The Mercy Papers: When a mother dies, a daughter writes

In 2005, Robin Romm’s mother was dying. Those months were paralyzing for Romm, then 28 and a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State University.

She couldn’t write a word.

A professor suggested she take a break from the fantasy world of fiction and simply write what she saw. So at her parents’ home in Eugene, Ore. — while cancer ravaged her 56-year-old mother — Romm wrote 20 pages. After her mother died, Romm wrote another 70 pages “in a fever,” so she wouldn’t forget any of the details.

It was intended to be a personal project, but became a memoir. “The Mercy Papers” was published this month.

“I never was completely sure I wanted to do a memoir, because they are so exposing. I had this fear that I’d risk all this vulnerability and that I wouldn’t be understood, that I’d feel even more alone,” Romm said.

The opposite has happened.

“Of course, when the person you care about is dying, you feel alone. But now, that same thing that made me feel alone is making me feel connected to all these readers,” Romm said, referring to the abundance of e-mails she’s already received from people across the country — most of them daughters who’ve lost their mothers.

It is “a very deep and intense loss,” said Romm, who will be speaking in San Francisco next week.

Romm lived in Berkeley from 1998 to 2007. She currently lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where she teaches creative writing and literature at the College of Santa Fe.

Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when Romm was 19, and lived with the disease for nine years. During that time, Romm’s status as the child of a dying woman colored everything she saw, felt and wrote.

“I couldn’t be around so many healthy people in their 20s, their eyes lit up with the frenzy of being alive,” Romm writes of a visit to New York City.

Robin Romm

The book is raw and personal. Romm writes of feeling separated from the rest of the society, of being angry at the world, at God and at her mother. She suffers a gnawing pain. She watches the hospice nurses care for her mother. She panics one moment, feels nothing the next. She predicts the grief will never end once her mother is gone.

She tries to bargain with God: Take my leg in exchange for a mother who will live to be a grandmother.

“The trades I offer God are safe, because they’re impossible. I know in my heart I won’t have to lose a leg to keep her, because she cannot be kept,” Romm writes. “Is this because there is no God?”

The book is peppered with Jewish ritual, traditions and jokes. Romm’s parents grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and moved to Oregon as adults. They raised their daughter in a culturally Jewish but fairly secular home, though Romm was bat mitzvahed and attended Hebrew school. The family observed some religious holidays.

“But when my mom got sick, she got really interested in Jewish ritual,” Romm said. “She started reading a lot of books and forged a relationship with the rabbi, and that gave her something profound that she really needed.

“Ritual and a relationship with Judaism gave her a strong sense of belonging to something bigger. It also helped organize the chaos of death.”

It has been four years since Romm lost her mother. To Romm, it seems that every piece of advice or book she was given emphasized healing.

But what about the consuming grief that comes before healing — if healing comes at all? “The Mercy Papers” is intended to illuminate the entrenched pain of losing someone so dear.

“If this book does land in the hands of those in the midst of a tragedy, I can tell you this: It will never leave you,” Romm writes. “And I think in the complex way of truth, that is the most comforting thing.”

Robin Romm will read from “The Mercy Papers” 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2, at San Francisco State University’s lecture series Writers on Writing, Humanities Building room 133, 1600 Holloway Ave., S.F. She will also appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4 at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.

“The Mercy Papers” by Robin Romm (211 pages, Scribner, $22)

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.