New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast, who has used whimsy, brutal honesty and inner-dialogue humor to look at life’s little and big issues, has brought it to bear on the end-of-life, and the topics no one wants to talk about in her graphic novel, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” The book of cartoons and text chronicles her parents’ increasing idiosyncrasies as they moved from independence to dependence, and her care of them during that time. She published her book in 2014 but read from it recently as part of the Reimagine End of Life New York festival.
Here are some highlights from her book talk in words and images:
The Wheel of Doom
The world Chast grew up in was filled with tales of seemingly mundane things that, apparently, could kill you: laughing during a meal; sitting directly on the ground; water in the ear; playing the oboe. Any of these could lead straight to death. And yet, when it came time to talking about the inevitable—their aging and the issues that could come with it or the dangers of living in the same Brooklyn apartment with its decades-long accumulation of stuff —they just wanted to talk about “something more pleasant.” Even into their late eighties.
Traveling back to her parents’ apartment for the first time in years, Chast tried to address the issue head-on. “Do you ever think about things?” she depicts herself asking them, only to be practically guffawed-off the coach. She later escapes home in relief.
Born in the same year, her parents had been a fixture in each other’s lives since childhood. Maybe they believed, she wrote, that if they just held onto each other really tightly, nothing would ever change. It was a position from which they refused to budge, even as infirmity was robbing them of their ability to leave the apartment.
As the only child, all the responsibility fell on her. And she tried, trudging out as often as she could get away from her own family and job responsibilities to take care of them. And yet, if she picked up a sponge to scrub off the grime that was accumulating on every surface left untended by her formerly-meticulous mother, she said she was barked at to “leave that alone,” while her father begged her to not “upset her mother.” She was, she recounted, “not good at care taking, and they were not good at being taken care of.”
However, after her mother was hospitalized for a fall, Chast found out the degree of her father’s senility, which his absolute dependence on her mother had masked. Their combative co-dependence, which had gone on for decades, was no longer enough to stave off the unavoidable.
Even they knew it was time to make those plans they’d adamantly avoided. And yet, they didn’t trust her. With anything. For years, she’d heard stories of “heartless children” and “elderly victim-parents,” such as the Mellmans, whose life savings reportedly went into their daughter’s “drawerful of cashmere sweaters.”In the end
They did ultimately engage an elder lawyer, whom they trusted at least enough to put their signatures on the necessary documents, and they did move to assisted living, or “The Place,” as Chast dubbed it. And even though her mother had always insisted that her father was coming with her to 100, if she had to “drag him kicking and screaming,” he went first, slipping away from bedsores and pneumonia while in hospice care (another thing her mother did not approve of). Then, two years later, Chast’s mother died too, from a combination of health issues that had plagued her earlier, interwoven with the ailments of old age. She was 97.
For awhile, Chast kept their cremated remains in her closet. Every time she opened the door, she’d see their boxes and think of them, remembering her dad “with great affection,” even though he drove her “bats,” and still trying to make peace with her mother. A peace they never achieved in life.
As people lined up after the event, books in hand for autographs, it became clear that for them, Chast’s work represents that depth of understanding from someone who sits right inside your experience, then makes it funny. She doesn’t offer solutions. She’s not giving advice. She barely got through it herself, and certainly not in the patient manner she would have preferred. She’s just chronicling. And in making us laugh at the peculiarities of her parents and what she went through with them, she does more than just bring comic relief to the otherwise unspeakable world of Med-Alerts, bedsores and bedpans. She allows others to find the humor in their own situations, buried under layers of grime, perhaps, or hidden behind the Wheel of Doom, but there nevertheless and profoundly human.
Deanne Eagle is a writer and communications professional focusing on healthcare. She lives in New York City.