When people talk about extending the human lifespan to 120 it bothers Roz Chast. "That upsets me for a lot of reasons," she tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I feel like these are people who don't really know anybody over 95." The reality of old age, she says, is that "people are not in good shape, and everything is falling apart."
Chast should know. The longtime New Yorker cartoonist is an only child and became the sole caretaker for her parents, George and Elizabeth Chast, when they reached old age. In her new, illustrated memoir — Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? — Chast mixes the humor with the heartache. It's about the last years of her parents' lives and her relationship with them as their child and conflicted caretaker.
They never had what's known these days as "The Talk" — an acknowledgement that their deaths were inevitable. As a result, Chast says, everyone was in denial and actively avoided the subject, even as it was staring them squarely in the face.
Chast's parents — who were both born in 1912 — lived independently in Brooklyn up until their early 90s. Things started to go downhill in 2005 when her mother fell off a step stool at age 93. "She was in bed for a few days, and it was clear that what was going on was more than the fall off the ladder," Chast recalls. "That was the beginning of their sort of slide into the next part of old age — you know, the last chapters."
With her mother in the hospital after the fall, it quickly became clear that her father's dementia was worse than Chast had realized. "As long as he was in their familiar apartment with my mother sort of steering the ship, things were holding their own," she says. But when he came to live with her family in Connecticut, "I realized he was more far gone than I'd known."
Even in a time of family crisis, Chast found moments of humor. She recounts one shopping trip with her father when she held up a red sweater for his consideration. "I can't wear that!" he told her. "Why not?" she asked. "It's RED," he answered. "Communism."
Her parents briefly moved back to their Brooklyn apartment, but it was clear they could not continue living independently. Chast arranged for them to move to an assisted living residence near her home, which they called "The Place."
Her father was in steep decline. In July 2007, depressed, disoriented and suffering from painful bedsores, he told his wife he was ready to "pack it in."
"He was tired of the work of staying alive," Chast writes. George Chast died in hospice care in October 2007. "I don't know if there's anything to be really learned from this," Chast says.
After the death of her husband, Elizabeth Chast, at 96, went into physical and mental decline as well. "I feel like my brains are melting," she told her daughter.
She occasionally told surreal stories, which Chast illustrates in the book. ("I was just talking to somebody yesterday who said the worst thing for a parent is to have a child who's a writer," Chast says.) Here are a couple of the stories her mother told her:
The last pages of Chast's book include 12 sketches she made of her mother as she died. Chast admits she was not uncomfortable as she sketched her mother in death. "Maybe that says something really horrible about me that I'm not aware of," she says. "But I think drawing is what I do, and it was a way of being with her and of paying attention. ... I think it would have been far worse to sit with her and check my email or something. I wanted to look at her."
Chast says she hasn't had "The Talk" yet with her own daughter. "I'm still avoiding," she says. "Though I did tell my daughter, who's an artist and writer, ... feel free to use this as material when you have to deal with me. This is material, and I want you to use it."
But beyond that, they haven't talked about end-of-life issues. "We should, but we're avoiding it," Chast says. "Because can't we talk about something more pleasant?"
Excerpt: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
From Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Copyright 2014 by Roz Chast. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For many years, readers of The New Yorker have laughed along with cartoonist Roz Chast - laughed at her angsty, shaky characters, her rye sense of the absurd. Now, in her new illustrated memoir, Chast mixes humor with heartache.
The book is about the last years of her parents and her relationship with them as both their only child and conflicted caretaker. Her mother, Elizabeth, and father, George, married nearly 70 years, virtually inseparable and very different personalities.
ROZ CHAST: My mother was the queen of all she surveyed and knew everything. And my father totally agreed.
BLOCK: Though her parents were increasingly frail and forgetful, Roz Chast says she had ever talked with them about end of life issues. It is, she says, sort of a horrible topic, which is why she called her memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Reality struck when her mother, age 93, fell off a step stool.
CHAST: She was in bed for a few days and it was clear that what was going on was more than the fall off the ladder. She didn't want to go to the hospital. She was afraid. But eventually, she did and that was the beginning of their sort of slide into the next part of old age - you know, the last chapters.
BLOCK: Well, it sounds like it was at that point when your mother was taken to the hospital that you realized that your father had slipped pretty far into dementia in a way that you hadn't realized before.
CHAST: Yes. As long as he was in their familiar apartment with my mother sort of steering the ship, things were holding their own. But when he came to live with us, I realized he was more far gone than I'd known.
BLOCK: You do have a cartoon in here where you've taken your dad out shopping.
BLOCK: And this really made me laugh because you're trying to get him a sweater and he tells you I can't wear that.
