Non-fiction about aging parents is its own genre, as the baby boomers go not gentle into that good night and their writing children and graphic-novel-inking children are writing and inking about it big time, realizing with shock and horror that we ourselves are on the inevitable conveyor belt.
Caring for aging parents is one of the things they don’t teach much in college. I thought— and I don’t truck much with fairytale thinking, my wheelhouse is of the Did You Do The Laundry? variety — but I really thought it would never happen to me. At Smith as an English major the only class that I took that was in any way applicable to my current situation was Invertebrate Zoology.
Enter into this anxious primordial soup of emotions that is elder care with The New Yorker Magazine cartoonist Roz Chast. Her memoir in cartoons of the last years of her parents’ lives, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, captures the bittersweet awfulness of watching your parents age and sicken and emit the smell of fruit too long in the fruit bowl.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a hard read, knifing as it does along the bone of my own experience, but it’s also soo freaking funny. The way Chast draws herself: hair sticking out in all directions, mouth a Scream “O” is exactly how I felt at the Lamp Emporium helping my parents get their broken millions of small table lamps fixed, all wired like Frankensteins, relics from some godawful Great Aunt Dithering, but somehow now of great sentimental value.
Yes, we are living longer, but we are living longer, sicker, warehoused in “homes” on multiple prescriptions. This is living? This what our culture does to its Elders? Real Life is rampant, sick, sci-fi, horror-humor.
Take for instance the Chast’s “Crazy Closet.” So rat-packed with stuff it is a surreal time capsule of human history since between the wars. If your parents are anything like mine “Crazy Closet” rings a crazy bell. My mother has a closet crammed to inoperability with puffed sleeve Liberty dresses so popular in the early 80s. And when I say “crammed” I hope I convey to you that they are also in the pantry, with the cans. Let’s not even discuss the pocketbooks. Or the word “pleather.”
She says she is going to make them into throw pillows. Patchwork Liberty dress pocketbook pleather throw pillows, for the love of god. But what can a Good Daughter say?
Chast often draws herself like this, with a little half-assed halo. The drawing says what I want to say to my parents, I want to do right by you. You, who stayed up through the night for my asthma attacks and, later, for my panic attacks. You, who have remembered my every birthday.
But it’s complicated. I hope we can keep laughing. But sometimes our laughter sounds more like a wound-up little hysterical expression of breath like you make when you cut your finger, and it turns out not to be a superficial thing, but something that, when it heals, scars.
Coming this fall, we’ll be launching a new site devoted to comics: Panels. You can sign up here to get notified about when Panels goes live, and it already has its own Twitter and Facebook up and running.