Humanity’s oldest dream turns out to be Roz Chast’s worst nightmare.
“Imagine some horrible dystopian future, some 50 years from now, where people just stop dying,” she says, sitting in her living room in quaint, rural Connecticut, surrounded by pastel-colored walls, books and colorful knickknacks. “They’re 98, they’re 102, they’re 107, they’re 112” — the voice of the 59-year-old staff cartoonist for the New Yorker grows louder with every number — “and they get weaker and more decrepit and their bones are breaking and they’re non compos mentis, and yet they’re still alive.” She considers the thought a bit longer: “And it costs a fortune to keep them alive. It’s like, well, we can’t put a pillow over their head, we can’t starve them.” After a short pause, she adds: “It’s kind of funny, I have to admit, there’s an aspect to it that it could be a really good black comedy.” Her voice changes again, this time imitating a movie announcer: “‘The thing that wouldn’t die’ — except the thing is us.”
When Chast, who has sleek blond hair, round, horn-rimmed glasses, and a sly smile, talks about this scenario, she is speaking from experience. Her parents George and Elizabeth Chast died in 2007 and 2009, at the ages of 95 and 97, respectively. In her newly published graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” she reflects on what she calls “the journey we took into the last part of their life,” i.e. her parents’ process of aging and dying and their relationship to their only child. It is witty, moving and honest, and critically questions how our society deals with death while lovingly and respectfully memorializing Chast’s parents.
In March, the New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff published his cartoon-filled autobiography “How About Never — Is Never Good For You?” which focuses on the psychology of humor and the inner workings of the prestigious magazine’s cartoon department. The two books share the same loose format of their work — a combination of cartoons, photographs and pages of text, in Chast’s case handwritten — and both engage with their authors’ Jewish heritage. Both books make you nod in agreement, then giggle. Chast’s work also makes you cry.
“Nobody told me about this,” is a sentence Chast says several times while we talk. It comes up when she explains how she realized that death can be a long, drawn-out process. In her book, there is a cartoon about Old Mrs. McGillicuddy, which depicts what Chast thought death was like. “One day, old Mrs. McGillicuddy, she was very, very old and she didn’t feel very well, so she took to her bed,” Chast says, again inflecting her voice to describe the cartoon. “And the second panel is, ‘she was in bed, getting weaker and weaker for about four weeks.’ And the last panel is, ‘and then she developed something called a death rattle, and then she died. The end.’”
That, says Chast, might be how dying happened in the 19th century, but today many elderly people continue living in a state of limbo — that second panel — for years. Her mother was frail and mostly bedridden for more than two years. “It’s terrifying,” Chast says. “It’s not necessarily that great for the person either. They don’t know why they are still alive.”
Another thing nobody told Chast about was the cost and administrative effort involved in eldercare. It was in late December 2005 when her mother, then 93, a former assistant principal in an elementary school, fell off a stepladder and was taken to hospital. Realizing that her parents were unable to live on their own anymore, Chast started looking for an assisted living place for the her parents. Her learning curve was steep: “Get a good elder lawyer,” she advises, “if you don’t know what power of attorney or health care proxy is.” Chast’s book deals openly with the costs of eldercare; she paid up to $14,000 a month for her mother’s caretaking in an assisted living place in Connecticut near her daughter’s house — none of which was covered by insurance because her parents’ health plan only worked in New York.
That “stew of pity and love and resentment and bewilderment and worrying about money” would have driven her crazy, says Chast, had it not been for the support she received from her husband and the letters and emails she wrote to her friends. “When your parents are dying it’s not like a baby, where people want to come over and play with the baby. Somebody comes over and brings you a little onesie or stretchy,” she says. “What are they going to do — bring Depends? Or a case of Ensure?”
Chast, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, published her first cartoon in the New Yorker in 1978. Her work is often absurd, and frequently depicts domestic scenes and the issue of anxiety — which both Chast and her father, a teacher, struggled with Her mother, on the other hand, is described as dominant. A stereotypical Jewish family constellation? Maybe, she says, “but it’s true.” Neither of her parents, however, were big on religious belief or ritual. One cartoon depicts her parents’ refusal to discuss religion and shows her mother telling a young Roz: “I’m Jewish. Daddy is Jewish. You’re Jewish. End of story.” Later in her life, Chast recalls, her mother would light Shabbos candles. Her father loved traditional Jewish food such as gefilte fish and lox. (“He also bought ham at the deli — but never pork chops. Pork chops — no, ham — okay.”) Chast herself says she’s occasionally envious of the strong faith of religious people: “They feel like they die and they get to be with God. And they don’t have any doubt about that.”
Don’t get Chast’s predilection for morbid topics wrong, though: “I would love to live to a 150 if I was like I am now,” she says. Then she pulls back her cheeks. “Well, maybe a few years younger.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern.