Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week, she reviews cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic memoir of caring for her elderly parents.
Imagine, though you may not want to, a book that explores the pain and tragedy of caring for your aging parents. Imagine that the author describes much of the quotidian drudgery and the agony of ambivalence that caregivers are subjected to. Also, visualize the parents’ decline, how they are forced to give up the places, people, and things they love, while their health and faculties fail.
Impossibly, yet not surprisingly, the cartoonist Roz Chast has done all this while managing to make her graphic memoir poignantly hilarious. Chast, in my opinion the foremost cartoonist of her generation, was born in Brooklyn in 1954. As an only child, she grew up under the watchful eyes of her fearful (and sometimes phobic) father and dominating mother. Along the way she developed her own set of nervous quirks, which she has lampooned gently but insistently over her many decades as a contributor to The New Yorker and in her own collections. She has a truly original style, and an inimitable way of looking at life’s losers and losses with humor and affection.
In this book, Chast turns her considerable talents to the subject of her parents’ final years. “Listen in on a group of middle-aged children of the elderly, and you’ll hear that even the most casual mention of aging parents is likely to open up a Pandora’s box of anxieties,” says Lillian Rubin, author of 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in the Twenty-First Century. “These are stories told with tears.” Not so for Chast, though as an only child, the full burden of her parents’ care fell on her. Despite the fact that through her childhood and beyond her mother and father seemed more interested in each other than in her, she rose to the occasion. Chast, telling this tale through text and cartoons, displays considerable honesty about her ambivalence and conflicts about this most painful of transitions.
Her mother, it seems, was a particularly “difficult” woman. Overbearing and negative at the best of times, like most old people she did not “soften” when confronted with the challenges of aging, loss, and illness. Chast’s father died first, and she was left alone to care for her mother, as well as managing all the complicated details of both parents’ lives. The scenes of the random stuff accumulated in their closets (they were hoarders) are among the best—vintage “Roz Chast,” whose work has always been particularly acute when depicting people’s neurotic foibles. This book makes it more than clear how she came to understand these things so well.
Chast is dead honest about some of darker sides of this process, including the sad decline in her parents’ health and all the attendant loss of dignity. She is also very open about her own feelings, including ambivalence, impatience, anger, grief, and guilt. She agonizes over how much time she should be spending at “the Place,” which is what her parents called the assisted living home. She is relieved that her mother finds a caretaker who can tolerate her negativity, stubbornness, and verbal abuse, freeing Chast up to work. She worries that their money will run out and she will wind up footing the bill. She wishes, at times, that it would all be over. And then she feels terrible about feelings these things.
No one who has been through this has not felt these things. The baby-boom generation has frequently been cited as the one that is saddled with aging parents and college-age children at the same time. According to Rubin, many middle-aged adults now spend even more years caring for their aging parents than they spend raising their own children. The emotional stress of these dual roles, as well as the costs, is very hard on families. Add to that the fact that losing a parent causes a painful rehashing of old issues, though much of it may be unspoken. For most of us, the impending loss of a parent brings up unresolved wounds and wishes.
Chast includes in the book a very poignant scene at her mother’s bedside. The old woman is clearly days from death and Chast tries to have a “final conversation” with her, and tells her she wishes they could have been “better friends.” Her mother is characteristically unresponsive, though she does ask if this “worries” Chast. Then, when she asks her mother if she should stay or go, she replies, “It doesn’t matter.” The daughter concluded that “it was time to go.”
Somehow these scenes, rendered in Chast’s squiggly hand, are able to spark great empathy in the reader toward both of them. You see how the daughter has to come to accept that her hope for a different kind of relationship with her mother is finally at an end. As for her mother, she has been portrayed with such precision yet affectionate tolerance throughout that you are able to understand how deeply Chast loved this woman whose limitations created a prison for herself and those around her her whole life. She was herself to the end.