If you’re under, oh, 40 or 50, Roz Chast’s graphic novel will seem like a story from an alternative dimension… like a love story looks when you’re nine. But this will all happen to you, pal.
It’s about the last years of Chast’s parents, and having lost both of mine in the last three years, I recognized everything.
There’s kind of a secret fraternity of those who have taken care of elderly parents. You watch them tootling through their 80s, a little less vigorous, a little hard of hearing, but still happy and active. Then something happens. They can do less and less. They don’t take care of their home as well as they used to. They start getting weak and then positively fragile. There are emergencies with falls and sudden hospital stays.
Step by step the old relationship reverses, till you are taking care of them. And making decisions nothing has prepared you for: are they insisting on driving when they can’t, do they need help in their home, do they need to move out, is anyone making sure they bathe, what if scammers call them on the phone…
Oh, scammers. One day my sister came to Dad’s house and he wasn’t there. This was extremely disconcerting as he used a walker and simply walking to the kitchen was a big thing for him. He had written a phone number on a piece of paper in the den; I Googled it and found it was a taxi company. We called the company and he had taken a taxi to Walgreens.
Well, he showed up back at the house soon enough, and my sister got the whole story. Someone had called and told him he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars. To get it, he just had to send a money card (available at Walgreens) to an address in Nevada, because reasons. They told him not to tell his kids— it should be a surprise!
Fortunately, the clerk at Walgreens was on the ball; he told my Dad it was a scam, and he came home. He was a little embarrassed, though not as much as when he dropped his cranberry juice and one of us had to clean it up.
Point is, you take care of them out of affection and need, yes, and death is horrible and tragic and pathetic, but they’re also exasperating, weird, and sometimes hilarious.
This is all in Chast. I don’t know what you might expect in a memoir about death— it’s occasionally sad or gruesome— but there’s plenty of humor and personal eccentricity. You get to know Chast’s parents, and learn exactly how they drive Roz bats.
When Chast’s cartoons started appearing in the New Yorker, I didn’t like them. They seemed weird and humorless. Eventually I came around. It might have been this cartoon that did it:
Chast has a very dry sense of humor, with an occasional dash of surrealism. Her characters are typically urban, quotidian and a little neurotic, sitting around small living rooms on couches with antimacassars on top… after reading her memoir, I can see her parents and their Brooklyn apartment in her cartoons.
In form, her book is a mixture of comics, text, and a few photos. She’s managed something that many have tried with far less success: moving easily between cartoons and text. The key may be that the text is handwritten, and never too long. Blocks of typesetting are jarring in a comic. At the same time, many comics artists try to keep everything in comics, and that doesn’t work, because six or twenty panels of the same thing are boring.
If you’re young, with no elderly relatives around, I have no idea what the book will be like for you. So check it out to learn what this alternative dimension is like, or come back in ten years…