Roz Chast's new book Can't we talk about something more pleasant?, a touching, funny, sad, and thought provoking graphic memoir, is primarily about her caregiving role as her elderly parents approach death. She makes her painful subject tolerable with humor. For example, at a point when Chast thinks her mother's death is imminent, she arrives at the "the Place" where her mother is under the care of a new nurse. She finds her sitting up, dressed, and eating lunch. Chast writes, "Where in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?"
Chast has a troubled, fraught relationship with both parents, though more so with her mother, right up to the end. Though the focus of the book is the final years, Chast gives some insights in to the origins of these difficulties. Reading the memoir with an eye to understanding parent-child relationships, I found an interesting example of the way parent and child can dysregulate each other. Of how when things go wrong, the problem is not either exclusively in the parent or the child, but in the relationship.
Chast was born one month premature, delivered by cesarean section as a precaution because her mother's first baby, a girl, had died at 7 and 1/2 months. A family narrative suggested that the death was related to standing on a stool to change a lightbulb, something Chast's meek and fearful father refused to do. But the actual cause was placenta previa. An obstetrician had told Chast's mother that her "uterus would rupture" if she carried to term.
Chast describes herself as "probably not a fun baby." She had low tone, cried a lot, didn't like to eat or sleep. Likely some of these traits were related to her prematurity. Chast writes, "I had one cold after another, and from the time I could speak, one anxiety after another." Temperamentally she was much more like her father than her mother. While as an adult she writes of her mother, "I can sympathize with her desire to leave me in the care of someone else for a while," she follows with," who knows what I thought back then."
Chast's mother came from a history of trauma. Her father, Chast's maternal grandfather, was an engineer in Russia but came to the US, presumably following persecution of the Jews, to a life of extreme poverty that left him "bitter and angry." It is possible that her mother's experience as a parent was colored not only by this history, but also her history of loss. Even today pregnancy loss may not be recognized as an experience with its own significant grieving process. Certainly in 1940 it is likely that one was expected to just carry on.
The aim of the book, I believe, is to call attention to the inherent challenges of caring for aging parents. But it is a rich and beautiful story, with other lessons as well. Chast, with her sparse details, offers us a picture of a parent-child relationship that got off on the wrong foot. I wonder if Chast's brilliant creativity is in part a result of having to cope with this difficult and painful family story. If so, her struggles become our gift.