A Cartoonist's Funny, Heartbreaking Take On Caring For Aging Parents

Dec 30, 2014

In Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast combines text, cartoons, sketches and photos to describe her interactions with her parents during the last years of their lives.

Originally broadcast May 8.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Last May, I spoke with Roz Chast, one of The New Yorker's most popular cartoonists. We fans love how she depicts anxieties, insecurities and neuroses. She had just published her graphic memoir, A memoir illustrated with cartoons, sketches and photos about her changing relationship with her parents during the last years of their lives. It was difficult for Chast and her parents to even talk about end-of-life issues, which is why the book is called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"It's funny, heartbreaking and unflinching in dealing with her parents stubbornness and denial as they became frail and increasingly unable to care for themselves. And Chast's own feelings of guilt that no matter what she did she wasn't doing enough for them. The book was nominated for a National Book Award. The memoir begins when her parents were still living in the Brooklyn apartment where Chast grew up and follows them as they move into assisted living, have repeated stays in the hospital and finally enter hospice. Her mother outlived her father and died in 2009 at the age of 97. Chast lives with her husband in Connecticut. They have two children who are now in their 20s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Roz Chast, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love your new book. And I'd like you to start with a reading from not the absolute beginning but toward the beginning of the book. And I'm going to ask you to also describe some of the cartoons that you've drawn to accompany the words.

ROZ CHAST: All righty. I'll start now.

(Reading) Two things about my childhood - One, I was an only child; and two, my parents were a lot older than other kids' parents. And I have this illustrated with me, there's four kids, and they're each saying something. Your mom's old. She's like a zillion. Your dad's old, too. That means they're going to die soon.

And even when they really were a zillion, they and I never talked about the future. And this is a drawing of my mother and my father. And my mother says we're going to 100, and my father says don't strain your voice, Elizabeth. Why tempt fate? And this is a drawing of I guess a cartoon grim reaper, you know, in the black cloak, holding a scythe, and he says what's this, the Chasts are talking about me. Why, I'll show them.

As my parents and I moved inexorably into this future, I became more and more aware that at some point we were all going to have to deal with this aging thing. And there's a drawing of me standing a little bit behind my parents on the moving sidewalk of life, and there's a little sign that says caution, drop-off ahead.

But they weren't asking for help, and I wasn't volunteering. In 1990, my husband, our three-year-old son and I, pregnant with our soon-to-be-born daughter, moved out of the city to the suburbs of Connecticut, where there was more space and greenery and good public schools. If doing right by our kids meant abandoning my then-78-year-old parents, so be it. The longer we were there, the more impossible schlepping into Brooklyn seemed. If they wanted to see us so damn much, let them make the trip.

And there's a little drawing of my increasingly elderly parents with little tiny suitcases standing in the snow of Connecticut.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That was Roz Chast, reading from the beginning of her new graphic memoir called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" And it's about her aging parents and what it was like to try to take care of them in the years before they died. At what point did you feel you really needed to talk with your parents about aging and nearing death?

CHAST: Probably when they were in their late 70s I started to think more about what we were going to do. I think part of it was that I was no longer living in the city, and in the back of my mind I knew that that was sort of bringing up a few questions, like what was going to happen when they became less independent, when I wasn't living a couple of blocks away.

I could tell that they would just want to change the subject. My father did, you know, I got the title from him because he would say can't we talk about something more pleasant? They knew that it would probably involve them leaving their apartment, and I think they really didn't want to do that, and I didn't really want to talk about it.

And so we would sort of dip our toe into these unpleasant waters and then pull the toe out again. We did this for many years.

GROSS: The illustrations and the text, it's such this wonderful mix of, like, funny and heartbreaking. And you can easily see, as the reader, how complex your emotions were, you know, a mix of, like, anger and sympathy and sadness and frustration. But I'm wondering if you kept journals at the time, during your parents' last years of their lives, and if those journals were illustrated and how much of what's in the book is work that you did at the time, that the writing and the images describe and how much of it was done in reflection, in retrospect.

