My mother’s going to die. This is fact. And there are things that must be done. Last week she instructed me and my father to donate her retirement savings. The instructions were given without feeling, but now that we’ve gathered information for her, she’s decided we’re ready to bury her.
“It’s too much reality for me,” she says. When she cries, the oxygen tubes get clogged and she has to pull them out. Then she can’t breathe. My father’s gone out for a walk, as he always does right before she breaks down. I’m left watching the ocean out the window, trying to arrange the problems into something we can talk about.
“We don’t have to do this now,” I say. (Or ever. You were the one who sent us on this absurd mission.) I want her to look strong, to stand up and start putting the dishes away.
My mother shakes her head.
“I don’t want to die,” she says, and starts crying again. She’s been wearing the same blue fleece zipper robe for days. She pulls a Kleenex from the box, yanks the tubes, and looks like she’s strangling. I stand dumbly next to her, staring at the top of her head.
Robin Romm grew up in Eugene, Oregon. Her collection of stories, The Mother Garden, will be published by Scribner in July 2007. Her stories have appeared in many national journals such as Tin House, Threepenny Review, and Quarterly West. She’s received fellowships and awards from The MacDowell Colony, San Francisco State University, and Brown University. Beginning in fall 2007, she will be Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the College of Santa Fe.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- RR: My mother was dying and we went to the Oregon coast. She decided that she wanted to donate her retirement savings, but every time my father or I brought it up, she got angry and said, “It’s just too much reality for me!” Then she’d start to cry. At the time, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with my reality. I’d put grad school on hold to return to Oregon. It was nearly impossible to write. I would sit in a puddle of paralysis, watching the awfulness of her death unfold. Every story idea I had seemed stupid. (If I tried to write about death, I felt blinded; if I tried to write about a love affair or a kidnapping, I felt like I should be writing about death.) So the only way into a fictional world was through the stuff around me, since I couldn’t look away. But the house was a death house and nothing much was happening and so I dreamed up Amy, who arrives from nowhere, and infuses an odd life into what would otherwise be silence.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- RR: My mother read a draft of this story. I left it on the counter and she thought I left it for her. I came upstairs to get a cup of tea and she was sitting on the chair at the kitchen table, Kleenex balled in her fists, crying. She hated the story, hated the way she was portrayed, hated that I would immortalize her sick and depressed instead of vibrant and alive (which she was for forty-six years). For months after she read it, when she grabbed Kleenexes from the boxes, she would say: “All our rooms have boxes of Kleenexes now” (a line from the story) and then shoot me a look that was a cross between mocking and devastated. It made the story a nightmare to edit and finish. She died a few months later. Every time I went back into it, to rework the ending or to tighten a scene, I pictured her crying. It was very hard to see the story for what it was. I had several conversations with my mother in which I tried to defend the story. Here is some of what I said: It wasn’t trying to be a veiled personal essay. I wanted to capture one side of a many sided prism. The day I began the story, I was angry and she was angry and the ocean seemed angry, too. (The only ones who never really got angry were the dogs.) Each of us seemed to have a particular right to our fury—but it didn’t bring us into a nice tight ball of togetherness (us vs. death). Instead, it filled up the air between us and became what we communicated with, instead of each other. I wasn’t trying to capture my mother or her dying; I couldn’t. It was ten years long and full of every possible color, texture, and emotion. I was simply doing what I felt I could in fiction—unpacking the tiniest shred of a larger truth. She would shake her head when I told her these things and say that I shouldn’t feel badly. The story was good. The writing was compelling. She urged me not to put it in the shredder—and so I didn’t. The story is fiction; it never happened. Amy never did come up the grass in a baby tee shirt. But writing fiction that uses elements of reality is a dicey business. I’m not sure where I stand on the matter.
- HT: Why did you decide to keep how Amy ended up in the water a mystery?
- RR: For me, the focus of the story is the mother and the daughter and the wide gap between the living and the dying. Amy’s origins never seemed important. Some things in life just appear without explanation—like cancer, or girls in the water—and then you just have to roll with it.
- HT: Why do Nina and her mother have such opposite reactions to Amy’s arrival?
- RR: Amy’s not very nice to Nina when she first arrives. She is, however, nice to the mother. While my mother was dying, I kept noticing that at times she was more interested in acquaintances than the people she loved most. I imagine that at some point it became too painful to engage the people she didn’t want to leave behind—every conversation was a confrontation. And it was too hard to see the tremendous pain her death was causing us. So I used this in the story. Nina kept doing things that made the mother feel sicker—offering to help, asking if she felt okay. She was one big reminder of what was arriving (death). Amy was something else entirely; she didn’t matter so she was a cause for joy.
- HT: In “The Arrival” the ocean is practically a character in itself. Can you talk a little about how important this setting at the beach was to creating the mood of the story?
- RR: There’s a bigness to the ocean that very much mirrors the bigness of death (and its ruthlessness). I think it’s important that the story takes place on the edge of something—literally the edge of a continent.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- RR: I started writing this story in April of 2004 and finished it a few weeks ago (November 2005). Most of the story was written within a span of three weeks, but it went through several stages of revision after it was all down on paper. I find that I often have to go back into a story and rework either the beginning or the end, because I never know where I am going when I’m writing. I just kind of let the story wander around until it hits a note that I like. I remember hearing a Michael Chabon interview once where he talked about writing without a plan. He called it “terribly inefficient, but necessary.” I guess I’d agree, though it’d be nice to know where I was going some of the time. (I feel this way about driving, too.)
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- RR: I have been trying to think of advice I’ve received and I’m beginning to wonder if I have ever received any good advice. I think it’s imperative to read a lot. I think you should put a story away for at least six weeks between finishing it and sending it out (longer if you’re patient). Write every day, even if you only write about the cat. And here’s my good advice: if you have writer’s block, drive for a really long time.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- RR: I’m finishing a collection of stories. Luckily, I’ve gotten a residency this spring so I will have some uninterrupted time to think about what’s going into it and what’s getting cut. I’ve been teaching a lot and my dog is very demanding, so it’s been a crazy year.