lack of mercy, of grace.”

In concrete terms, the problem is Romm’s anguish over the impending death of her mother, Jackie Romm. Jackie, 56, has been living with breast cancer for nine years when her daughter is summoned home to see her for the last time. Subtitled “A Memoir of Three Weeks,” the book chronicles not only the final weeks of her mother’s life but also, in passages too seamlessly inter­woven to be called flashbacks, the almost decade-long period in which cancer invaded the author as well — not physiologically but in every other imaginable way. Romm, who was 19 at the time of her mother’s diagnosis, does not so much mourn as rail against her losses: the looming loss of her mother, yes, but also the loss of her own unburdened youth, of her “20s,” as she puts it, again and again, at times wistfully (“I felt the most normal I’d felt in a month. I felt like a girl in my 20s”), at times bitterly (“I couldn’t be around so many healthy people in their 20s, their eyes lit up with the frenzy of being young and lucky”).

Full disclosure: I may have a little crush on Romm. Not because she’s a good writer, although her prose (both here and in “The Mother Garden,” her debut story collection, published in 2007) is so fresh and uncompromising it can feel practically impertinent. Nor because of her wit, although she can be startlingly funny (particularly on the subject of her nonagenarian grandfather). Not even because of her fearless, scathing honesty, like a gauntlet thrown down on page after page. It’s ultimately her anger that is so magnetic — though like a real magnet, it holds power both to repel and to attract.

Hers is not a righteous, concentrated stream of anger directed at obvious targets: cancer, suffering, death. It’s an intemperate spray of fury liable to hit anyone in her path: a store clerk, her boyfriend, her father, her mother, her mother’s close friend, her mother’s new kitten. The expression of her rage is frequently articulate, always physical. At one point she writes, “My hands feel angry.” At another: “My eyes are wide and my nostrils all the way open. I am about to go flinging out of my skin.” And later: “I begin to shake from the inside and I can’t breathe all the way in.” The anger doesn’t build gradually over the course of the narrative; it’s there in full glory on the very first page. Romm begins by savaging, but savaging, Barb, the hospice nurse. The hospice nurse! It makes one want to run for cover.

But “The Mercy Papers” is no blind rant. In Romm’s hands, anger becomes an instrument for pursuing truth, an extremely effective crowbar with which to pry back nicety and expose “something unfettered, something darker.” Often, it’s from this unfettered darkness that the author delivers her best lines, the words strung together with a kind of plain-mouthed beauty. Right in the midst of eviscerating Barb, for example: “She’s building a boat to sail my mother out. . . . Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty.” This is just accurate and eloquent and hard.

The truths Romm pursues are not of the confessional variety. She offers no festering family secrets, no deathbed revelations. It’s really only a single truth she grapples with, but it’s that oldest and most unyielding, the inevitability of death. She never quite wrestles it to the ground: “I can’t get my own brain to register the truth of it.” Nor can she bring herself to surrender to it, not even when evidence of her mother’s suffering becomes intolerable (“She’s swollen everywhere and on her sternum you can actually see the skin puffed out where the tumors have grown, like a basketball rising from her chest”), not even when those around her implore Romm to “release” her mother, to assure her that she’ll be O.K. when her mother dies. “I can’t,” Romm says. She makes no attempt to cast her refusal as an act of altruism, or an act of love. It’s about her fear for herself, plain and simple. “I won’t be O.K.,” she tells her mother. “I can’t imagine life without you.”

There is valor in this, her toddler-like refusal to manage her grief or indicate acceptance. The literature on dying is rife with measured words, gallantry, sage advice. This is good. But we all harbor an inner 2-year-old: naturally stubborn and easily frightened, with no recourse in the face of unfathomable hurt but to stamp our feet and wail. Romm’s book pays rightful tribute to that 2-year-old, and this is good, too, not least for being so rare.

Her mother, even as she lies dying, rises vividly off the page. It becomes evident that Jackie Romm has always been something of a force. As a civil rights lawyer, she “won arguments for a living, . . . found kidnapped children in foreign countries, . . . secured back pay for harassed women.” At home, she could be equally formidable: “She used to storm out of rooms, fling herself around corners, slam stacks of paper against the battered kitchen tile.” Robin Romm never explicitly links her own anger to her mother’s. Instead, she puzzles over the fact that she keeps focusing on a particular childhood memory of her ­mother’s rage: “Why does this image come to mind when there are thousands and thousands of other images of my mother I could cultivate?” She wonders whether her mind, almost despite herself — despite her insistence on not letting go — is working to create distance between her mother and her. Thus the wrathful memories. In childhood, Romm says, when her mother became enraged, “she failed to be my mother,” a rift that is, of course, about to be reproduced, finally and irrevocably.

In the end, it is the mother who releases the daughter. After a particularly horrific day of doing battle with the “boat builders” who are ushering her mother toward death, Romm goes to Jackie and confesses that she cannot bring herself, as the ­others have urged her, to say “it’s O.K. to die.” The confession is gorgeous for its admitted selfishness — which, in its candor and intimacy, is transformed into an act of generosity, a precious, unprettied gift. But the gift her mother gives in return is even greater. Her speech slurred through the oxygen mask, Jackie answers, “Sweetheart, I dun need your permission.”

“This is what I wanted to hear,” Romm realizes. With these words, the very thing that has tormented her — our powerlessness to stop death — becomes a form of solace.

Leah Hager Cohen, the author of three novels and four nonfiction books, is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.


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