Mourners who attend wakes, sit shiva, or speak at memorial services often share cathartic laughs about the deceased. But the jokes and stories usually sidestep the intimate details of the process of dying and the difficult obligations of family caretakers.
Cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, her clear-eyed remembrance of her parents’ final years, flouts decorum and is all the funnier and deeper for the social conventions the author ignores. Chast, a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine, has written a touching, unflinching, darkly hilarious account of her mother and father’s physical and mental declines, their deaths within two years of each other, and her anxious, loving exertions to ease their passages.
“Can’t We Talk” is a memoir, but it also serves as a strange sort of self-help guide for those stumbling through the last years of their parents’ lives. The first person it is designed to help is Chast, the only child of highly neurotic parents, who met in fifth grade, and married in their 20s. Once they are unable to care for themselves it becomes her job to pry the elderly couple out of the Brooklyn apartment they have shared for 48 years and move them into an assisted-living facility, referred to as “The Place.”
Chast’s burden is not just that she has no siblings to share the load. As her parents approach their 90th birthdays, she has not visited them for over a decade. In a series of flashbacks to her childhood, Chast sketches her mother, Elizabeth, as overbearing and given to loud tantrums — “a blast from Chast,’’ as she proudly dubbed her own outbursts.
She intimidated her husband, George, a warm but meek man, incapable of handling even the simplest everyday tasks, such as changing a light bulb. They leaned on each other while weighing down their daughter with fears about people and pathogens lurking beyond their apartment walls. Chast escaped to college at 16 and moved to Connecticut when she married and had kids.
The book’s title comes from the couple’s refusal to discuss their advancing years and infirmities. Only a series of accidents and medical emergencies finally breach their walls of denial. At that point, the daughter has no choice but to take charge of her parents’ lives, and they have no choice but to let her. Nobody is at ease with the new arrangement.
Despite lugging her own suitcase full of anxieties, Chast succeeds in packing up her parents and getting them the care they need. Among her most important survival tools is her pen. She takes notes and draws sketches — as much to keep her own sanity as to keep track of her folks’ medications, appointments, and hospice orders.
Chast has little tolerance for euphemism or evasion. She dissects geriatric “grime,” the tenacious mixture of dirt, grease, and dust that accumulates in old peoples’ homes when they are unable or unwilling to do routine cleaning. She takes readers on a tour of assisted-living facilities, noting their cheerful but surreal bulletin-board announcements (“Tonight’s Dining Room Theme is Outer Space!”). She draws storyboards of her parent’s increasingly delusional versions of reality. And once her parents move into “The Place,” she notes the social pecking order of senior-citizen dining rooms — a rerun of high school except the uncool kids are the “Alz” patients.
The cartoonist doesn’t spare herself. She is frank about her constant fear that her parents’ money will run out. She admits to pangs of jealousy when her mother seems more attached to a home health aide than to her. And she constructs a daughter-caretaker matrix that contrasts the haloed character “Gallant” who has “forgiven her parents for all the transgressions of her youth,” with the horned “Goofus” who is “still seething with resentment about crap that happened forty years ago.”
Readers of The New Yorker will recognize Chast’s nervous, scratchy pen work. It serves her well in this extended format, evoking the crazy-making kaleidoscope of losing one’s parents, little by little, then all at once. She has enriched the pen-and-ink work with loose color washes that make the drawings pop off the page, sometimes in a jarring juxtaposition of painful content and pastel renderings.
In the middle of the book Chast swaps mediums; she includes a series of color photographs documenting the things her pack-rat parents left behind. The photos capture the lost-in-time drawers of half-used stationery supplies, a medicine cabinet stocked with decades-old home remedies, closets and desks stuffed with forgotten gadgets, eyeglasses, yearbooks, and handbags. Chast has no interest in holding on to the actual objects but feels the tug of their history. For her and the reader, the photos succeed in capturing the sedimentary layers of the couple’s domestic lives.
Two years after the death of the father, the daughter sits by the bedside of the failing mother — the loud, dominating mother who scared her through much of her life. Chast again reaches for her pen, but this time she foregoes the exaggerations and simplifications of cartooning in favor of realistic renderings. There is no longer any irony, no comic distance.
For two months she drew closely observed, black and white pictures of the sleeping Elizabeth — a dozen of which she includes in the book — recording details of her mouth, her eyebrows, her furrowed brow. The final, stark portrait is accompanied by the words, “My mother died tonight at 8:28.”
In the epilogue, the cartoonist returns to the image of the closet — this time Chast’s own closet where she keeps her parents’ ashes. She finds their presence comforting, even though she still nurses the wounds of childhood. But she has found a way to take care of her parents, and in doing so has taken care of herself. Memorial services seek to provide consolation and perhaps a glimpse of guidance for speaker and mourners alike. Chast’s rich graphic elegy, at once subversive and sustaining, offers both.Dan Wasserman is the Globe’s editorial cartoonist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.