I’ve never read a graphic novel, although I frequently pass by them in local independent book stores. Today, however, I will buy the book and explore this new-to-me genre, really a graphic memoir, because I love Roz Chast. More personally, however, I am deeply involved, by choice, with supporting and occasionally caring for aging parents. As Chast shares her experiences and challenges, doing so with humor and pain, I recognize much of what she depicts.
This cartoonist’s elegant work, mostly in the New Yorker, is synonymous with tongue-in-cheek observation. No matter what topic Roz Chast chooses to illustrate, a viewer laughs and thinks, though not necessarily in that order.
Many years ago, right after my daughter left for college, she left behind dozens of shampoos, a result of her quest to find one that would give her the perfect hair. I discovered Chast right about that time when I saw her New Yorker cartoon The Tragedy of Prosperity. I figured that she too must have a teenage daughter (OK, I’ll admit that I bought some of that shampoo.)
A framed and matted enlargement of The Tragedy of Prosperity (purchased and framed at the NewYorker.com store), depicting hundreds of shampoo and conditioner containers, now hangs in my bathroom — a daily reminder, yes, of prosperity and too much shampoo, but also a reminder of how much I miss my now grown-up daughter. That’s the beauty of Chast’s cartoons — they zap your brain, making it mull things over in two directions at the same time.
So a month or so ago, after I saw her initial aging parents cartoons in The New Yorker, I realized immediately, before even getting to the part about her graphic novel, that Chast, at some point, served as a supporter to her aging parents, both of whom lived together long into elderhood and who did not like that they were increasingly dependent on others, including their daughter. While these cartoons almost sear the heart — especially if you have ever been a part of a caretaking team — they offer second and third messages showing viewers how hard it is to find ways to ensure as much independence as possible for a fragile aging elder or any person who copes with decline during a terminal illness.
When you are helping aging parents, plenty of interactions hurt feelings and later, sometimes much later, make us laugh. Occasional comments (ours and theirs) frustrate us when we first hear them, but later leave us both amused. In the midst of aging parent support events you often wish to share with others, but the incidents seem just too personal or private. So you set aside these events or write them down for later when a memory, thought, or incident is what you need as a balm to cope with losing much-loved parents. This is what Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is all about, although Chast waited long after her parents died to write or at least publish the book, I expect because the memories needed time to settle.
But the long-term meaning of Roz Chast’s aging parent cartoons — I’ll post a few more thoughts about the book soon — has to do with the need to identify ways to make it clear to our aging parents that their lives remain significant — and still their own — even as they continue to grow more dependent. Right now society has a lot of trouble with that. Perhaps we adult children can help society along by thinking about these cartoons, not just as the experiences of our parents, but also as depictions of what’s to come in our own lives.
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