In her new graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury), acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast shares the poignant and often darkly humorous story of the final years of her elderly parents and her own complicated feelings as she took on their care and navigated the bewildering worlds of elder law, geriatric medicine, assisted living, dementia, incontinence and hospice care.
With her trademark nervous drawings as well as photographs and documents, Chast’s book vividly recounts her parents’ tumultuous journey on what she calls “The Moving Sidewalk of Life (Caution: Drop-Off Ahead).” She dedicated the book to her father George, a talented foreign language teacher, who died in 2007 at age 95, and her mother Elizabeth, a no-nonsense assistant school principal, who died in 2009 at 97 — a close couple who grew up together and forged a remarkable bond.
Chast spoke recently at a standing-room-only gathering at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Bookstore. With humor and compassion, she told stories of her own worries as her parents confronted the realities of failing health. She described her sensitive, anxious father and his struggle with dementia, and her brilliant but domineering mother who suffered physical injuries and eventual delusions. As they aged and their conditions worsened, care became ever more expensive, stressful and complex.
The Seattle audience members responded enthusiastically to Chast’s account of the agonizing and absurd aspects of the plight of George and Elizabeth. Chast has drawn cartoons since her childhood in Brooklyn. She attended Rhode Island School of Design and majored in painting but, soon after graduating — according to her website — she “reverted to type and began drawing cartoons once again.” In addition to The New Yorker, her cartoons have appeared in a wide range of publications from Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review, to National Lampoon, Redbook and Mother Jones. She has written several other books including, “Theories of Everything; What I Hate From A to Z” “Mondo Boxo;” and “Unscientific Americans,” as well as children’s books such as “Too Busy Marco.”
Chast interrupted her book tour to talk by telephone about her work and her new book.
At your jammed event in Seattle so many people commented on how your humor and candor about your parents was helpful. Was helping others one of the reasons your wrote the book?
I’m really happy and enormously moved and grateful if it helped somebody out, but I found it hard to understand so many aspects of how to deal with the situation and I wouldn’t want to presume that it would be helpful to anybody. I’m really happy if it is, but it wasn’t really my intention.
You must be hearing similar stories on your book tour.
It’s been astonishing. I’m also getting a lot of letters from people. I didn’t know so many people were just starting the process of dealing with elderly parents who are no longer able to care for themselves and the difficulties of it.
In recalling your childhood, you showed a cartoon self-portrait at age nine, and your head is in “The Big Book of Horrible Diseases” and other books around on illness and even a Merck Manual of medical diagnoses are scattered around. Where did your fascination with morbid subjects come from?
I think I absorbed it from my parents. We always had the Merck Manual around. Definitely who had what illness and who was suffering from what was part of what I heard. And I thought I could wake up and be bleeding from every pore in my body.
And lockjaw was a concern in Brooklyn because of all the metal playground equipment?
Yeah. It’s funny. Kids don’t talk about lockjaw anymore. When I was growing up in my little cosmos, lockjaw was something people knew about and thought about.
What drew you to art?
I drew from the time I was a little kid, like most little kids. In high school, I went to the Art Students League in New York City. It was wonderful. I did a lot of life drawing. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an anatomy-based figure drawer, but I spent many, many hours drawing from life and I loved that. And I had a great teacher.
When I went to art school, it was much different and, in the seventies, it was very serious. It seemed to me that the art that got attention from the teachers was theoretical [and] the artist would have a complicated theory about it, about the biomorphic, architectonic validity of it. I was just a kid from Brooklyn and had never been exposed to any of that talk.
And I stopped drawing cartoons in art school. I majored in painting and wanted to be a painter, but I was just a terrible painter. My senior year, I was doing painting, but I was secretly drawing cartoons in my journal. After I got out of art school, I went back to drawing what I really wanted to.
Did your parents encourage your art?
They knew that that’s what I was, but I think that they very sensibly hoped that I would become a teacher, maybe even an art teacher. My mother thought that I’d go into the family business which, of course, was education. But I really didn’t want to do that.
I think they were proud of my work. They were definitely happy and they subscribed to the New Yorker. It was scary to them also that I did not get a regular salary, which was also scary to me, but oh well.
And you started drawing for Christopher Street and The Village Voice?
Yes. Christopher Street paid ten dollars a cartoon, which was terrible even back in 1978, and The Village Voice paid fifty. And I did some cartoons for the National Lampoon and, in April 1978, I started with The New Yorker.
In your new book, you write that you hadn’t visited your parents’ apartment in Brooklyn for several years. Then, in September 2001, when they were both nearing 90, you decided to stop by and you were stunned by their situation.
I hadn’t visited their apartment for a long time, but when I started visiting them, it was clear that they were getting older and gradually less able to keep up with day-to-day things in life like the mail, cleaning out the refrigerator, dealing with groceries. So I realized I had to get more actively involved in if not actually caring for them, then in monitoring it and keeping an eye on them and making sure I was more aware of what was going on than I had been before.
