Ron Chast’s graphic memoir about her parents’ old age and death is about as blunt and straightforward as a book can get. This is not a criticism: the book, though fraught with descriptions of many things most of us do not want to think about, is compulsively readable. Chast’s bluntness is what makes this memoir so powerful. There is no sugarcoating. Her parents age, their bodies weaken, they become senile, she takes care of them, they deteriorate, they die. I don’t mean to sound crass. There’s a lot of emotion in the book. Chast explores her relationship with both her parents, as well as her own complicated feelings about being a caregiver. There’s anger and tenderness and resentment and love.
But what makes the book so good is that it isn’t really a book about grief. Grief plays a part, for sure, but the main focus of the book is something else: the particulars of old age and the particulars of caregiving. Chast writes about all her parents’ maladies, their sores and sicknesses, the indignities of age. She writes about how much she resents visiting them, and how exhausting it is to take care of them. She writes about feeling guilty for not seeing them more often. She describes hospital visits, cleaning out her parents’ apartment, and searching for somewhere for them to live when they can no longer manage on their own.
Chast writes about all the things we’d rather not have to look at–the mechanics of death and dying. There’s a poignant scene where she and her parents sit down with a lawyer to discuss wills, estates, etc. In another scene, near the very end of her mother’s life, Chast describes shopping for bedpans and diapers and nutritional supplements–the realities of her mother’s life, but not realities often examined or acknowledged in literature.
I was especially moved by the matter-of-fact way she addressed the huge financial burden she assumed when her parents went into assisted living. She worries about money constantly. She explicitly details all the things her parents need, the things their health care does not cover, and how much it’s costing her, and how angry it makes her. She puts this so bluntly: after her father dies, her mother’s condition worsens quickly, requiring many expensive aides, nurses, and services. How long, Chast wonders, can her mother hang on? Will the money run out before she dies? It sounds cruel, perhaps, but this is a truth that so many people are forced to reckon with. Our culture is not set up to deal with old age and death, and Chast’s memoir is an honest account of what that actually means.
It sounds depressing, and there were moments when I wanted to look away from the book. But Chast never comes across as callous or uncaring. There are some beautiful moments of connection between her parents and her parents, despite their complicated and not-always-friendly relationship. Her depth of feeling comes though, and I think it’s because of her unflinching honesty. She examines all of her emotions, even the ones she’s ashamed to have. The result is a remarkable account of something commonplace (old age and dying) that is rarely talked about.
The book is also a full and fascinating portrait of her parents as people– their 60+ years of marriage, their Russian Jewish heritage, their teaching careers, their quirks, and, of course, their relationship with their daughter, both the good and the bad.
I haven’t read any of her other books or comics, but her illustration style felt so perfect for this story. It had a classic cartoony feel that matched the straightforwardness of the text. The art felt as blunt and honest as the words. It was intimate, but also made me instinctively trust the narrative. I also loved the addition of photographs.
Though vastly different, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? raised many of the same questions as the wonderful Being Mortal. Namely, if we never talk about the one thing that, in one way or another, is going to happen to all of us, how can we ever hope to grapple with it? Both books seem to come to the same conclusion: it’s time to start talking, and not about something more pleasant.