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Roz Chast And The Grim Reaper

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I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club Read, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

Here on the High Plains, many of us have been reading Chast’s cartoon memoir as part of this fall’s book club theme on “death and dying.”

I called this a “cartoon memoir,” but that’s because I’m not sure what else to call it. Perhaps a “graphic memoir.” Regardless, it’s an important book in its way—in fact, the National Book Foundation deemed it important enough to short-list it for a National Book Award in 2014. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast brings her famous blend of quirkiness and wry humor, mixed with her scribbly drawings, to the weighty subject of the loss of her own parents.

At first blush, approaching the subject of death in what is essentially a very long comic strip may seem a bit strange. But in fact, I found the opposite to be true. Chast’s cartoons make the subject more familiar, more comfortable, and certainly easier to digest.

Chast is a truly funny woman, but not in a try-hard way. The book comes off as a compassionate and earnest look at a hard period in the author’s life, and the humor that bubbles up through these pages is effortless and organic.

What makes the book truly memorable, above all, is Chast’s honesty. Like most of us, Chast was not raised in an ideal environment. Her parents, Elizabeth and George Chast, were neurotic hoarders in Brooklyn, New York, and their love for their only daughter was of the distant and intermittent variety. Her mother Elizabeth refused to be wrong about anything, and George was a wilting flower. I was most struck when Chast admitted that she always had the sense that her parents were just waiting for their daughter to grow up and move out, so they could be alone together once again, as they had been before she came along and ruined their peace. Photographs of Chast in her adolescence reveal a sour-faced child, a girl who has already reached middle age and is just waiting for her body to catch up.

After Chast finally did grow up and move to Connecticut to start a family of her own, she never returned to Brooklyn—until later, that is, as we shall see. Her parents came out to visit her on occasion, but beyond that Roz left her parents to their own devices, in their musty old apartment in the deepest and most forgotten part of Brooklyn. But, all too soon, Chast’s parents reached their 90s and grew increasingly unable to take care of themselves. There were falls and injuries. Roz began trekking regularly into Brooklyn to spend time with her cantankerous parents. Eventually, she was forced to move them into an assisted living home in Connecticut.

Chast’s book doesn’t shy away from any of the grim details, whether she’s laying out the stunning financial toll of trying to house two elderly people in a facility that provides 24-hour care or offering up the bleak particulars of what happened to her parents’ bodies in their final days. But the journey, while sobering, ultimately proves enlightening and even meditative.     

With its irrepressible humor, Chast’s book is a much-needed guide to the process many of us will likely face, sooner or later, of shepherding our parents into the next world. But it’s the specificity of the details, ironically, that makes Chast’s story feel universal. In their grumpiness, their quirks, their oddities and eccentricities, Chast’s parents somehow become all of our parents. And Chast, her resilience interspersed by stress and tantrums, becomes all of us. If you’re worried about what lies ahead for your own loved ones, and you want to feel like you have a friend on the lonely road toward hospice and end-of-life care, you could do a lot worse than joining Roz Chast on her journey.