CHAST: Well, the book really is a combination of a lot of different things. Some of the pages are cartoons that I did at the time. The cartoons, for instance, after the World Trade Centers were hit, those two cartoons I did right afterwards. And part of this is because I submit these groups of cartoons to The New Yorker, we call them batches, every week, so some of them I turned in as part of my weekly group of cartoons for the editors to look at, like the one with the, I think it was called "A Rare Sex Talk," where my mother is telling her theories about women and shoes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: And this - you know, one of her friends, who is well into her 80s, she always wears the highest heels, and she's always surrounded by men. My mother's theory was the higher the heel, the more available you were signaling that you were. So that cartoon was done years ago. There were a few in the book - "The Dirty Checkers" one, which my father - it was a combination of actually two different things, that he had told me that when he was a kid, he got this, like, terrible infection once from washing a set of dirty checkers, which just for some reason, I don't know, it just seemed, like, really funny to me, not, like, the infection part but just that - I don't know, like, the unlikelihood of getting an infection from washing dirty checkers. And...

GROSS: It makes the whole world a frightening place because if dirty checkers can nearly kill you, you can't really touch anything, can you?

CHAST: No, you can't. You would think that somehow the checkers - how dirty could they be?

GROSS: Really.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: You know, I mean, like, you know, were they dropped into, like, a latrine in the middle of, like, Calcutta? I mean, what are we talking about here? Anyway, that cartoon also combined the dirty checkers talk with once I was - we were sitting in the living room and he noticed our fireplace, and he suddenly went into some whole talk about, I can't remember who the writer was, but some disastrous - oh, about the avalanche and killing everybody because the people in the story are all sitting around a fireplace.

And he just associated our fireplace to this story where people are sitting, maybe it's Nathaniel Hawthorne, they're sitting around a fireplace talking about, you know, what are we going to do in the future. Oh, I don't know. Let's, maybe we'll do this, maybe we'll do that. Suddenly, like, an avalanche comes and kills them all.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: And he just was - you know, it was like that. He associated, you know, he always had that at the top of his mind, stories like that.

GROSS: Since it was so difficult for you to talk with your parents about facing death as they became much older, and death became nearer, and it was hard for them to talk about it, you hired an elder lawyer who you write specializes in the kinds of things you and your parents found it most difficult to discuss - death and money. Would they talk to the lawyer about things they wouldn't talk to you about?

CHAST: Amazingly, they did. I think, well, this person was really good, and I think he was able to put them at their ease, or not really at their ease, but to somehow make them trust him enough that they could open up a little bit about things that they really never wanted to open up about, like money and talking about, you know, the future.

And I was there with them when he came over, and we talked about things like, you know, health care proxy forms, things I had never thought about, had never heard of, you know. It was very, very helpful.

GROSS: So you were there while they talked with him.

CHAST: Yes, yes.

GROSS: You write that your mother was such a strong personality that neither your father nor you could persuade her to do anything that she didn't want to do, even when she was in a weakened state. Did that affect your confidence in your own ability to persuade anybody to do anything?

Since you couldn't persuade - since your mother kind of ruled the home and couldn't be persuaded by you, did you go through life thinking, well, maybe you can't persuade anybody, maybe as a mother you won't be able to persuade your children? Maybe you couldn't even train an animal. Do you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Oh, absolutely, yeah, totally, totally. I mean, I - I mean, that sort of sums it up to a T. I think I'm probably a pretty passive person.

GROSS: How did you deal with that as a mother?

CHAST: Well, at the beginning, I learned a lot, especially with my first kid. It's interesting because I felt like I had these two modes, and one was sort of ineffective screaming because I didn't have my mother's gift of terrorizing anybody.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: So it would just be, like, this insane person, sort of, like, mindlessly yelling, and I'm so angry that my toes are curling. You know, just, like, nonsensical kind of things.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Or I'm so angry I cannot speak, you know, just pointless, terrible. And - or total doormat, you know, where, like, do anything you want, I - and I realized that these were not effective parenting tools. And I actually read books. I read some books. I went to the library, and I don't read self-help books. I hate most of them. They seem to be written for morons. But I found a couple of parenting books that really did help me a lot.

GROSS: I was thinking about how your mother was an assistant principal in an era when, in my experience anyways, principals were kind of scary.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And they were the kinds of principals who could just, like, give you a look and, like, which just send chills down your spine.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Oh, that's absolutely true, and she had a terrible temper. She was a fearsome person, which is why when anybody tries to describe somebody to me, oh, she's a force of nature, I always think run the other way.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Leave the room, just back out quietly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Roz Chast. She was a famous New Yorker cartoonist and now she has a new memoir in cartoon form and it's called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" And it's about the last years of her parent's lives when they didn't want to talk about facing death and she had to deal with what were they going to do as they became unable to care for themselves, and then as her father died and then her mother. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Roz Chast, who's famous for her New Yorker cartoons. Now she has a new graphic memoir, a memoir told in cartoon form and it's called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" And it's about how she and her parents couldn't really face talking about old age when they reach that point and how they dealt together with the final years of her parents' lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You finally convinced your parents that they had to move from their Brooklyn apartment into assisted living. And they moved into an assisted living facility near you, so you were...

