When Robin Romm's The Mother Garden was published, The New York Times Book Review called her "a close-up magician," saying, "hers is the oldest kind [of magic] we know: the ordinary incantation of words and stories to help us navigate the darkness and finally to hold the end at bay." In her searing memoir The Mercy Papers, Romm uses this magic to expand the weeks before her mother's death into a story about a daughter in the moments before and after loss.
With a striking mix of humor and honesty, Romm ushers us into a world where an obstinate hospice nurse tries to heal through pamphlets and a yelping grandfather squirrels away money in a shoe-shine kit. Untrained dogs scamper about as strangers and friends rally around death, offering sympathy as they clamor for attention. The pillbox turns quickly into a metaphor for order; questions about medication turn to musings about God. The mundane and spiritual melt together as Romm reveals the sharp truths that lurk around every corner and captures, with great passion, the awe, fear, and fury of a daughter losing her mother.
The Mercy Papers was started in the midst of heartbreak, and not originally intended for an audience. The result is a raw, unsentimental book that reverberates with humanity. Robin Romm has created a tribute to family and an indelible portrait that will speak to anyone who has ever loved and lost.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks by Robin Romm includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Robin’s mother, Jackie, was diagnosed with breast cancer the summer after her freshman year of college. For the past nine years, Jackie has been fighting to manage her disease, but the family believes she has entered its final stages and asks Robin to return home. In the ensuing three weeks Robin, her father, and their friends struggle to come to terms with the approaching loss of Jackie.
Robin Romm provides a savaging and emotionally honest exploration of the devastation she feels as she contemplates the eternal absence of her mother; there is no peace or relief from the pain. In her disavowal of platitudes about the passage of time and its powers to heal, Robin takes us to the dark abyss that haunts any of us who’ve loved and lost. Her wish that her mother’s journey will be of some use to readers is secured as we leave this haunting and unapologetically forthright reality check on the enduring cost of loss.
Questions for Discussion
1. Robin provides an unwavering and unflinching portrait of her grief. Discuss the aspects of her portrayal that you found most compelling and/or difficult to take. What do you believe she risks in her revealing portrait? What do you think may be the value of that risk?
2. At the beginning of the book Robin writes about the hospice nurse Barb who is “building a boat to sail my mother out.” Discuss how Robin uses the metaphor of boatbuilding throughout the memoir.
3. 3. Explain the nature of Robin’s relationship with Barb. What do their interactions reveal about the challenges and/or benefits of having a virtual stranger participate in the care of a loved one in the intimate confines of a family?
4. While most of the book takes place in the Romm’s home there are several moving descriptions of the natural world. Discuss the sense of place in the book. Describe the Romm family’s relationship to nature and the different ways the natural world surfaces in Robin’s writing.
5. Compare and contrast Camas’s and Don’s reactions to Jackie’s illness. Discuss their expectations of Robin as she managed her mother’s illness. What do their reactions highlight about living with the daily specter of death? How do you imagine you might have reacted if you were in their position?
6. Robin writes that “women stop their lives; they’re programmed that way” as she considers the number of women who come by to provide support to her family. In your experience, what differences have you noted between how men and women respond to illness and loss?
7. Robin exposes the complicated emotional minefield that springs up among Jackie’s helpers (herself, her father, Martha, and Sue) as they struggled to make sense of Jackie’s approaching death. Discuss their relationships with one another. What role did they strive to play in the household?
8. Barb suggests that Robin had the power to release her mother to death. Yet Robin believes that Jackie wanted “more life, at any cost.” Describe Jackie. What were her strengths and weaknesses? What sense did you have of where she might have stood on this issue? Provide examples for your reasoning.
9. Robin writes that “my mother gave me meaning. I lived so she lived.” What does this say about how daughters’ lives may be informed by their mothers? To what degree does Jackie’s illness transform Robin’s life and how does Robin try to eke out her own space? How do you believe Jackie’s death will continue to define or shape Robin’s life?
10. Death often raises questions about the value and purpose of living. What lessons does The Mercy Papers offer readers about life? What will you take away from your reading of this memoir?
11. Why do you believe Robin entitled her book The Mercy Papers?
12. What incident inspires the book’s cover? What do you think the cover reflects about the tale Robin sought to tell?
13. In the Afterword, Robin writes, “I’m not sure I believe in healing.” What do you think she means? What vision of healing do you believe she is rejecting in this phrase? What does she offer instead?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are a number of resources to help individuals who have suffered the loss of a parent, particularly women who have lost their mothers. Check out the list of links below that provide access to even more resources:
a. http://www.connect.legacy.com/: LegacyConnect offers fellowship, wisdom, and support after a loss. Share your story, connect with others, find comfort and inspiration, and begin to heal.
b. http://motherlessdaug.meetup.com/: Allows users to search for support groups for girls and women who have lost their mothers, by zip code within the USA and by cities internationally.
c. http://www.momshalo.org/: Information and resources that evolved out of the website author’s memorial to her mother.
d. http://www.hopeedelman.com/: Often referred to as the definitive book on mother loss, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy ofLoss by Hope Edelman brought this phrase and recognition that early mother loss continues to affect girls and women throughout their lives into the public’s consciousness. Her website allows users to find motherless daughter support groups, workshops, and events.
2. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, On Death and Dying, offered us five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. With members of your book club, discuss examples of any or all of these stages in the book and in your own experiences.
3. Distribute the intriguing article found at http://www.grief.net/Articles/Myth%20of%20Stages.pdf, which challenges Kübler-Ross’s stages. Discuss how The Mercy Papers’s unflinching portrait similarly suggests grief’s uniqueness for each individual.
4. At the end of The Mercy Papers, Robin Romm leaves the reader with twelve empty pages to fill as s/he wishes. How did you fill these empty pages? Sample questions are below. Share your writings/drawings with your reading group members.
a. Identify a specific memory that continues to resonate about the person you have lost.
b. Give an account of something you do/did to commemorate or honor the person you have lost.
c. Provide examples of stories you or others continue to tell about the person you have lost.
d. Write a letter describing an event that you wish you could have shared with the person you have lost.
e. Create your own exercise.
5. If members are willing and able, invite them to discuss their personal experiences with death and dying. What elements within The Mercy Papers did they relate to? If they could have penned their own memoir of that time, what title would they have given it and why?
Robin Romm is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection, The Mother Garden, which was a finalist for the 2008 PEN USA Fiction Award. Born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, she currently lives in Berkeley, California, and New Mexico, where she is assistant professor of creative writing and literature at the College of Santa Fe.
"I love this passionate and beautifully written memoir, The Mercy Papers. Every sentence rings with furious love and loss." -- Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life
"There is comfort in the unflinching honesty of Robin Romm's astonishing memoir. I sought such truth after my daughter died, and grew angry at the platitudes, the cowardice, the lack of acknowledgment of what life and death hold. But Robin faces it head-on, and I am grateful to her for being brave enough to share her story." -- Ann Hood, the author of Comfort and The Knitting Circle
"Robin Romm takes on the hardest subject (the death of a person you can't live without) the hardest way (no easy answers, no gratuitous nod toward redemption, and not a whisper of sentimentality). Only a very fine writer could create this slam dance of sorrow, rage, helplessness, and laugh-out-loud humor; a book that is unapologetically raw and undeniably artful at once." -- Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and Sight Hound
"Romm's piercing and personal look at loss will speak to anyone who has coped or is coping with the death of a loved one." -- Booklist
"A piercing, heartbreaking reminder that loss doesn't end." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred