On dying

The New York Times today reviews Robin Romm’s new book, The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, which deals with her mother’s death from breast cancer after a nearly decade battle with the disease. It sounds like a book that would be useful to anyone who wants to understand and comfort those facing such a loss:

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”).

. . .

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.”

. . .

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.”

Read it all here.

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