CHAST: Yes.

GROSS: ...Able to be a more active part of their lives. And it was a decent place. I mean, you shopped other places that you really didn't like, but it ended up being just really incredibly expensive. You know, talk a little bit about how the expenses mount up.

CHAST: Oh, God, it's - it's a complicated thing because on one hand, you just feel - I just felt so awful thinking about the money, but it was terrifying. There are so many expenses at the end of life that insurance doesn't touch. When a parent goes to assisted living, it's really expensive, and insurance doesn't pay for any of that. And if they have savings that they have sort of scrimped together, as my parents did, to see it sort of rushing out - I mean, my parents were born in 1912. They were - grew up in the Depression, or graduated from college into the Depression. They, you know, kept notebooks where they kept track of every nickel that they spent.And these habits, these habits of frugality from having grown up so poor, you know, to having graduated in the Depression had never left them. They were frugal. They were very careful about money. They, you know, used everything. I remember they would - my mother would take slivers of soap and put them in a washcloth and then sort of sew this little, like, soap bag out of the slivers of soap. She made a bathrobe out of towels that she, you know...

GROSS: Wow.

CHAST: ...Sewed together. I mean, just - to see all of that scrimping just sort of, like, a Niagara Falls of expense at the end, there's a kind of black comedy to it, too, that I could sort of see. Like, you know, there I am thinking (makes noises), but it's also, you know, oh my God, this is like $14,000 a month. And it's like I could've had that money. And then you just think, like, God I'm disgusting. I am, like, the most disgusting person in the world because at least, you know, they saved it and it's their money and it went to help take care of them.

GROSS: But you were afraid the money wouldn't last.

CHAST: Yes, that was...

GROSS: With good reason you were afraid of that.

CHAST: Right, yeah.

GROSS: And you talked...

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To some of the elder care people, and they said - I think at this point it might have ever been hospice people, I can't remember...

CHAST: Yes.

GROSS: And they said it's OK to talk to your mother about this...

CHAST: Oh yeah.

GROSS: ...About your concerns about, you know, money. So what did you want to talk with her about? What did you talk with her about?

CHAST: Oh, God, it was so - it was so terrible. It was just - this was at the very end. And I have no idea how much of this she understood, but, you know, I would say things to her like it was OK to let go. I mean, these are phrases that the hospice people teach you. You know, it's OK to let go. It's just bizarre. I mean, the whole thing is strange.

GROSS: But you told her that you were afraid you were going to run out of money?

CHAST: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What was her reaction to that? I mean, what was she supposed to do, say, well, I'll die now because (laughter)...?

CHAST: Yeah, I know, I know...

GROSS: ...We're running low.

CHAST: I know, yeah.

GROSS: It's like - it's such an impossible...

CHAST: It's impossible.

GROSS: That's a hard conversation.

CHAST: Well, she was - I think she was pretty much out of it by then. But there was a surprising amount of time. I mean, I don't know, maybe she did take it in. But it's terrifying how strong the instinct is to cling to life. I think that really spooked me, you know, thinking about it for myself, too, you know?

GROSS: Were you with your mother when she died?

CHAST: No. You know, there had been so many back-and-forths. And at the very end I got a call. I remember it was around 8:30 - or I can't remember when - it was in the evening. I got a call from the live-in aid that my mother was fading. She had gone into hospice for a second time and they had the oxygen tank in the room in case her breathing got labored. And so the aid called me and I drove there and I missed her death by maybe 10 minutes. She was still warm.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were you surprised by anything that you felt when she - when your mother did die? And she was what, 97?

CHAST: She was 97. I think it's just so surreal. Sorry. I think one thing about the night - that night that my mother died was, you know, when my father died, my mother was still alive. And I think when your second parent dies, there is that sort of shock, like oh man, I'm an orphan (laughter) you know? There's also this relief. It's like, it's done, it's finished, it's over because I had felt for so many years that there was this sort of sense of going through this whole passage, this whole last part of their lives and all the, you know, emotional and practical difficulties of that. And when my mother died, it was like, for the most part, it's over. Of course, it wasn't completely over because, you know, then there's all these other nonsense - excuse me, nonsense things you have to deal with. But basically, it was over.

