Thursday, August 17, 2017

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

Think back to the last book you read that featured aged or elderly main characters.  How were they portrayed?  Perhaps there was a doting and docile grandmother, knitting something and sitting in her rocking chair?  Maybe there was a grandfather, telling stories to anyone who would listen.  How were their lives portrayed?  What meaning did they have?  Often, the aged aren't given a lot of agency in their own lives - whether because of being patronized by younger generations or no longer being able to live independently - which imbues them with childishness.  What illustrator and author Roz Chast has done, to brilliant effect, in her graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant is present her elderly parents as fully-formed, complicated, human beings.  Here, there is no stereotyping and no shying away from the realities of life - for her and her parents - as they navigate what will be their final years together.

Roz was born in Brooklyn, to parents who were much older than her friends' parents.  Her parents were the children of immigrants, who came to America with nothing and lived tremendously difficult, bitter, tragic lives.  They met in elementary school, never dated anyone else but each other, and were completely co-dependent for the entirety of their marriage.  Chast often brings up how she felt like an outsider in their family.  As an only child, it was just her and her parents, and she felt like the third wheel in that relationship instead of a valued member of the family.  Interspersed between the illustrations are facsimiles of some family photos; in almost none of them is Chast smiling.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was domineering and angry, often giving "a blast from Chast" to anyone who upset her.  She was the assistant principal in an elementary school most of her life, and was perfectly suited to that authoritative role which allowed her to tell other people what to do.  She was a rigid perfectionist.  She was a classically-trained pianist and writer of poetry, but not what you might call a nurturer.  Late in the book, Elizabeth relates a story that Roz had completely blocked from her memory - as a very young child, Roz wandered away from her mother in a department store once and, when the frantic Elizabeth found her, she beat Roz violently.  Elizabeth expressed some remorse at her behavior only now, which was many decades after the event happened.  Needless to say, they did not share an idyllic mother-daughter relationship, or have much of a relationship at all.  She did, however, treasure her relationship with her father, George.  George, a high school teacher, was very similar to Roz in personality and temperament.  They were both only children, given to anxiety, ambivalent about many things, and lovers of language.  He wasn't good at fixing things, or making decisions about anything.  Her father never was able to stand up to Elizabeth during her rages, but Roz knew that he cared for her very much.

The story's plot involves her parents' decline, from old age and assorted health issues, and how the characters cope.  Spoiler alert - not very well.  At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth and George are in their late 80's and still living in the same "deep Brooklyn" (Flatiron) apartment where they spent their entire married lives.  They had piles of papers and magazines everywhere, and an entire life's worth of stuff hoarded into this small apartment.  Where they had once been fastidious, they were now too frail and proud to be concerned with tidying up or letting anyone else do it for them.

After trying to use a step-stool to get into a tall closet, Roz's mother experiences a bad fall, causing her a lot of pain.  Her father calls Roz, who is living with her own family in Connecticut, asking for help because Elizabeth was obviously in pain but being too stubborn to admit that she needed to go to the hospital.  It was only after the pain was too severe for her, even when just laying in bed, that she let George, who didn't drive, call an ambulance to take them.

She drove out to the hospital to be with her parents then, when her mother was finally admitted, she and her father drove back to the apartment, then they both went back to her house in Connecticut.  George was in the middle stages of senile dementia, and had trouble with his short-term memory.  He was forgetful about things, and had difficulty with tasks like how to open a bag of breakfast cereal.  He would ask Roz where Elizabeth was, and each time was shocked when she told him that his wife was in the hospital.  During all of this, Roz was racked with guilt about what she could have done, if she's being a terrible daughter, what she should do, and how she could possibly deal with this.

It's at this point that there is a shift in the distinction between who's the "parent" and who is the "child".  She had to be in charge of all her parents' major life decisions, from their living situation to their medications, from their insurance to their finances.  When her mother was at last discharged from the hospital, Roz at first wanted to believe that they were ok back in Brooklyn.  There were neighbors who were willing to help out, it was a long trip back and forth to Connecticut, and her parents were driving her bonkers.  But these were just excuses, and she knew it.  They were frail, they weren't leaving the apartment, and Elizabeth refused to wear her Life Alert pendant because she was afraid of having to go back into hospital.  This compounded in Roz the feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and worry.  Although her mother fought kicking and screaming all the way, Roz  found a qualified assisted-living facility 10 minutes away from her home, and they were placed there.  In fact, they all referred to it as "The Place".

An entire section of the book is devoted to the process of cleaning out her parents' apartment.  Not only are scenes drawn, but Roz also includes copies of photographs, showing the collection of handbags, razors, writing implements, and books/papers that had accumulated.  It's mind-boggling just how much can be crammed into a small apartment over decades and decades.  It actually felt like an episode of the TV show "Hoarders" because there were drawers containing jar lids, empty egg cartons left in the fridge, and kitchen appliances that had long-since stopped working but were still on the counter - just in case.