BLOCK: What was his reason?
CHAST: He said, I can't wear that. And I said, why not? And he goes, it's red. And I look at him and he goes, communism.
CHAST: And he, I...
BLOCK: I'm writing that down.
CHAST: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. But sometimes he would ask me, like, where do I live? You know, there were just aspects of this part of old age that I knew nothing about.
BLOCK: The way you describe it, things did fall apart pretty quickly and you moved your parents into assisted living where you live in Connecticut and...
BLOCK: ...as time goes on, one of the things that you write about is how financially draining the care became. And you have this line, I felt like a disgusting person worrying about the money. And it's such a common concern but it must really pain you to put that on the page.
CHAST: Yeah. It is, you do feel disgusting. I mean, you feel like, oh, what kind of person am I? This is what that money was for. And, you know, how dare I be anxious about it or sad about it or resentful about it? So I don't know, it's just very, it's very complicated.
BLOCK: Your father ended up dying in 2007. He was under hospice care and he was 95 years old but had been in what sounds like really steep decline for a matter of months.
BLOCK: Were their lessons you drew about things that you wish had been different or could have made the end of his life any more tolerable?
CHAST: No. I don't know if there's anything to be really learned from this. When I hear about people who want to spend a lot of money figuring out how we can live 'till 120, that upsets me for a lot of reasons. I feel like these are people who don't really know anybody over 95 or maybe they met them on a really good day. People are not in good shape and everything is falling apart.
BLOCK: Your mother lived for several more years and her decline was slower. And it's interesting that you do find humor in her increasing dementia as time goes on and some surreal stories that she would start telling you.
CHAST: Oh, yeah. Well, yeah, these really bizarre stories. I did them in comic strip form. This one is called "Ass Full of Buckshot." There was a break-in in the place. The place is what I call the place where they were staying, assisted living.
BLOCK: The nursing home. Yeah.
CHAST: Yeah. Yeah. All the men were moved over to the women's side. I shot the intruder with my BB gun. I gave him an ass full of buckshot. I'd like to stand him on a stage, pull down his pants and take out the pellets one by one in front of everybody.
BLOCK: Do remember what you were thinking when she told you that story?
CHAST: I was thinking, I'm writing this down and I'm going to draw this up.
BLOCK: This is a cartoon just waiting to be drawn.
CHAST: This is a cartoon - yeah. Yeah. Well, somebody - just actually, I was talking to somebody yesterday who said the worst thing for a parent is to have a child who's a writer.
BLOCK: I'm talking with the cartoonist Roz Chast. Her memoir is titled "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Your mother does seem in the end of her life to have had great tenacity. She survived a number of turns for the worse. And at the very end you drew her over several months as she's lying in her bed. You say she wasn't talking, she was mostly sleeping and then finally, you drew her in death in September of 2009. And you have a note at the bottom of that drawing that says, my mother died tonight at 8:28. And they're lovely pen and ink line drawings. And I wonder if it was instinctive of you as an artist to draw her through those months or if part of you was uncomfortable with that.
CHAST: I was really not that uncomfortable. I don't know why. I think drawing is what I do and it was a way of being with her and of paying attention. And she wasn't talking. I mean, I think it would have been far worse for me to sit with her and like check my email or something. I wanted to look at her.
BLOCK: As you think about this whole process for you and your parents, what do you wish you had known about end-of-life issues and maybe misperceptions or things that you weren't prepared for?
CHAST: One of the things is there's a lot of paperwork. There's just a lot of stuff to do. I think sometimes I felt so stressed by everything else I was dealing with, like taking care of their apartment and figuring out like where do I send their rent checks and who's their landlord. And I hated that. That was like this is horrible.
CHAST: Just weird stuff. I mean, it wasn't just like, I'm sad, my parents are dying and oh, let's all like hold hands and be sad. It was like all this junk, you know.
BLOCK: Layers and layers of junk.
CHAST: Layers and layers of that kind of stuff.
BLOCK: I wonder if your experience with this and with your own parents, has it changed the conversation that you have with your own children? I think they're in their 20s now.
CHAST: Yes. Well...
BLOCK: Have you had that conversation?
CHAST: We haven't. We haven't. I mean, I'm still avoiding. Although, I did tell my daughter, who's an artist and a writer, and I said, feel free to use this as material. You know, when you go have to deal with me, this is material and I want you to use it.
BLOCK: But in terms of the talk...
CHAST: The talk.
BLOCK: ...with your children, you haven't gone there?
CHAST: Not yet. And we should but we're avoiding it because, can't we talk about something more pleasant?
BLOCK: That's New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. And that is the title of her new book, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Roz, thanks so much.
CHAST: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.