One imagines the word “cartoonist” should be paired with “funny,” and certainly I am accustomed to think “funny” when hearing the name Roz Chast. But not any more. The only thing I thought was funny enough to laugh at in this book-length cartoon about the decline of her parents was the part she did not draw out: the photographs of her parents’ apartment after they left it one day for a ‘trial run’ at an assisted living facility. For some reason, the 1950’s vintage ammonia inhalants placed prominently in the small bathroom medicine cabinet struck me as very funny.
But for the first time I felt Roz Chast and I could be friends in some alternate universe where our circles intersected. We are nothing alike, but she opened up her world and her thinking and her motivations in this piece and made herself very vulnerable. And I cannot help but find her experience and explanations interesting and worthy of respect. It is so different from my own way of thinking that I feel sure I could learn something—a new way to look at the world, perhaps. I have never understood the distance that adult children have toward their parents’ needs though I honestly think that is the norm, and this book went some way to giving me one person’s explanation.
In an interview with Terry Tazioli for the TV segment Well Read, Chast said she used her parents’ decline and death as a subject and she would encourage her own kids to do the same when her time comes because “it is all material.” She spent a couple of years agonizing over this stuff, and it is the agonizing stuff that makes the best material, for cartoons, for literature, for music or film. That this book made so many of the “Best Of” lists shows how it resonated with the public at large.
But it wasn’t funny, really. What kept me reading was not “wondering how it would turn out,” since I already had an idea about that, but how Roz was managing it. When Elizabeth Chast, Roz’s mother, was diagnosed with a digestive-tract fistula at 96, her sister, a retired R.N., recommended she “have the operation” to remove it. In my experience, this devil-may-care attitude towards the actual hands-on nursing care required in such a situation (even if it goes well!) is typical of the R.N.s I have known…it’s almost as though they have no idea, or so devalued is the day-in and day-out effort of recovery and of care in their eyes that they don’t even see it. How can that be?
Anyway, Chast's description of the assisted-living facility caught many of the weirdnesses therein very well. I always thought the door art was helpful for those folks who were looking for their rooms, though I suppose if you’ve forgotten your room number and floor, you’ve probably also forgotten what was decorating your door. But Chast caught the dinner-table cliquishness, the empty game rooms, the choking and falling over very well. That is not so funny for me. It is more awful than anything. I am not sure how things will go for my loved ones and me, but I’m not looking forward to that.
I admire Chast for putting together this book. She spent a few years with this problem and was able to digest it enough to share her experience. It wasn’t the “waste of time” so many of us fear. I argue that it is the point. Birth, love, death...these are the things that matter to all humans. Certainly when death comes there is opportunity for breakthrough moments of understanding and intimacy.
No one can want a lingering death, but that may be what we face. It is infinitely preferable to know what death can look like, so that we can make modifications to that outcome that if we can. My great aunt wanted to live to 102, and darn it, she did. But I know now I’m not going to set a goal like that. I’m sure it gives some folks the impetus to carry on, but I am not sure that carrying on is the point, exactly.
Chast provokes strong feelings in this book, and many of us that face these issues may very well handle them differently. The book began to resonate when Roz talked about her mother’s emotional distance, denial, and lack of empathy. It is important to remember that when we get to that place: the mental strength and indomitable will that keeps us independent may not be the same skill we need when we can no longer cope on our own. We need to start thinking again about others—what they are experiencing, and how best we can fit in a changed world. If you want others to care, you must care also, and show it.
You can buy this book here: