Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT?
by Roz Chast
I’ve read quite a few books in my life, and Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? is one of the very best. Part way through the book, I told Tom ‘one of the top ten best books I've read.’ You may ask, how can that be? How can I so love a book that is about a very difficult subject - the aging and ultimate death of one’s parents? And about a family that is quite dysfunctional. Under the author’s name on the cover are the words ‘A Memoir.’ And it is. Not just the story of her parents' declining years, but much about herself. I was shocked when she wrote that she had not visited her parents in a long time. But then again, I know adults who stay away from visiting their folks as much as possible.
From 1990 to 2001, I had not set foot in Brooklyn ONCE. Denial, avoidance, selfishness, laziness, and the day-to-day busyness of my life (two little kids! cartoon deadlines! grocery shopping!) were all partly to blame. But really, I just didn’t want to.
She feels an ‘intense need’ to go out to Brooklyn and visit her parents two days before the Towers were hit.
We then follow her life for eight years. They aren’t easy years, and both the author and the reader know what the outcome will be. She is unflinchingly honest about what happens and her responses. It takes a brave person to admit to herself and to the world that she wasn’t always feeling or acting that kindly toward these old people. But that is the reality. Your parents are still your parents even if they are aging and dying, and Roz’ feelings toward them, particularly her mother, haven't changed.
I think it is very important that she wrote this book. We are all so used to hearing about children who do everything for their parents, and parents being so grateful. Those are the good stories. I think Roz’ reactions are more real, and this book can help adult children of dying parents who may hate themselves for even thinking about money, for example. The fact is that many people in this country lose their whole life savings to nursing home care. This is a huge problem and will only get worse as those people born between 1946 and 1964 get older.
Roz Chast has a page where she suggests that at the end, there should be
something to look forward to.
Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you’ve had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRI, the boring food, and the pills that don’t do anything at all. Would that be so bad?
People tend to be so sanctimonious with the aged. Everyone ‘knows’ what is best for them. Why shouldn’t they (we) do just as they damn please at the end of their lives if they are still able? Start smoking those much-missed cigarettes. Eat as many french fries as you want. Drink cocktails all day long if you want. Maybe then you could die at home of a nice, quick heart attack and save your family the intense stress. I hope I do.
After some time, her parents leave their apartment, with only overnight bags, on a trip to check out a facility near Roz’ home. They never go back. And it is up to Roz, the only child, to go through everything. She takes photos of the fridge and the medicine cabinet and the rooms. Photos that made me shudder. It makes the author take stock of all the stuff in her own home.
Can you imagine going through rooms like this?
She shows us what she keeps out of all that stuff.
The title of course refers to the author’s particular situation, but isn’t it the big subject none of us really wants to face, let alone talk about? Some people are incredibly cool about it, and prepared for it. Like Tom’s mum. For as long as I can remember she has occasionally send us her information - where important papers are, names and addresses of banks, etc., where she wants to be buried. Every single thing that most of us shrink away from, she faces with steadfastness and even humor. She sent us all little metal ducks that open so each child could have a place to put some of her ashes. I’m trying to model myself after her. (I got her permission to write about this here in my letters).
I could go on and on about this brilliant, necessary book. Perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t make me sad. In fact, there were some very funny parts. When her mother's mind deteriorates, she starts telling Roz outlandish stories. These are about her mother-in-law.
I think I may move Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? up to one of my top four, sharing the honors with Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway and something by Wodehouse.
I know my friend Les didn't care for this book, at all, (you may read her review here) and I really understand her reasons, but I've seen too many families like Roz Chast's, and I think she has given all of them a great gift. The gift of knowing that other children feel angry, annoyed, and pretty selfish sometimes when it comes to taking care of their older parents.
There’s an interview you may listen to here.