Yes, death. While 100 percent of us will make this crossing at some point, it remains the greatest conversational taboo. The closest most people come to discussing the end of their lives is estate planning — and even that important topic, often reluctantly.
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, however, not only tackles dying head-on, she does so with a humor and humility that make Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, her graphic memoir about her parents’ decline into old age and death, an astonishing read filled with more beauty than pathos, poignant yet positive. It puts a highly personal face on what caregiving looks like, and as we visited this topic last month, Chast’s memoir is a timely sequel.
With aging and dying all around us, it should not be as surprising as it appears to be when it’s our turn to face the music. As John Updike wrote, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Yet we sweep such discussions away like annoying insects. As Chast states at the start of her fascinating foray into the last banned discourse, “It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death…”
Yet she feels compelled to become more involved in their lives as they enter their 90s, and her artistic wit takes us deeper into what feels like our own parents’ elderhood: “Things were going downhill, but for many years, the decline was blessedly gradual.” (Accompanied by an image of her folks sitting in a couch on skis, gliding down a bunny slope). She writes,
“My mother belonged to a Poetry Club. She also played classical piano in a group that, to all the members’ amusement, was called Classical Pianists in Retirement: CPR.”
Then comes the call everyone dreads: “Mom fell.” And nothing is the same afterwards.
Through the decision to move her parents into assisted living — “the Place”, she calls it — to their eventual declines and deaths, Chast’s memoir is an instructive guidebook that demonstrates love, compassion, frustration, grief and other complex emotions surrounding this passage with unflinching honesty.
Humor remains the saving grace. Towards the very end for her mother, Chast describes how a nurse at the Place put a DNR (“Do Not Resuscitate”) bracelet on her mom’s wrist, so that if she were rushed to the hospital they would not hook her up to life-saving machines, “that would turn her into the dreaded ‘pulsating piece of protoplasm.’” Ruminating on how the bracelet seems too much like a toe tag, she follows this paragraph with a laugh-out-loud visual: “Limited Time Offer! Not Available in Stores! Get the Entire Ensemble!” It’s a cartoon of her mother, smartly dressed, with clothes, handbag and umbrella emblazoned, “DNR”.
Whether you are, will be, or have faced these issues in your own family, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? will give reverse mortgage professionals an inside peek into how both parents and children face life’s ultimate transition. Chast describes the events in her parents’ lives in such a way that the reader feels it can be her or his own life story.
Speaking the truth about what we fear demystifies and sanctifies. And as we embrace these gifts, the emotional energy that’s no longer being used to suppress is available to express. It’s how we — reverse mortgage specialists, the elders we serve, their children, and all of us as we age — can approach the inevitable with grace and wit.