Friday, April 8, 2016

Review: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

(Today's A-Z entry can be found here.)

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Published 2014 by Bloomsbury, USA

228 pages, graphic novel memoir.

Before my parents were in full-on decline, but definitely within the last decade of their life, they forcefully loaned me a Dave Barry book.  I thought it was kind of cute that they were both so determined to get me to read this book, and since Barry's columns always made me laugh, I went along with it.

In the middle of this typically hilarious nonsense, there's a chapter about his widowed mother.  The kids have worked out a rotation where she lives with each of them for six months in turn.  There's a lot of love and luck in this situation, that she's mobile enough to travel between them, that they each have physical and emotional space for her, that the burden is shared between the siblings fairly.  Still, she remains in a funk.

A year or so into this she overdoses on sleeping pills and dies.  It's not ruled a suicide, but her children are pretty sure it was intentional.  (This is based on my memory of something I read once, years ago, so forgive me if I have details wrong.)

Onto this very Not Funny story, Barry added some thoughts.  He said (paraphrasing wildly again here) that as parents age, we talk about them "reverting to childhood," and claim that our roles have been reversed.  They are confused, we are confident.  They are incontinent, we clean them up.  They are dependent, we are caretakers.

But, he reminds us, they are NOT children.  They are still our parents, and they are going through something we have never, ever experienced.  Just as they were adults to our children, retirees to our adults, now they are aging, and while we are witnessing it, we are not living it.  We think we know what they need.  We think we are in charge.  But it is their life, and they have to find their way on their own.

When I read that chapter, I knew why  my parents had wanted me to read the book.

Years went by.  My mom died, which was hellish.  My dad, adrift without his partner and caretaker, became depressed and weak.  My sisters and I scrambled to figure out how to provide him with the care he needed, but couldn't afford.  I found the bureaucracy of social security, medicare and medicaid, foster homes, and advanced directives overwhelming.  My sisters and I kept saying to each other, "If it's this difficult with four college educated people who love him to help navigate the system, what is it like for people who don't have kids around, or who don't speak the language, or who aren't comfortable with the forms?"  I even started a blog for awhile, trying to share what we were learning as we went.  There is so much you don't know until you are in the midst of it, with no time to learn it.


When I started reading Roz Chast's memoir of her parents aging and dying, I kept chuckling.  The particulars were different, but the dynamics were recognizable.  Powerhouse mom, gentle dad.  Refusals to admit anything is wrong.  Her mom takes a fall off a stepladder and writes a wry poem poking fun of herself.  I swear half of the conversations I had with my parents in the last five years they were both alive consisted of me telling my mom to stop climbing up on the counter, and my dad shaking his head with a sort of rueful pride.

But then the parallels stopped being funny.  The growing confusion and weakness of once strong parents.  The spiral of anxiety about finances and guilt for even caring about that, and really, if I were any kind of good daughter, wouldn't I just open my home to them?  The misery of nursing homes.  She nails it all, right down to the indignities of incontinence and the mixed feelings about not being present when death arrives.

Her story is not just universal; it's also delightfully particular to her.  Her dad eats super slowly and treats any new food with extreme distrust, and as he slips into dementia, he becomes obsessed with protecting his decades old bankbooks from long-defunct accounts.  Her relationship with her mom seems to hold more loyalty than affection, on both sides.  Their decrepit Brooklyn neighborhood permeates the pages of the book.  Chast is doggedly honest in how she portrays her parents and herself.  They all say and do things that they probably wish they hadn't.   They also perform acts of love and courage without even realizing that's what they are doing.

Two years ago, I wouldn't have guessed that such an incredibly affecting story could be told in graphic novel format, much less by a cartoonist.  Single pages could stand alone as one of Chaz's New Yorker cartoons, and indeed, I'd seen a few pages already and understood them despite the lack of context.  Narrative sections are short, written in Chaz's own script.  I had tears in my eyes the last several chapters, and I highly recommend this book to anyone with parents.

5/5 stars

Do you know of any other books that tackle end of life issues?  How about graphic novel memoirs?  How long did your parents/grandparents/great-grandparents live?  Chast's parents both make it well into their nineties.  Mine were 78 and 81 when they died.  


  1. I came visiting from A-Z but spotted this post as I'm in a similar position. I would heartily recommend reading "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande for anyone in this position. Nothing makes it easier because the emotions are so high, but it speaks enormous good sense.

    Debs Carey

    1. Oh, I've been wanting to read that! It's on mega-hold at the library and I avoid buying books, but it might be worth it, especially as I could then pass it on to all three of my sisters, and probably my husband's brother and sister-in-law as well.


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