Roz Chast has been drawing neurotically funny cartoons for The New Yorker (and other publications) since 1978. Her frenetic style perfectly conveys the heightened drama that often erupts from the most mundane activities, like hailing a taxi or shopping online (or renewing your New Yorker subscription). Chast's engrossing new book, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, chronicles, in great detail, her struggle to ease her parents through their twilight years. Chast's talent for illustrating the horror in the quotidian and coaxing humor out of horror is at its peak here, and her unflinchingly honest memoir somehow manages to break your heart and make you roar with laughter all in the same breath.
We recently spoke with Chast from her home in Connecticut about the book and her parents, the late George and Elizabeth Chast. If you like what you see here, pick up a copy of Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and catch a blast from Chast in person on May 29th at the 92nd St Y.
I love this book so much; I don't recall reading something that was so heavy but also made me laugh so hard. You lived through these sad times with your parents, but did the process of writing the book give you the ability to laugh about it? Sometimes, yeah. There definitely were some funny things. I mean my father, I remember thinking about the dirty checkers thing, he really did get an infection from cleaning dirty checkers. And you start thinking, "Well, how dirty can checkers be?"
And how do you get to a place where you're washing them? Yeah, exactly! You just start thinking about these things and it does just start to make you laugh.
At what point did you think that this would be a book? It was before they died, before my mother died. But some of the cartoons in the book were things that I had been doing all along, it had been done years before all of this because when we submit cartoons to The New Yorker we submit groups of cartoons every week. So they were just in my piles of rejects, but they were about my parents. So I thought they would have a place in this book. It all just came together kind of gradually.
Did your parents see any of this? No, I don't think so. My mother would sometimes ask me if somebody in a cartoon was her, and I would say, "Mom, you know it's not really like that. There's some of you in it, there's some of other ladies, there's somebody else's mother, it was a blend of all different kinds of things. It's not all about you, Mom!" [Laughs]
And what do you think her reaction to the book would be? I don't think she would have liked it.
Why not? I think it would have made her sad. I mean, I think it's kind of clear from what I wrote that my relationship with her was kind of complicated, and we didn't really get it all sorted out like they do in TV movies. So I think that would have made her sad, but I didn't write it to make her sad, you know. That would have made me sad, so I couldn't have written it when they were alive.
What about your father? I think he would have understood a little bit more.
It's interesting to me because I come from a larger family. I have seven siblings and I have other people to bounce my perspective off of. But in your case, it was just you and your parents, so it wasn't like you could just show it to a sibling and get their feedback or understanding. Yeah, but I don't know if it would be possible to write this book if I had siblings. It would have been a very different sort of book. I've had people ask me if it would have been easier to take care of your parents if you had siblings and I think it's 50/50. I know people who have siblings and there is a lot of acrimony because somebody always feels that they are doing more than the other person. And then there are arguments like, "I want to move Mommy to a place," or "No, let's do it this way and hire somebody in our house." So there can be problems, pluses and minuses both ways I think.
How many years did this process take, and when did it really start? Two days before the World Trade Centers were hit, I had this intense urge to go out and see them, and that had been the first time I had seen them in their apartment since I moved up to Connecticut. That was about 11 years. I had not been back to Brooklyn, and that's when I started getting more involved in their lives to make trips out to Brooklyn.
The steeper drop-off came after my mother was in the hospital; I think that was 2006. That was not good, and that was when things started to really... As a friend of mine said about getting old, "Everything is OK until it's not," and that's sort of what happened. You know, there were things that were kind of alarming; my mother would tell me things about my father leaving the stove on or his forgetfulness. And my mother had a couple of minor bumps and bruises and falls and what not, but it wasn't until she had those two weeks in the hospital. She never really recovered from that, I don't think.
And then within three years both your parents were gone. Yeah.
It seems fast in retrospect, but in the book it doesn't seem fast. No, but they were also very old. They were 95 and 97 when they died, but it did seem very slow at the time, of course, because you don't know.
I appreciated the honesty in the book, where you're explaining all the stuff that's going through your mind, when your mother is not getting worse, but not getting better, just a plateau of illness. Meanwhile, all of this money is flying out the window until... Yes, it's really complex and embarrassing and horrible to be thinking those things. I sound horrible for thinking about it, because first of all it's their money, you know. But there was some sort of weird black comedy about it, contrasting this with their life-long habits of scrimping and saving. I mean that oven mitt was completely real, and you saw the photos from the apartment, with a cheese-tainer that's patched with masking tape and has been there since 1970!
And a drawer of jar lids. The drawer of jar lids. You know, you never know when you need a bit of tetanus. [Laughs] It's very strange to contrast the way they scrimped and denied themselves things and you know, by the end it was just insane.
The money. The money, yeah. They were in a place and it was a really nice place, but these people know that you could pretty much ask for anything and, you know, what are you going to say? It's like "Naaa, I think I'm going to take my parents out while I shop around." You know?
What's your advice for other people who are finding themselves starting this process with their parents? Well, I hope this doesn't sound too cold, but I'd say get an elder care lawyer, especially if you've never heard the term Healthcare Proxy, which I hadn't. It's really helpful to have these papers in order before things really start to go downhill at a faster clip. You know, if one of your parents end up in a hospital, people are going to ask you about stuff like Healthcare Proxy and Power of Attorney. Get their financial stuff sorted out. I mean I'm not an organized person, so maybe somebody would know this or a notebook or if you do it online. but somewhere where you can easily access. You're going to need your parents' social security numbers if you have to take over their taxes. There's a lot of paperwork.
