By David Lewellen
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast. Bloomsbury, 2014, $28.
Watching your parents age, decline and die is hard — the grime, the clutter, the reminders of your own mortality, the unmended relationships. Cartoonist Roz Chast, like many of us, has lived that reality; but unlike almost anyone else, she managed to find some humor in it.
The result is her book-length cartoon (or graphic memoir, as aficionados say), “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” In the distinctive drawings and spidery handwriting that have graced The New Yorker for years, Chast sketches her parents’ history, her own unhappy childhood in Brooklyn, and the harrowing last decade or so of her parents’ lives. But, like so many other sad comedians, she transmutes her pain into something that draws readers in and leaves them, if not exactly uplifted, at least nodding in recognition.
Chast is very funny about day-to-day oddities and neuroses. To describe her parents’ aversion to discussing death, she draws a Grim Reaper: “What’s THIS??? The Chasts are talking about me! Why, I’ll show THEM!!!!”
But of course, conversations had to happen and things had to change. Along the way, the Chasts see plenty of doctors and nurses, hospice volunteers, the occasional social worker — but no chaplains that we are told of. Maybe a trained professional could have helped the parents’ tight twosome and the awkward triangle their daughter formed. More than senility, more than incontinence, the greatest pain in the story is Chast’s relationship with her mother.
As Elizabeth Chast clings stubbornly to life in her 90s, her daughter narrates, “I wanted to have a final conversation with my mother about the past, and finally worked up the courage to say something: ‘I wish we could have been better friends when I was growing up.’
“How I hoped she would respond: ‘Me, too.’”
“Actual response: ‘Does it worry you?’”
“No. Does it worry you?”
(A panel of silence.)
“It was time to go. … I walked to my car,” Chast continues. “When I got in, I cried. The bellowing quality of the sobbing and the depth of the sadness I felt surprised me. I was angry, too. Why hadn’t she tried harder to know me? But I knew: if there had ever been a time in my relationship with my mother for us to get to know one another — and that’s a very big ‘if’ — that time had long since passed.”
Maybe so. But … what other people resolve through prayer or therapy or spiritual direction, Chast resolves through drawing funny pictures. Courageously, she lets the world watch her pain, and some good ripples out.
“Even though he often drove me bats, I remember my dad with great affection,” she writes on the next-to-last page. “I’m still working things out with my mother. Sometimes, I want to go back in time and warn her: ‘Don’t do that! If you’re mean to her (me) again, you’ll lose her trust forever! It’s not worth it!!!’ Obviously, I can’t. Maybe when I completely give up this desire to make it right with my mother, I’ll know what to do with their cremains. Or, maybe not.”