The end is a series of gradual and cumulative horrors. At least it was for my parents. Every few months I’d visit my elderly parents in Florida, and although things weren’t great—my dad had dementia, my mother was worn out taking care of him—the fact that they were getting up everyday and going about their routines made me think things were okay. Then on one of my regular visits, as soon as I walked in the door, I smelled death. Something had died, but neither of my parents seemed to notice. By that age,they had lost their sense of smell. It seemed impossible though: a death stench permeated everything.
I frantically looked for the dead thing for two days, while my parents went blithely about their business. I bought every cleaning supply known to man at the nearby Walmart and spent the next few days scrubbing the place down and washing everything in sight. In the meanwhile, I noticed they had no groceries, no toilet paper, nothing they needed.How were they getting by?
In the small laundry room off the kitchen, the death smell grew increasingly worse. That’s when I thought to look behind the dryer. There I discovered two stiff bloated rat tails sticking out of the laundry vent. When I told my mother, she giggled, and explained she’d put out rat poison the week before. I wondered how long they would have been there, if I hadn’t come by. Things were spiraling out of control.
Perhaps that’s why I so appreciated reading New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s, Can’t We Talk About Something More PLEASANT? Every page of this surprisingly deep and moving memoir, about her parents’ decline into old age and death, was hilariously reassuring. Here was a map of facing the inevitable I could have followed.
For instance, Chast is constantly worried about money, as most of what is needed for her mother’s care is not covered by insurance. As her mother’s time in hospice goes on and on, Chast’s money worries, and her guilt about her money worries, mount. When she thinks her mother is days away from dying, Chast walks in on her mother, sitting with her new caretaker, eating a tuna sandwich. A crazed Roz looks out and speaks to us directly, “I knew that her retreat from the abyss should have ﬁlled me with joy or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: where in the ﬁve Stages of Death is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?”
In October, Chast, won the inaugural Kirkus Prize, from the Kirkus Reviews, for a nonﬁction book, and was short-listed for the National Book Award for nonﬁction. It’s rare that a graphic memoir reaches this kind of status but Chast,who started cartooning professionally at 23, and the next year, starting drawing cartoons for the New Yorker, and has been there ever since, spares us nothing—not her guilt or her black humor, or the horror of death.
I began by asking Chast about her guilt.
CH: You really exposed the bad daughter side of you—admirably, I thought. Do you have any remaining feelings of guilt about this chapter/period of your life, or did writing this book help assuage that, and thus put things in perspective?
RC: I still have a lot of guilt. Guilt that I couldn’t put aside a lot of my negative feelings about my parents, especially about my mother. Guilt about not being a better daughter—less self-centered, more forgiving. Guilt that I wasn’t, and am not, a better person in general. I did love them, but I could have done better. I wanted to do my best. I didn’t always live up to it.
CH: The introduction isn’t exactly sequential, but it sets the tone and tells us in ﬁve pages almost everything we need to know. Can you explain how you chose the order of those disparate stories?
RC: It took a couple of years at least to organize all the material. I had notes, letters (e-mails) I’d written to various people about stuff that was going on with my parents, cartoons, drawings, photos… My mother died in 2009 and [the book] was ﬁnished in 2013. I had a sense of where it started and where it ended. Other than that, it was mostly instinctive. Breaking it into chapters, which was a suggestion of my psychiatrist, was very helpful.
CH: Your trip home after a long absence reminded me so much of the time I visited my parents in Florida and everything, I mean everything, was in disarray. No toilet paper, nothing in the fridge; two dead rats in the laundry vent. I know why I was avoiding my parents, but for you, how did you think you could avoid the run up to the end? What was the mechanism to be in such denial?
RC: My parents came up to visit me in Connecticut a few times a year. Also I spoke with them on the phone almost every day. So it wasn’t as if I was totally out of touch. However, during those eleven years, my kids were little and I’m sure I rationalized the hell out of not taking a trip into Brooklyn with them. My husband would have had to do the drive, or I would have had to schlep them on a 2 1/2 hour trip to Brooklyn (car to train station; MetroNorth to Grand Central; long subway ride to mid-Brooklyn; ten-block walk to grandparents’ apartment; then stay in tiny apartment for a couple of hours; then reverse). Not to brag, but I’m good at denial.
CH: I love your group portraits and characters, e.g., the woman with long eyelashes in“they hated their lives,” the guy with the toupee in “surrounded by men,” and Caveman Ook! They are so funny yet so real. Do you make these people up or do you draw them from real life? If the answer is they come from your imagination, did you always do that, even as a young artist, or did you at one time work from real life?
RC: I’ve always loved to draw comics, since I was a kid… I love to observe people, anywhere, anytime. Sometimes I sketch them. I’ve taken life drawing classes. But the people in my cartoons are inventions.
CH: I was totally astonished by the series of line drawings of your mother at the end. Those drawings brought tears to my eyes, they were so beautiful. I know you were sketching all the while, but can you share with us some thoughts you were having as you drew them?
RC: At that point, my mother wasn’t talking much anymore. I wanted to spend time with her and drawing her, observing her closely, was a way of bearing witness, and also of ﬁxing her in my mind.
CH: My favorite part of the book is the worst: when your dad dies and your mother loses control. It’s so brutally exposed, and then your confession, why you didn’t want her in your house again. It’s all so horrible and sad. But then the redeeming drawing on the next page: the fantasy that death could be more pleasant, something even to look forward to! How did this sequence come about? And what are your feelings about your own old age?
RC: [My mother losing control and the fantasy scene] were kind of connected. One hopes that one never has to endure that kind of indignity, but it’s not like it’s so horribly unusual when a person lives to be a certain age.
My own old age? Yikes! I hope I avoid a long drawn-out thing. I’d like to be working on a project, go to sleep, and not wake up. No hospitals, no tests, no doctors, no medicines, no dire diagnoses, no remissions, no nothing. Just work, sleep, then dead.
CH: Where did you come up with the word postmortemistically?!?
RC: Made it up!
CH: For everyone we interview, we ask if they have any recommendations for memoirs, or in your case, recommendations for graphic memoirs? Anything you’re reading now that you love?
RC: I’m reading Don De Lillo’s Underworld right now. I’ll be sad when it’s done—I’m liking it so much that I’m stalling on ﬁnishing it. Graphic memoirs? Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) and Stitches (David Small).