One of my shortcomings as a reader: I can't read graphic novels.
I've tried many times. I've even tried the graphic-novel-interpretation of books I've already read and loved (The Graveyard Book, for example) or TV shows I already watch (The Walking Dead).
There's just something about what is required of my brain in order to simultaneously turn words and pictures into a story. I know it's strange—I can, after all, do this with children's books—and it makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable about myself.
Mostly I think it's a cool factor, and I'm just not cool enough to read graphic novels.
Which became a problem when I had the assignment to read a graphic novel as part of my library duties. I wanted to cheat and count the book Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, a graphic novel with five fairy-tale-based horror stories which I read back in February for LTUE, but as it took me less than an hour to read, it really did feel like cheating.
Instead I read Roz Chast's memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast does cartoons in the New Yorker, so maybe being familiar with her quirky figures made this easier to read for me. Or maybe it's less of a graphic novel than a story told with pictures. (I think there is a distinction.)
It tells of Chast's experiences with her parents as they are aging. They've lived on their own in an apartment in Brooklyn well into their 90s, but eventually they start needing help, and this is where Chast's story begins. Except for flashbacks to her childhood, growing up as an only child with a dad who was...let's say mellow and a mother who was...not. (Or, in other words, parents exactly like mine; I think I would be far less mentally stable had I not had sisters to deflect some of my mom's redness.) It was perhaps not an idyllic childhood, and her relationship with her mother remained strained throughout her adulthood.
When things start getting difficult—Chast's father's memory starts to go, and then several different accidents start impacting their health—she, as the only child, is the only one who can help. But, it turns out, her parents are entrenched
in their house. Really, really entrenched. They have all of their old stuff and they like it, thankyouverymuch, and aren't interested in getting rid of anything in order to change where (or how) they are living. Even though they can't go on like they are.
Maybe I was drawn to read this mostly because of the topic, as I'm going through something similar with my mom. She is still living in the 2800-square-foot house we grew up in. It's too big for her to manage, the yard is overwhelming, it's a half hour away from me and/or my sister, and it is so full. So full of stuff. And all the stuff means so much to her. It breaks my heart a little bit, honestly, every time we go out to help her sift through some stuff. (She will never sell her house until she gets rid of stuff.) Out of a box inside of a Rubbermaid container in the closet in my old bedroom, she pulls out...a bedraggled doll, the kind with plastic arms and legs but a soft stuffed body. It's nearly beheaded, its skull hanging on with just a ribbon of frayed fabric. Its cheeks are caked with dusty and dirt, its cloth body frail now, and flimsy. But it still giggles when you shake it, and "Oh, I can remember how much Michele loved playing with this doll," and so she can't bear to get rid of it; it goes right into the keep pile (which is obviously much larger than the throw away and donate piles).
My sadness happens because of how desperately she wants to gather all of the memories to herself, and how the objects only really have meaning as triggers to the memories. I can understand that wanting to keep the memories (I'm pretty much the queen in that department), but the way she discovers the triggering objects, remembers the memory, and then puts the object back into another box—that is what makes me sad. So many boxes of old stuff that has memories for her and no one else. (Que segue into why you should write stuff down but I'm just going to skip it.)
Roz Chast's parents' connection to their old stuff has to do with use. Why get a new butter container when this strangely-melted one we've had since 1977 works perfectly fine? Ad nauseum. We might need this __________. One day we could use that ____________. And there is a hilarious section about their attachment to all of their old bank books (for accounts that no longer have any money in them, some of them at banks that no longer exist).
She nails this accumulation of stuff so well (as proof that I understand: every time I come home from helping my mom clean out her stuff, I do two things. Declutter at least one closet and then make a whole bunch of scrapbook layouts. Which might be a problem all its own). After helping your parent(s) with the cleaning-out of a lifetime's worth of stuff,
you start to look at your stuff a little...postmortemistically. If you've lived more than two decades as an adult consumer, you probably have quite the accumulation, even if you're not a hoarder. An ergonomic garlic press and throw pillows and those stupid sunflower dessert plates and seven travel alarm clocks and eight nail clippers and a colander and a flatiron and three old laptops and barbells and a set of fucking bocce balls [Editor's Note: this is how I felt when I uncovered a kiln in my mom's garage. A kiln. You know. In case you want to bake up some ceramics or cremate some mice], and patio furniture and an autoharp for God's sake, and your old flute from high school and a zillion books and towels and sheets and a wok you never used and a make-your-own stained glass kit you never opened, and martini glasses and a yoga mat and what is THIS??? a cuckoo clock???? And so many clothes and hats and shoes and then there's all the KIDS' old stuff and don't forget the furniture and four cameras and ice skates and whose tap shoes are these? and all the crap in the drawers and...THAT'S JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG."
(And when you're going through your parents' stuff, everything, every item, means everything to them and after a while you either want to rip your hair out, punch someone in the face, or weep—or you start making jokes, hence Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and really: some of the negative reviews have said the book is too mean to the parents but honestly, sometimes that's all you can do. Draw some snarky comments or get put in jail for elder abuse. Which is worse?)
And that's just the topic of cleaning out the stuff.
The book also covers stuff like:
- getting your parents to realize they can't live by themselves anymore.
- figuring out how to broach the topic of finances.
- ugly, ugly medical details.
- the impossibility of paying for decent live-in care or residences.
- the way your history influences your present.
- all of those old grudges you never managed to put behind you.
- filling out forms.
- making peace.
- not making peace.
- DNRs and other conversations about medical wishes. (IF YOU HAVEN'T EVER HAD THIS CONVERSATION WITH YOUR PARENTS, YOUR SPOUSE, YOUR SISTER, YOUR BEST FRIEND, AND YOUR NOT-LITTLE CHILDREN, PLEASE: DO IT NOW. No one will know what you want if you don't tell them. It is best to know. Becky, for example, knows that if I can't feed myself or go to the bathroom on my own, she is free to smother me with a pillow or anything else that's handy. Ditto if I can't read or write or communicate.)
- the realities of being old and dying in America. There really is no easy, good way to do it, unless you are rich. Filthy rich. Otherwise it will be ugly, painful, humiliating, and always faintly tinted with the smell of old pee.
How can I say I loved this book? When it has so much ugliness and sadness and remorse in it. Loss of bodily control. Looking at your relationship with your parents and realizing, with an unfettered truth, that it was a faulty and imperfect one, and that it wasn't only your parents' fault. People—people who, despite their faults and mistakes and quirks and illnesses and stubbornnesses and all of that stuff they own, are loved—die.
They leave us forever.
But maybe that is why I loved it. Because my dad died and the process of it was long and ugly and took a deep gouge out of my soul, but it also held some transcendent moments. Because my dad left before I could tell him all I should have told him, before I apologized for the mean things I said when I was a teenager and for taking my mom's side and for the time I yelled at him when I was learning how to put my contacts in. Because I never said thank you for taking me to Lake Powell, for shouting at my boyfriend that one time, for always making a beautiful yard for us to turn cartwheels in. Because he died, and I witnessed it, and because once you know what that is like, you want to know what it is like for other people.
Roz Chast's account of her parents' process of dying is more clever than mine could be. It's also more sarcastic and maybe even a little bit caustic, but it's also honest, and yes: I did love this book.
And that feels like an accomplishment for this non-graphic-novel-reading reader!