If my parents were alive today, my dad would turn an astonishing 103 at the end of May, and my mom would be closing in on 92 (July). I am sure they’d have needed help from their three kids long before now. And as I see my friends grappling with their aging parents’ needs, I often wonder if I could have been as patient, as committed to their care, as loving, and as self-sacrificing.
Would I have been able to juggle my parents’ oddball personalities, which would have inevitably intensified as they grew more helpless? My dad, a lifelong commuter to NYC, possessed a wanderlust that stayed just barely controlled in our then-quaint university town. Would he have begun to disappear at intervals, turning up on the highway like Bruce Dern in Nebraska? My mom, who painted and tended to brood over the faintest slight, blamed her parents for sabotaging her artistic potential. Could I have learned, finally, to keep my cool, to withstand her avalanche of recriminations and listen (without arguing) to her rants about how her parents ruined her life?
I doubt it. Not if they both ended up living with me.
I’m afraid I would be more like New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? describes the complicated mix of feelings, responsibilities and downright disasters that arise when we have to switch roles with our parents.
In their 40s when she was born, Chast’s mother and father lived into their 90s, and resisted her attempts to plan for their future until they had no choice, and even then, refused to go gentle into that good night.
He was a French and Spanish teacher at Lafayette High School, she an assistant principal at different public grade schools in Brooklyn. In one of several photographs, smiling as sweetly and happily as any young couple, they look more like grandparents than parents.
But their ages left Roz without a real childhood. They were overprotective, anxious, and fearful about their daughter, and considered other children to be bad influences. In a photo of Roz, age 11, she looks like a miniature version of her mother: kerchiefed, overcoated, wearing cat glasses, and already worried.
Moreover, their unusual closeness—her parents believed each other to be “soul mates,” and were unapologetically co-dependent—left little room for anyone else.
When the book opens, Roz is married and has a three-year-old child; her parents, George and Elizabeth, are 78. Roz, living in Connecticut, far from their Brooklyn apartment, has no desire to go back to visit. Ever. But, one day, out of the blue—it’s Sept. 9 2001—she felt “an intense need” to go see them.
If there were ever any doubt that a graphic memoir, and one by a cartoonist known chiefly for her wry, even goofy style, could be an effective vehicle for a biographical story about one’s aging parents, Chast’s trembling outlines, fairytale interiors and dazed, bewildered looking characters in Can’t We Talk…? puts it to rest. (And the mystery is solved of why so many of her cartoon living-room sofas and chairs are dotted with doilies: the apartment her parents lived in was the one Chast grew up in, unchanged since they’d moved there in 1959.)
Although the cartoon panels themselves, are, of course, wonderfully expressive, so is Chast’s writing: “This was DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone. The Brooklyn of smelly hallways and neighbors having screaming fights and where no one went into Manhattan—“the city”—unless it was for their job at Drudgery, Inc.”
She finds her formerly spry parents on the decline. “I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age—spry! totally independent!! Just like a normal adult but with SILVER HAIR!!!”—and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.”
They decline her help but submit to regular visits; in these sections, we get to know them as people, not just cartoon characters. Bossy, temperamental Elizabeth and her cowering, sweet-natured husband, had no desire to face their uncertain future.
“It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death,” Chast explains, adding that they considered most “spiritual” questions just another form of navel-gazing. However, their married life began with exactly that sort of life-altering event: the death of their first child, in 1940, when Elizabeth was seven and a half months pregnant. It’s one of several reveals that Roz shares in the memoir that gives it an unexpected gravitas.
Another is her relationship with her mother, the woman who once told her, “I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.”
But after Elizabeth falls and has to be hospitalized, Roz finds out that her father’s dementia has progressed much further than she knew. She takes him home to Connecticut, where his uniquely fretful personality makes for the some of the funniest panels in the book. He’s the opposite of handy—“he had a tendency to break things in ways you did not know they could be broken”—and a stupendously picky eater.
The book departs from its normal cartoon style after Chast moves her parents into an assisted living facility and returns to clean out their apartment, a task she describes as “the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost fifty years worth, crammed into four rooms.”
For this Herculean labor, cartoons aren’t enough. Photos of her parents’ collections—eye glasses, “old Schick shavers,” “staplers from my childhood,” drawer after drawer filled with pencils, pens and rubber bands—suggest the poignant pack-ratting that was their lifestyle. Even more moving are the daily letters she finds: “hundreds and hundreds” her father wrote to her mother when he was in the Navy. “He wrote every day, and sometimes he wrote twice a day.” Along with ones her mother wrote him back, this is “the best find,” and she adds them to a take-home pile. Her unsentimental approach to the rest is instructive.
Elizabeth lasted another two years. In describing those times, Chast makes tentative stabs at assessing the cool relationship she had with her mother. Her mother loves her; she loves her mother. But “something was off.” That ambivalence and lack of closeness makes her mother’s final days all the more affecting and real.
For adult children now dealing with aging and ill parents, Chast’s book is both educational and cheering, half-awful and half-hilarious. It’s realistic about their decline, punctuated by touching examples of their fierce attempts to maintain their freedom and security, and about the terrific financial toll that caring for them took on their savings—and whatever they might have left their daughter in the way of an inheritance.
Part of what makes her memoir so effective is its honesty, its unflinching portrayal of two human beings facing the other side of 95. In hospice care, her father suffers from bedsores and morphine-induced hallucinations. Only hours after his death, her mother endures an incident of humiliating and epic proportions that is anything but funny.
Chast never portrays herself as an angel, instead picturing the many times she loses all patience with her parents, her fantasies that they will conveniently die together at the same time, and her frustration over their eccentric behaviors, which only increase with age.
In the end, “I like having my parents in my closet,” Chast says of her mother and father’s cremains—kept separate, she told the funeral director, so her father could have “a little space of his own” after being dominated by his wife for so many years. She is still working things out with her mother, trying “to make it right.”
She continues to wonder if she was adopted.
For an unbelievably great interview with Chast at the Comics Journal, go here.