An intimate look at the loss of parents

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“Can’t We Talk About Something more Pleasant?” is cartoonist Roz Chast’s memoir of her experience with her elderly parents as they transition from independent apartment dwellers to needing full time hospice care. In terms of format and topic this is outside my usual reading preferences, but I read the book for Page Turners’ January meeting (the library book club).

It took me some time to acclimate to the style, as well as the text, as it is all in Chast’s cartoon handwriting, with the exception of a few typed poems of her mother’s. Chast also intersperses family photographs and a few photos of her parents’ apartment. With authenticity and humor Chast
reveals intimate details of her relationship with her parents, dealing with their declining health, and finally the details of their passing from paperwork to cremation.

An only child born late in life to her parents, Chast shoulders the burden of assisting her parents through hospital stays, dementia, and final care planning. Chast is blunt about her feelings interacting with and taking care of her parents. Her mother is clearly the powerhouse of the family, and Chast’s emotional distance from her creates both relief and guilt throughout the book. Chast frequently expresses negative feelings and ambivalence about her childhood and the apartment in which she grew up, where her parents lived until they moved into an assisted living facility. She is always relieved to leave the apartment, to leave her berating, distant mother, and complacent, increasingly bewildered father behind. Chast also reminisces, stories from her growing up but also older, generational family stories that put her parents’ quirks in context.

Chast guides us through the bewildering maze of recurring illness, multiple injuries, hospital stays, and all the unpredictable ups and downs of declining health. Her mother’s first long hospital stay reveals the extent of her father’s dementia, and Chast records and illustrates their conversations with hilarity and frustration. Her use of scale, in both text and image, conveys emotions to great effect. She uses a largely pastel palette, never distracting from the flow of bubbled conversation or thoughts.

Dealing with the accumulation of a lifetime is an area Chast
includes, but her process is less than thorough. She shares photos of her parents’ possessions: decades-old glasses, her father’s razors, and drawers full of pencils. She writes a sweet paragraph about finding their hundreds of letters. It surprised me that she took the few things she wanted from the apartment and then left the rest to be dealt with by the building supervisor. However, I can empathize with not wanting to physically sort through and move every last item.

Chast’s lack of reference to her own family was odd. Her daughter is referenced in one sequence when her ailing father asks after her, and she mentions her husband once or twice, but when she visits or helps transport her parents, she is on her own. Perhaps that is the way it happened, and perhaps it is a device used to focus on her status as an only child, but never having her husband with her rang false. While the focus of the memoir is certainly her relationship with her parents and handling their decline and deaths, a few drawings of her with her husband or a friend would have been appropriate.

In “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Chast does something unusual in our culture: she addresses the last few years of life with genuine humor and transparency. Chast dives into the private details, choices, and emotions of her experience. She discusses the medical details, the ballooning costs, and her own emotional ups and downs. The immense cost of the facility in which she places her parents, the additional cost of a live-in nurse, and later additional nurses is astounding. Chast acknowledges the good fortune of her parents having deep enough savings to cover the expenses, while recognizing her own thought patterns: the longer they lived, the more was spent, the less would go to her, and so on. Chast bravely puts forth the thoughts we share, never excusing or hiding from her own
judgements or hypocrisies.

This is a book that is well worth reading. It is a book that makes you step back and look at your own life and loved ones and the choices that still need to be discussed, even if we’d all rather talk about something more pleasant.

Rose Peacock is a library technician at Cook Memorial Library.

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