GROSS: When a family member dies - like when a parent dies, especially after your second parent dies, you have to deal with the possessions that they left behind. And that's a really emotionally difficult thing to do because you're seeing all the stuff that brings back memories and then you're having to decide what do you want to keep, what do you want to throw away, what do you want to donate?

You had dealt with this I think before they died...

CHAST: Yes.

GROSS: ...Like, when they moved from their apartment into assisted living. And...

CHAST: Right.

GROSS: ...It looks from your illustrations that your parents would have been semifinalists on "Hoarders" (laughter).

CHAST: Oh yeah...

GROSS: They wouldn't...

CHAST: Oh yeah.

GROSS: ...Have made the final cut necessarily, but...

CHAST: Right.

GROSS: ...You know, they would've had a shot.

CHAST: Oh totally.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Roz Chast in the second half of the show. Her graphic memoir is called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" She's a cartoonist for the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last May with Roz Chast. She's been a cartoonist with the New Yorker since 1978. Her graphic memoir, illustrated with cartoons, photos and drawings is about her relationship with her parents in the final years of their lives. It's called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Her mother, who outlived her father, died at the age of 97 in 2009. When we left off, we were talking about dealing with all her parents' possessions after they died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of my favorite parts of your book, you have photographs of some of their stuff. You took all your mother's handbags and laid them out on the bed and it covers, like, the entire surface of the bed. And it's a queen or king-size bed (Laughter).

CHAST: Yeah. Yeah, it's a king-size bed (laughter).

GROSS: And I just had all these, like, memories of, like, my mother's handbags just seeing this. And then you took pictures of her eyeglasses, like, eyeglass frames from before your time, as she would put it.

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: And then a photograph of, like, what was in the medicine cabinet and a photograph of what was left over in the refrigerator. And then photographs of like desks and tabletops that just have like papers and stuff and magazines piled up, like, several feet high. Wow (laughter).

CHAST: Well, I - by the time my mother died, I had dealt with their possessions. There wasn't really much left. But when I moved them out of their apartment in which they'd lived for - from 1959 to, I guess, 2007...

GROSS: Four rooms.

CHAST: Four small rooms, yeah. They never threw anything away, and it was not like there was anything, quote, "valuable," unquote. It was mostly just, you know, old beat up luggage and typewriters and my father's old, you know, French textbooks - he was a French and Spanish teacher - and an old rexograph machine and, you know, bajillions of old bed slippers and umbrellas and shoes and towels, you know, where the nap was completely gone, just detritus of decades. And when I was going through the stuff, I would be in the apartment and I would think, well, OK, I want to keep this and I want to keep that. It was very surreal, very bizarre.

And then at a certain point it was like, I don't want anything. I want, like, the photo albums and a few things off the wall. And I started, like, putting stuff in garbage bags because I thought maybe I could do this myself. And I filled up a few of them and it was like I had not even, like, done 1 percent. And I just finally, I wound up paying the super to empty it. And it was horrible in some ways because I just couldn't make any more trips out to Brooklyn to go through their (bleep). It was just - I could not do it; I just had it. And sometimes I'm horrified when I look back on this. On other hand, I think about something a friend of mine who had gone through something similar said, which was that if you don't think your children will be interested, don't keep it. And he's absolutely right. I mean, I feel much more conscious of how much stuff I have now and what are my kids going to do with my stuff once I die. And, you know, do I want more stuff in my house? Like, not really.

GROSS: Did you feel this sense of futility? Like, your parents had saved and saved and saved things - in part because they were hoarders and in part because they were so frugal, having come of age during the Depression. And then they get sick and everything just gets put in Hefty bags and that's it.

CHAST: Oh totally. I mean, that's - maybe that's one of things that happens when your parents die. You start to - well, I use this word in my book that you see things - you see objects more like post-mortemistically (ph). And...

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I love - you made up that word, I think, post-mortemistically.

CHAST: Yes.

GROSS: But I really love that thought, like, what's going to happen to this after I die?

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: Is it worth having now?

