Cartoonist Roz Chast's memoir is a rich, satiric, forthright, and at times deeply disturbing exploration of how she negotiated the decline of her aging parents. Disturbing because the description of all the elements with which she had to deal in easing them toward death highlights the myriad difficulties and complexities many of us will also face. Her account is centered on her relationship with her parents, moving back and forth between her childhood (unhappy) and the more recent past. Chast brings to life her father and mother's disparate personalities and makes no bones about her fraught interaction with them, especially with her mother, and her ambivalence about having to take responsibility for helping them in their final years,.

The memoir is divided into 18 chapters plus introduction and epilogue. The book has elements of multi media presentation, consisting of cartoons accompanied by extensive text in "balloons"; additional handwritten commentary - sometimes occupying an entire page; photographs - of family, and rooms in her parents' Brooklyn apartment plus items found therein; reproductions of her mother's poetry, typed and handwritten; and, finally, drawings (not cartoons) of her mother in her last days.

Chast notes that she is an only child and that her parents were older than most parents while she was growing up. The implication: the burden of taking responsibility rested solely on her and became an issue while she was raising her own family, when her parents were in their 80s. Chast makes clear that she was completely unprepared for everything that would be involved and that her parents had done nothing and would do nothing to make their own preparations for disability - "Can't we talk about something more pleasant?"

Chast's story begins with her impulsive visit - after an absence of 11 years- to the Brooklyn apartment where she grew up and where her parents still reside. She is appalled by the grime and clutter they live in. A few years later, when her parents are 90, Chast reluctantly visits more regularly, speaks to them daily on the phone, and hopes their lives will continue uneventfully and "maybe they'll both die at the same time in their sleep" (22). As Chast visits her parents more frequently the idiosyncrasies that used to irritate her still irritate her and there is no escape - they are too old and needy to run away from. Complicating the situation, her parents deny their neediness and reject most interventions that might help them in their daily lives.

When her parents are 93, after her mother falls a few times and her father shows increasing signs of forgetfulness, Chast manages to persuade her parents that they should together consult an "elder lawyer" - a specialist in "the two things that my parents and I found it most difficult to discuss: DEATH AND MONEY" (38). Even with the legalities this step puts in place, Chast feels overwhelmed when her mother is hospitalized for acute diverticulitis, leaving Chast to care for her increasingly senile father, prepare for her mother's return home, and worry about how her parents will be able to live on their own. The author makes fun of her helplessness: when she arranges for an ambulette to take her mother home from the hospital Chast congratulates herself, admitting "I had a pathetically large amount of pride in myself for doing things like that" (84).

A year later it is clear to all concerned that Chast's parents cannot continue to live alone. Chast is fortunate to quickly find a spot in an assisted living facility ("The Place") close to her own home. After settling her parents there she must sort through and empty out their Brooklyn apartment. A major undertaking. After a while "I was sick of the ransacking, the picking over and deciding, the dust, and the not particularly interesting trips down memory lane" (121). At the same time, Chast must arrange for her parents' aides, buy furniture and other items - total costs were high and not covered by insurance - "it was enraging and depressing" (128); how long her parents' savings and pensions would cover their expenses became a constant worry for Chast. Money worries became more acute after Chast's father fell and broke his hip, needing additional daily care. "I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money" (145). At the same time, Chast mourns her father's obvious decline and resents that her mother is insensitive to her feelings "it was, as it always was, completely about her" (141).

Chast's father dies (miserably), aged 95; her mother lives for two more years, in and out of a nursing home, not eating, rallying under the care of a hired attendant, then fading again. During this period, as the mother herself notes, "her brains were starting to melt." Chast feels the need to "have a final conversation with my mother about the past" (201), expressing the wish that they could have been better friends while Chast was growing up. The response is not what Chast had hoped for, and she is surprised by how upset she feels. Yet a week before Chast's mother dies, the mother declares love for her daughter.

When her mother is no longer communicative, Chast draws her as she lies in bed - Chast's manner of communication, bringing to mind other artists who drew dying loved ones in their final days (see annotations of Sue Coe's "The Last Eleven Days" and Ferdinand Hodler's "The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel" ). In the epilogue, Chast explains her decision to store the "cremains" of both parents, separately, in her bedroom closet. "Maybe when I completely give up this desire to make it right with my mother, I'll know what to do with their cremains. Or, maybe not" (227).


The summary above does not do justice to the manner in which Chast writes and draws her story. Facial expressions, body language, captions, capital letters and blowups for emphasis, satiric commentary and additional brilliant devices pervade the book. One of the most ambitious renderings is "The Wheel of Doom" - a complex display of parental concerns about death and disability juxtaposed with "cautionary tales from childhood," for example, "a headache, then dead" and "guy who almost died after playing oboe" (29). There is a side-by-side list contrasting Chast's ideal of a "gallant" daughter with her honest reactions to caring for her parents (146). A drawing of grocery store shelves in the "Depressing Aisle" depicts all the supplies her mother needs as she is fading away (adult diapers, liquid food, etc.) (174). These and many other examples make Chast's grim tale bearable to read. In addition, the humanity and individuality of the parents, and the thoughts and emotions they engender in Chast are all well conveyed, and make Chast's narrative deeply resonant. Chast's story is important because it is so honest and informative. All who have aging parents or are themselves aging will learn from and relate to it, but medical trainees, practicing healthcare workers, and healthcare administrators will also benefit from this frank and moving exposition.


2014 National Book Award Finalist - Autobiography



Place Published

New York



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