My husband does not like to talk about unpleasant things. In particular he shies away from talking about things like the future and end-of-life issues. Of course, the last eight years of his life have been sort of one long conversation about life-ending issues for us. He is now going into his ninth year as a kidney transplant survivor. The kidney he received from my daughter (her brave choice) has kept him alive much longer than any of us expected. However, there is a shelf life on transplanted organs and, one of these days, there will be decisions to be made. He refuses to participate in those decisions.
It’s frustrating. As his caregiver for much longer than nine years, I face the possibility that I will have to make decisions in the worst possible way, at the last minute and with my daughter in another state. I should mention that my daughter’s lifelong nickname has been, “Queen of Denial,” so I’m not looking for much help there, either.
I bring all this up because I just finished reading an amazing graphic novel called, Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant? (Bloomsbury Books, 2014, $28.00) by humorist and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. If you aren’t familiar with the graphic novel format, it’s basically an upscale comic book, but this one exceeds the genre. Chast, like my daughter an only child, was the sole caregiver for her ninety year old parents and, like my husband, they didn’t want to have the conversation about care in later life and preferred funeral arrangements, either.
Roz Chast is a very funny woman. She is also a heartbreaking woman, and this is a roller coaster of a memoir. Chast addresses the issue of end of life conversation with elderly parents or, perhaps, other loved ones such as my recalcitrant spouse. Her parents were a bonded couple who had been childhood sweethearts, followed career paths in education, bickered and loved and supported each other for almost 50 years. Elizabeth and George claimed to be soul mates. More likely they were that couple we all knew who simply didn’t believe in divorce, and felt that marriage bonds were permanent. Anyway, who else would have them? Strong-willed Elizabeth, a self-described fireplug, was not an easy woman. Mild-mannered George is scatter-brained and mechanically inept. But somehow their deficiencies complemented each other. Chast could not wait to leave their Brooklyn (not Park Slope Brooklyn but Brooklyn where people lived and never left) apartment, and get on with her own life. She has a testy relationship with her mother and a loving but vague relationship with her dad. Well into their 90s, they have not purposely saved for long term care, depending upon Medicare without supplements and their Dept. of Education pensions to take care of them.
Then it all starts falling apart. Elizabeth falls repeatedly and develops diverticulitis. George starts showing signs of dementia. They need to be in assisted living, but refuse to leave their rent-controlled, pig-sty of an apartment. Roz is caught in a bind. How do you tell your parents that they are no longer able to care for themselves? She employs an eldercare lawyer to intervene and get their affairs in order. She recommends it highly to all readers.
Finally, ill health intervenes and her parents enter assisted living at a cost of $7500 plus a month. The mind boggles at how anyone can afford those costs, yet people must regularly give up life savings to exist in the limbo of care by strangers in unfamiliar circumstances. In our family, my sister had to make that decision for my mother. It was shattering for my sister and even more so for my mother who kept expecting that she would get to go back to her house that had been sold to pay for her care.
Ultimately, death claims both Elizabeth and George, perhaps long past their time. This book raises so many questions about how to talk to parents, how to resolve life-long conflicts with parents, how to deal with personal emotions as parents fail, and maybe more than anything, why as a society there is no mechanism in place to provide for the comfort and care of the elderly that does not impoverish families.
Chast’s graphic novel format is refreshing and allows the leavening of a very heavy subject. Her mother spent her life writing verse about the circumstances of her life. It was a form of venting and release. Actually, her mother’s poems sound like something my mother-in-law might have written. Chast’s sketches of what is clearly a nice assisted living facility where her parents moved brought back memories for me of my mother-in-law’s upscale eldercare building building. My mother’s more modest “home” was very different.
At many times, this book choked me up. It also made me realize that I have to get rid of the junk my husband and I have collected so that it doesn’t fall on my only child to go through the detritus of our lives. Roz describes poking through the hidden closet where her parents shoved everything, and includes photos of rooms piled high with trash that her parents thought might be valuable. And, while it didn’t provide me with concrete strategies, it reminded me that I have to keep working on my spouse to make final arrangements and decisions so that the whole weight of these issues doesn’t fall on me.
Applause, Roz, for sharing your story. I think we may be sisters, or at least we had similar parents. Thanks you for starting the conversation that we should all now engage in.