You may remember that I checked out a few books from the Pittsboro library this past weekend. Well I finished Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant late last night. I started it around dinner and stayed up late to finish it.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is categorized as a graphic novel, but that’s a misnomer because it’s really a memoir of the artist’s experience caring for her aging parents. Chast is a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker and I think most readers would recognize her work. The jokes are usually about anxiety in some form. The drawings even look like anxiety personified. The characters have birds nest heads and look like they're grinding their teeth. Everything is squiggly lined. Like everyone, I have anxiety that grows and ebbs depending on the day, so her cartoons have always seemed a little too close to home for me to really enjoy or seek out. They’re good, she’s funny and a good cartoonist, but it’s just not what I gravitate towards in terms of artwork or subject.
But I thought More Pleasant was very well done and explains a lot about why her cartoons are so anxious. Chast grew up with a couple of kooks for parents, a pair of comically stereotypical old-school Brooklynites. The memoir gives an account of her dealing with her parents’ aging bodies and minds, and it’s not a pretty story or future for any of us to contemplate. Chast doesn’t sugar-coat it and we’re shown very private thoughts about love competing with a litany of other feelings like anger and disgust, money concerns, selfish inheritance thoughts, and of course, grief. All thoughts I think everyone has, but people aren’t usually honest enough to share.
Chast draws and writes in detail the extent that her parents deteriorated in front of her. How filthy their home became. How her father lost not just his short-term memory, but his ability to do simple things like unlock a door. How her mother’s body became increasingly weak and septic even as she retained an almost abusive level of anger and stubbornness. It was sad, but also not that shocking or unfamiliar, I think for most readers.
I remember seeing something similar happen with my grandmother, who went from being this amazing independent woman, who was a talented artist and something of beauty back in her day, to a broken, morbidly obese stranger who had no idea who or what we were. It was a total transformation. She lost everything, except a sturdy if mangled (and I mean, completely mangled) body that would not die. Despite everything, she seemed happy and comfortable enough until a day or so before she finally did die. But no one would say it was a high quality life during those last five or six years. She was kind of like a very old cat. She liked having us around to hold her hand, but she just physically and mentally couldn’t do anything more. When she died, although my family was obviously upset, we didn’t really cry or go through an extensive mourning period, and that’s because we’d honestly already been crying and mourning for years before she actually passed away. It was like we had already lost her a long, long time before then.
I think this is a good book for thirty-years old to read. My parents are in excellent health. They’re active and smart. They love each other and love my brother and me. But I know one day they’re going to die. That’s what honestly scares me about getting older. I don’t care that I’m turning thirty in a year. It’s that the older I get, the older my parents get too. I get a little bleary-eyed trying to imagine what life would be like without my parents. But before we even get to that point, if they are fortunate enough to live a long and good life, then there’s also a strong possibility that they will go through a similar degradation and humiliation of body and mind like the one Chast describes. I don’t want that to happen, but I’m slightly, very slightly, more prepared for the worst now.
What sets More Pleasant apart is its honest, darkly comic account of an inevitable part of living; that dying is not always fair or fast, but it’s going to happen. We’re not going to be ready to help our parents, or maybe forgive them for the past, but we have to bear up and do our best. That’s all that you can do and what every generation before you has had to do too.