No Ease and Nothing Easy
Robin Romm goes raw with loss
By Molly Templeton
THE MERCY PAPERS: A Memoir of Three Weeks by Robin Romm. Scribner, 2009. Hardcover, $22.
The Mercy Papers is an exceptionally naked book. It’s difficult to read, but not because of the writing, which is crystalline, brittle and clear with grief, nor because names and places will ring bells for Eugeneans. It’s the sheer rawness lurking behind Robin Romm’s sharp observations that makes the book so hard, and so effective. From the first page, it’s clear that Romm’s grown worn out with worry and fear and anger over the years her mother has been ill with cancer. In the book, her mother’s hospice nurse is the first to step, unknowing, into the sights of this furious and hurting daughter. “The woman needs to be startled,” Romm writes, describing the nurse. Later, she tells off a shop clerk, scathingly observes her grandfather’s aging voice and dismissively notes the imperfect face of a dog trainer. It’s uncomfortable and cruel, and it’s absolutely believable: There is nothing like death to shake a person loose from the stays of politeness, to give her reason to find fault with everything, with everyone not dying, not scared, not guilty with helplessness.
But Romm, in the three weeks that her memoir specifically describes, does more than let the fury and pain of nine years — the years of her twenties — seep through the pages. She gives us her Eugene, from Mount Pisgah to Fifth Street Market. She offers a vivid image of a family familiar to more than a few Eugeneans; her mother, Jackie, was a noted civil rights lawyer. Most broadly, most beautifully, she captures one kind of grief: angry, stricken, helpless, distant and immediate all at once. In the details of her mother’s illness — the reactions of her mother’s friends, the comfort of home, the love of a dog, the things remembered and the things forgotten — Romm finds no ease and nothing easy. Booklets on letting go make her angry; she tells her mother she cannot say it is OK for her to die: “The idea of losing her has been careening around me since I was nineteen like a maniac bird and I’m not stupid, I’ve paid attention. There is nothing okay about it.” It’s with this clear-eyed ferocity that Romm faces her mother’s death, and while it doesn’t make it any easier, when it comes — what could? — it does make her memoir such a sharp, striking work that it cheapens it to try to say whether it’s good, or whether it might give solace to a grieving reader. It is feverish with loss, gorgeously written and far more than OK.
Robin Romm reads from The Mercy Papers at 2 pm Saturday, Feb. 7, at Barnes & Noble.