CHAST: Yeah, yeah. And it doesn't mean that I've, like, become, you know, a Buddhist or anything like that. But you can't help but look at stuff differently. Like, I used to like to go to thrift shops and secondhand shops. And I still do, but not to the same extent because now I look at it, and a lot of times I look around and I think oh, dead people stuff. You know, this all came out of somebody cleaning out somebody's parents' apartment or house or whatever. And I didn't want it out of my parents' house, so why do I want it out of your parents' house?

GROSS: When your parents were younger, did they enjoy reading your New Yorker cartoons? Did they get them? Did they ever try to talk you out of them or explain why your cartoons were not funny?

CHAST: (Laughter) They didn't try to talk me out of doing them, but I think that my sense of humor was not their sense of humor. They liked jokes. You know, they liked, like, you know, Henny Youngman. And my mother liked to tell jokes with a punch line. You know, a woman goes to the doctor, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and then punch line. And, you know, there's a lot of things that I find funny that they probably would not find funny. Like, I love "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and I love "South Park" and, you know, I don't think that they would necessarily find that funny.

GROSS: Did they criticize your cartoons?

CHAST: They didn't criticize them, although my father used to carry around this cartoon in his wallet, which was not mine. It was - I don't know who did it. It was in Saturday Review, and it was a guy sitting, lying on his psychiatrist's couch and the gag line was I feel inadequate because I don't understand the cartoons in the New Yorker.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAST: And, you know, at the drop of a hat, he would pull that out and show it to people. So I think this was their way of telling me that they were very proud of me. They were very, very, very proud to have a daughter whose cartoons were in the New Yorker, but that they didn't really understand them. And then, of course, as they got older, there were references that they had no idea what I was talking about, yeah.

GROSS: You know, when I think about how old your parents were, like, they were born before World War I.

CHAST: Yes. My mother remembers the troops coming home from World War I.

GROSS: Wow, that's just so long ago.

CHAST: I know.

GROSS: And so much was invented during their lifetime - like, they lived almost throughout the entire 20th century.

CHAST: Absolutely. I mean, they lived through both World Wars and the Depression and learning about the Holocaust and, you know, just everything that happened is astonishing, really. That they did as well as they did, you know, considering what they came from. You know, first-generation Americans growing up really poor with parents that didn't speak English. My mother's mother, when she first saw a television, thought that the people - in fact, not just the first time, but I think for a little while - she thought that people on the TV could see her. And she wouldn't, you know, be, like, in her underwear in front of them.

GROSS: There's one more thing I want you to read from your graphic memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?", about the last years of your parents' life and what that was like for you. And this is called "Gallant and Goofus: The Daughter Caretaker Edition." And there's two columns, one in which you're wearing a halo and you're the kind of good, angelic daughter. And the other is where you have devil's horns and you're the kind of grudging daughter. Would you read that for us?

CHAST: OK. When I was a kid, I subscribed for a few years to a magazine called Highlights for Children, which many people only know from being in the dentist's office. But it was sort of quasi-educational in a way. And it had these various features, one of which was "Goofus and Gallant," which was about a boy who was about 8 or 10 years old. And Goofus was always kind of, like, the bad kid, the selfish kid. And Gallant was the good boy. So I was sort of fascinated with this page. But anyway, so this is my version of it - "Gallant and Goofus: The Daughter Caretaker Edition." I'll read Gallant first and then go to Goofus. So -

(Reading) Gallant has forgiven her parents for all the transgressions of her youth, which she now knows were committed out of love. Goofus is still seething with resentment about crap that happened 40 years ago. Gallant treasures the time spent with her parents because she knows that soon they'll be gone. Goofus mostly when with her aged parents, wishes that she were somewhere else.

Gallant doesn't worry about the money because if it runs out, she would be thrilled to have them come live with her. Goofus - the idea of her parents living under her roof makes her want to lie down and take a very, very, very, very, very, very long nap.

GROSS: So where do you fit in the scale between Gallant and Goofus?

CHAST: I think I kind of ricocheted between both of them. I tried to be Gallant, but very often I felt that I was being very Goofusy.

GROSS: Well, Roz Chast, thank you so much for talking with us about your book and about your late parents. I really appreciate it.

CHAST: Well, thank you, Terry. Great to talk to you.

GROSS: Roz Chast is a New Yorker cartoonist. Her new graphic memoir, which includes cartoons, sketches, and photos, is called "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" You'll find an excerpt on our website - freshair.npr.org.

Our interview was recorded last May, after the book was published. Coming up, our holiday week series continues with Louis C.K. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.