The Place was about a home-like as could be expected for assisted living.  There were norms that Roz's parents bristled at, including unofficial "assigned seating" at mealtimes and door decorations on the front door of the apartments.  They were a unit, George and Elizabeth, and weren't interested in making friends or getting involved in groups or activities.  Elizabeth was still very weak from her hospitalization, and how needed a walker to get around.  But, their personalities hadn't changed one bit, especially Elizabeth's bossiness, which made them somewhat unpopular with the other residents.  They resented the rules and the forced socialization, and complained of feeling like inmates in The Place.

When George had a bad fall, after getting up from the sofa in their apartment, and was rushed to the hospital, thing began to deteriorate quickly.  He was eventually transferred to a nursing home, then back to The Place when he began hospice care.  George died in 2007.  Elizabeth lived in The Place, with extra hired nursing assistance and, eventually, hospice, until she passed away in 2009.

While Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant explores the aging process, it also focuses on the caregivers.  Being responsible for the well-being of aging family members comes at a great cost.  First, there's the financial cost - housing, food, living, and medical bills.  All of this costs money, which isn't something that you are really prepared to deal with until you're confronted with it head on.  Roz's parents had saved a sizable amount of money over their lives, but the cost of their care was eroding it quickly.  Then, there's the emotional cost.  It's not easy to be the child in the family, and then suddenly have to be the parent.  Assuming that role opens up the potential for resentment and anger on the part of the aged, who -for any number of reasons- don't want to admit that they need assistance with basic needs.  It's not uncommon for stress and anxiety to build up, to the point that the caretaker can easily become burnt out.

I actively sought out this book, because it's subject matter is relevant to my situation at current.  It's not my parents who are near the end of their lives, as was the case with Roz, but it's my grandmother.  Born during the great depression, she married a WW2 veteran right after high school, was a homemaker, and raised two sons - my father and his brother - before being widowed in the 1970's.  At 85, she's been suffering from some chronic health problems that are becoming more serious, including infections and dementia.  She has poor vision, but refuses to wear corrective lenses.  Because of this, she is unable to bathe properly or maintain her home.  She leaves burners on because she can't see the flames and just assumes they're turned off.  She can't drive, and is dependent on my father (my uncle lives many hours away) for just about everything.  Within the past 2 years, it's become painfully obvious that she is unable to live on her own, because it's unsafe and unsanitary.

The scenario that Roz illustrates about her parents being in The Place is instantly recognizable in that of my grandmother being moved to her senior community.  It's not even assisted living, technically, but an apartment complex geared specifically towards those over 55.  However, she was absolutely resistant to the idea.  She complains that she feels like a prisoner there.  Yet, there are plentiful activities, social groups, religious services, and off-site activities (with transportation) which she simply refuses to join.  She hasn't fallen, but there have been emergency situations where she's had to go into hospital, and just like Roz's mother, she wants nothing to do with them.  She refuses to follow medical advice, and then complains that she doesn't feel well.  All of this is especially taxing on my father, who is her primary caretaker.  He is the quintessential dutiful son, and has gone to great lengths to make sure that my grandmother is well cared for.  However, just like Roz, he gets burnt out.  He's got a great support system in myself and his wife, but another thing that helps is just to remember to laugh when you can.

My grandmother's dementia makes conversation a bit frustrating, like when she was convinced that the staff at her apartment complex were stealing from her (they weren't), but sometimes it makes her stories - and she's always been a storyteller - hilariously bizarre.  Oh how I wish I had written down some of the things that she's said.  One of her favorite phrases was that her side of the family were "good, German, peasant stock".  That's why it made me laugh when I read about Elizabeth saying "I'm built like a peasant".  Even though Roz's parents were the same age as my grandmother's parents, they were incredibly similar in their outlook and the things they would say.

Overall, it was really helpful reading Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant.  It's helpful to know that what you're experiencing isn't unusual or strange.  It's beneficial to see other people struggling with the same things as you, even if those things are really difficult.  The aging/dying process is generally something that our Western society avoids at all costs, so it was helpful to get a realistic representation of aging in a wider context, like literature.

There is a tremendously raw honesty and truth to what Roz Chast presents in Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant.  There's no sugarcoating or averting one's gaze from the aging process, and just how treacherous it can be to those who are the most vulnerable.  Roz is a dutiful daughter who, after many years of avoiding her parents, takes on the critical responsibility of caretaker for them in their last years.  There is also a warning in here, for those of us who aren't yet in our "golden years" - be prepared.  Have those difficult conversations about what you want your last years to be like.  Plan and prepare, setting aside as much money as you can, so that you can maintain a good quality of life for you and your loved ones.  This is advice for all of us to heed, which we can hopefully do with the humility and hilarity that Roz Chast has done.