It's sobering. The book made me think that either I should have kids or make a lot of money. Why not both?! [Laughs] Yeah, well it's a weird thing to go through and you do look at your stuff differently. I used to go to thrift stores and stuff and now it's really different. When I first go into a thrift store it's like the old me and I'm really excited like, "Oh, look at this lamp! Look at this old Barbie case!" And then I look at it and I'm there for more than five minutes and I'm like "This is like all the shit I threw out of my parent's apartment." And I didn't want any from their apartment, why would I want your dead parents' stuff? [Laughs] So, yeah. And then you start looking around at your own house and at your own stuff and you're think "Oh man." [Laughs] "We have so much stuff."
And so much of it I don't even touch, it's just there. Wait 'till you get older, it's just horrible. [Laughs]
How else did this experience impact how you would look at your own future? Well, my husband and I are going to clean out and do a purge on the house this summer, that's one thing. And we have not gotten our papers in order yet, that really should be done, I think. But yeah, I think when your parents die, it is kind of like a moving sidewalk, you're not just on the sideline and watching them go by. You know, you're going to the same place they are.
You go into great detail about how your mother would intimidate you when you were younger and you two would clash your whole lives, and sometimes you would dread visits with your parents when you were older. And then you reached a point with her when she became senile and you just couldn't get enough; you just wanted to spend more and more time with her, and write down the things she was saying. Ah, the stories, oh my God! They were kind of funny. It was spooky in a way because it wasn't like she was totally gaga all the time, it was that sometimes she would be asking me very lucid questions about my kids or what I was doing, things where she would be totally with it. Then she would be telling me how my grandmother was under her bed with a knife last night, or somebody had paid an aide a thousand dollars to poison her or something. And she would be saying it not like it was a weird dream but like it had really happened. Like that thing about her being on "the launch," it was kind of funny in a horrible kind of way.
"The launch," what was that again? Oh yeah, that's when I went to see her and she said "I was on a launch." Now where did this word "launch" come from? Was it like a little boat, like a speed boat or something? But she called it a launch, and this woman was next to her on the launch, and a giant swordfish came flying out of the water and stabbed her in the heart. And my mother shook her head and said, "A terrible way to die." And I said, "Mom, maybe you dreamed this," and she said "No, I was right there." So it was very strange. What was happening, I don't know.
Have you had any memorable reactions from people who have read it and shared their experiences? It's amazing how many people seem to be starting this, are in the middle of it, or have just gone through it. It is just incredible. I've gotten so many letters from people who all have stories that are very similar, even a lot of people who have their parents' remains in their closet. Apparently it's not that unusual.
That's where you keep them still? Yeah, they're still in there. We don't have a family plot and it's no mystery in some ways why they're there. But I've gotten a lot of letters, probably at least a couple of hundred maybe more, and so many people are going through this. People have always died, duh, but there is something about this attenuated process that I think is somewhat new. You know, like that doctor that suggested my mother have a colostomy operation when she was like 96 or 97, it's just completely crazy.
Do you think medical science's ability to help people in that way has gone too far in doing things to prolong life past the point where life is probably worth living? You know, it seems that way from my perspective right now, but it's hard to know what it's like when you're that old. I just, I don't know. Sometimes it does seem that way, sometimes it seems that there's such major gaps in how we—this sounds so pretentious—as a society how we deal with this. Unless we get to where we're just going to have a lot of old people sort of warehoused in these places, and I don't know how that works. It seems kind of nuts and a little scary, especially if they keep getting better at keeping people alive. I do wonder when people talk about expanding the lifespan; I think, "So, you think those years between 100 and 110 are going to be good?" I mean, they're not. At least not now.
Those years are not like when a person who is 75 or 85 and has some aches and pains. It's not that. You know, my parents were fine at 85. So 85's nothing. 100 is another thing. I have a friend whose mother is about to turn 101 and it's not great. Everybody she knows is dead, she can barely get out of bed, she can't see very well, she can't really hear, she doesn't like to eat because eating is hard now, and she doesn't why she's still alive. But the heart keeps beating, so it's weird.
Yeah, it makes me think, "What's the point?" When the quality of life is degraded so much. Yeah. Well my father was in terrible pain towards the end because of his bed sores and he did go into Hospice, and I think that was better in some ways. You know, I think his death was peaceful and it was all right, he was just in terrible pain. I don't know, I don't really have any answers to this. It's a very complicated topic but there were some funny things along the way. I'm just trying to keep us both from cutting our wrists at the end of the interview. [Laughs]
That is something I want to stress, because in a certain way your story sounds like such a downer you'd never want to read it. But it's so funny, in an honest and humane way, in the way that the humor taps into the pain and all that and provides a release. Yes, there were some really funny things. I mean, even my mother's comments about Hospice like "I don't want a bunch of people standing around singing Kumbaya." [Laughs] I don't know. I just hope that I didn't completely bum you out now, like "You are getting old and it really sucks." [Laughs]