Monday, August 4, 2014

Summer Reading--Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It is rare to find a book that makes you laugh and cry in the same instant, but Roz Chast’s memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) does just that.  Chast is a cartoonist at The New Yorker, and this book features her unique drawings illustrating the story of her parents’ declining years.  The title comes from the moment when she attempts to discuss their final arrangements with them, causing both parties to make a quick exit to avoid the discussion.

George and Elizabeth Chast are in their 90s when their daughter begins chronicling their story in words and pictures.  They were born ten days apart and grew up within two blocks of each other in East Harlem before moving to their apartment in Brooklyn where Chast grew up.  “My parents referred to each other, without any irony, as soul mates,” she tells us.  She quotes her mother:  “The rocks in his head match the holes in mine!”  “Ditto,” her father replies.

What follows is a story both intimate and heartbreaking, yet also common in a country where people are living longer, meaning children often must become parents as mom and dad become children, a reversal of roles that is difficult and fraught with angst and desperation.  Her father, George, is an anxious, unassuming man who taught languages to high school students.  Chast tells us that her father “chain-worried the way others might chain-smoke.  He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle, or change a lightbulb…Some of this incompetence was related to his chronic anxiety…” He worries about making mistakes to the point of neurotic paralysis.  As the story progresses, he slips further and further into senile dementia.  As sad as this is, she recounts some hilariously funny moments with him.  When she takes him to buy new underwear, he catches a glimpse of the display ad featuring a toned and well-muscled model in briefs.  “It looks like these men have breasts,” her father says as he stares at the defined chest.  Later on the same shopping trip, she attempts to buy him a red sweater.  “I can’t wear that!” he says, mortified.  When Chast asks why, he tells her, “It’s red!  Communism.”

Her mother is the dominant parent, strong of will and difficult in temperament.  She worked as a vice-principal in an elementary school, “a job for which she was perfectly suited,” Chast tells us.  “She was good at telling people what to do.  She was decisive, good in a crisis, and not afraid of making enemies.”  When angered, he mother would deliver, as she puts it, “A blast from the Chast.”  She has a volcanic anger inside of her, and Chast and her father are often the recipients of the explosive outbursts.  But it is this steely will and strong personality that carries her mother through the death of her first child as well as her own aging and that of her husband.  She remains, throughout the book, a force to be reckoned with and a memorable character.

When her parents can no longer function in their apartment, Chast must make the decision that haunts those who perform the role of caregiver for their parents:  do I dare put them into assisted living?  After scouting several places, she finds a suitable facility and transports her parents there.  Then comes the task of cleaning out the apartment where they have lived for almost fifty years.  In this section, she includes not drawings, but actual photographs of the apartment showing the clutter and detritus of life, stacked in every available nook and cranny.  Old eye glasses, electric shavers, books, pencils, pens, purses, all of it destined for the junk pile.  Chast elects to keep photo albums, her father’s reference books and other articles that are precious to her memory of a difficult childhood with eccentric parents.

Once in the facility, things fall apart.  Her father develops bed sores and pneumonia, and once he is gone, her mother begins her slow descent to the end.  Chast describes her mother’s final days, indeed both her parents’ ends, with clarity and grace, never shying away from the horrible truth of what it is to grow old.  The financial burden is horrendous, costing thousands a month for their care, and she must balance diminishing resources with meeting her parents’ needs.  Death is rendered in Technicolor detail.  She even includes several drawings she made of her mother’s body in the hospital room after she dies, simply because she “didn’t know what else to do.”

I was profoundly moved by this book, and once I finished it late on a summer night, I sat for a while contemplating the work of art I had just read.  Roz Chast offers a funny, sad, yet clear-eyed and unflinching account of her parents’ end.  After many years, their absence still “feels incredibly strange” to her.  “They still appear in my dreams,” she writes.  “In the ones with my mother, I usually am about to go somewhere with my friends or my husband or my kids, but suddenly, she begins to collapse and I have to take care of her.  My father usually appears sitting at our kitchen counter, drinking tea, and reading the newspaper, and he is not worried.”  George Chast, the most anxious man, is anxious no more.  And Elizabeth, his partner for life, has found peace as well.  No more blasts from the Chast.

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