You soon contacted an elder lawyer. Do you remember what prompted you to contact that lawyer?
Yes. I had a conversation with a friend. Her mother was older than my mother, and she had recently gone through this, and she knew this elder lawyer. I didn’t even know there was such thing — a person who specialized in things like wills and health care proxies and knowing what questions to ask, and that was very helpful. I was so grateful to this friend who recommended him. Also, he was in Brooklyn, so he could come to my parent’s apartment and I was there when he was there. I didn’t even know what a health care proxy was. I was totally in the dark about all of this.
You have helpful hints in your book for caregivers. For example, you kept a notebook and documented everything that happened.
Yes. The two pieces of very practical information I’d give would be to get an elder lawyer to help you and to keep all of the information in one place. If you’re the person that is now paying your parents’ taxes, dealing with pensions, and paying bills — I didn’t know anything about any of this. I had one place for all of this information — important phone numbers, the conversations I’d have with a caretaker or agency or a bank, or a person with the Board of Education Pension Bureau. I noted the date I talked and who I spoke to and the telephone number. It sounds like minutiae, but it helped to have it organized in this one notebook.
A talk about aging and death is difficult for any family.
It’s a horrible talk. I totally understand why you want to avoid it as long as possible. The title, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” comes from my father. He would say that. My parents and I all wanted to talk about something more pleasant. I haven’t had that talk with my kids yet. It’s a very hard thing to talk about.
You were worried constantly about your parents. How did this stress affect your work and your family life?
I blanked some of it out. The worst was when they were still living in Brooklyn. The year after my mother got out of the hospital in 2006 — the last year they were in the apartment — was really scary. She kept falling and my father’s dementia was getting worse. I felt so far away from them and didn’t know what to do. I would visit them and sometimes bring them food or have Meals on Wheels come. But I couldn’t stay there forever because I had my own family.
Like everybody else, you just go through it, and put one foot in front of the other and say, “A catastrophe didn’t happen today.” Hopefully, I won’t get that dreaded phone call that anybody who’s responsible for an elderly parent fears.
And your parents resisted your help?
I think it’s partly generational and part of their not wanting to ask for help. Especially to my mother, any expression of being other than strong or not being on top of everything was just bellyaching, just weakness. She would give it “a blast from Chast.” She was very determined not to show weakness. I think that’s a generational trait and how she grew up. That’s what helped her survive and that’s who she was.
The story of your cleaning their apartment with your photos of their rooms was exceptionally poignant. What was the process of going through a half century of accumulation?
I didn’t go through all of it. I could not hack it. I went back several times, armed with Hefty bags. I thought I’ll just go through one area and try to sort through stuff. Once I started, it looked even worse. It was so much stuff packed into closets and drawers filled with newspapers from a million years ago. I’d open a drawer and the bottom had rotted out and it would fall to pieces. You saw the photos. I’d find Band-Aid boxes. A drawer of jar lids. They just never threw anything away.
I took a few things. The photo albums of course. And a few things off the wall. And, as I said in the book, I paid the super to take the rest. I told him he could take what he wanted, sell what he wanted. I didn’t want any of it. It was stuff.
You look at things differently once you’ve been through something like that. The change was that I used to like browsing in second-hand shops a lot, but now it just looks like dead people stuff and it’s depressing.
But you also found a treasure trove of hundreds of letters that your parents exchanged during your dad’s service in World War II.
Yes. I haven’t even gone through a tenth of them, there were so many. At some point, maybe I’ll hire somebody to transcribe them. They probably put that box of letters on top of the closet in 1959, and I had no idea it was there. That was really a find.
Your book is very thoughtful in dealing with your parents’ eccentricities and their failing health. Was writing the book healing for you?
In a certain way it helped me to not forget them and I’m really glad of that. Writing in some ways is a way of holding onto things that otherwise would [be lost to] memory. When I read a page, I can remember their voices or the moment better. I have a dread of forgetting who they were and what they sounded like and what they looked like. I’m really glad when I look at this book because it brings them back to me.
It cost about $14,000 a month to keep your parents at an assisted living facility. How did you deal with the incredible expenses?
There’s not a lot a person can do. All of their savings went to end-of-life care. When my mother died, there was money for about two months’ worth of care left in the bank. I am getting the impression that this is pretty much the way it is for most middle-class people.
You combine your skills as an artist, humorist, researcher and an accomplished writer in this book. Were you inspired by other artists?
Everybody who’s done a graphic memoir. There’s Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar. These are amazing people who tell stories in a way that resonates for me and that’s one of the wonderful things about the cartoon medium.
Is there anything you’d like to add about your book?
Well, we’re all on the moving sidewalk and our kids are probably going to be writing books like this about us. “I can’t believe all the crap I found in my parents’ apartment.”