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Book Review: The Mercy Papers

By Robin Romm

January 21, 2009, 12:00 am

The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks
By Robin Romm
Scribner, 211 pages, $22

In The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, author Robin Romm has opened herself to the world in a courageous little book that chronicles the three weeks before her mother Jackie’s death. Romm tells stories of her childhood and young adulthood but manages to avoid the sentimentality into which many memoirs can easily fall.

Everything in The Mercy Papers has the gray haze of illness, of the anticipation of death. When Romm’s best friend from high school, Camas, visits Oregon, where Romm stays with her mother, Romm speculates that maybe she and Camas will be able to burn incense, try on vintage dresses and do the same things they did when they were kids. But suddenly her father wheels her mother into the room and “she looks terrible—her face creased from the pillows and tubing. Her hair hangs in greasy clumps…A moment passes before Camas can speak.”

The Mercy Papers is titled partly after Romm’s cattle dog Mercy and partly after the fact that Jackie’s drawn-out, nine-year-long struggle with cancer left little room for forgiveness or mercy for family and friends. Near the end of the book, after Jackie’s death, Romm goes to her childhood bedroom to find that Mercy, out of boredom, anxiety or some combination of the two, has chewed a hole in the plaster wall.

“I kneel to inspect the damage and I no longer feel like crying,” Romm writes. “I feel like taking my dog in my arms and climbing through that hole, climbing out of this house…escaping.” But there is no escape from the truth of The Mercy Papers: that loss permeates everything around it and that there is no easy way to address it.

It is not the events that are extraordinary; it is Romm’s telling, her crafting of the story, that is so miraculous. Death has happened before. Anger around death has happened before. A young woman forced to watch her still-young mother waste away from an unstoppable disease has happened before. What makes this incidence different is that Romm possesses an incredible talent for image through language. The events become new and terrifyingly fresh.

This is a book that does not end. It frays. The end of anything is never as clean and as black-and-white as whether or not a person is alive or dead.

Romm does not pretend to have answers to the gut-wrenching questions about how to deal with illness and death. The book does not claim to be a tool toward healing for anyone who has lost a family member or who is about to lose one. What Romm has become is a messenger of an uncomfortable truth; what the book has become is a 211-page exploration into loss and the void that it leaves.

“Days go by now where I don’t wake up to an image of my mother screaming,” Romm writes, “where I simply go to the grocery store, cut onions, and sing along to whatever CD has been sitting in the stereo. Then, a few days later, I will realize time has passed without her, and it feels wild.” But immediately after, she claims, “I’m not sure I believe in healing.”

In her afterword, Romm references her new life in Santa Fe, the students she has taught at the College of Santa Fe and walking her dog, Mercy. Here, Romm suddenly changes from the angry, reeling force of nature in print into a flesh-and-blood human. Mercy stops being the book’s title and turns into the obsequious dog who flips belly-up on visitors’ feet. And that humanity, that reality, that realization that this is not a story being told but the nuances of a life being somehow translated to the page, is what makes this book so necessary.

The reader, like Romm, is human, and there are some parts of being human that are sacred and horrible and completely indispensable.

Read SFR's interview with Robin Romm.

Reading and Book Signing with Robin Romm
7 pm Tuesday, Jan. 27
Free


O’Shaughnessy Performance Space, College of Santa Fe
1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-473-6011

 

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