Note: I keep thinking these book notes would be more effective if considerably condensed. But each time I look at it with thoughts to brevity, I find each tidbit expresses a unique insight into our humanity. So I follow a basic rule of simplicity – make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Roz Chast is a longtime New Yorker cartoonist and author of several books. Her graphic memoir documents her interactions with her parents, meek George and bulldozer Elizabeth, over their final years. This summary report (very long) attempts to recall the spirit of the book without access to the illustrations; of course, that is not possible. Suggestion: Read the book, rather than this pale substitute.
As an only child, Roz alone shepherds her parents, unwilling participants and masters of denial, through their end game. She begins by introducing them and setting the stage.
Elizabeth is smart, tough, overbearing, a regular source of Blasts from Chast, always a threat to blow her top when crossed. Elizabeth was an assistant principal at an elementary school, a particularly suitable occupation for one who so enjoyed telling others what to do. She is described as a perfectionist, decisive, lacking in nuance, not afraid to make enemies. She had once imagined herself becoming a concert pianist, and she plays at home for an hour or so every night.
George is meek, smart, kind, overly sensitive. George loves languages and word etymologies; he pursued his bliss as a high school French and Spanish teacher. But George lives under the shadow of an imagined Wheel of Doom, which spells out the horrible consequences associated with simple life actions such as sitting on the ground or wearing a wrist band too tight. The consequences are in two stages, an immediate ailment, followed by inevitable death, perhaps preceded by blindness or deafness. Many apocryphal tales swirl around the Doom Wheel, evidence of the accuracy of its portents. George’s chain-worrying precludes him from eating many foods, driving, swimming, riding a bicycle, or even changing a light bulb. He never uses the stove except to boil tea water. He is challenged when using the toaster. Packages he opens appear to have been opened by a raccoon.
The parents are frugal and save everything. The ‘crazy closet’ (apartment version of an attic) holds most of the old stuff. But still serviceable and functional stuff is in use, such as an oven mitt from year one, burned, cruddy, and with patches from a skirt Roz had made forty years ago in home ec; it still works. Mom’s shopping habits account for some of the contents of the crazy closet, such as the Quintuple Queen panty hose bought at 80% off. The plan was to make three pair of hose from them, dyed to disguise the avocado color.
Roz is more like George, which perhaps explains her more complete emotional characterization of him. Their personality differences with Elizabeth make for strained dynamics between the three characters. Further strain derives from Roz being the third wheel, merely a kid and also an intruder into her parents very tightly knit, codependent unit. As a result, Roz had escaped the apartment at 16 to enter college.
Having never been close, the continuing family dynamic denies them the chance to become closer before they part. Combined with the two depressing settings for the story, the parents’ grimy Brooklyn apartment where they spent their adult lives, and then The Place, an assisted living facility where they move to wait out their final months, this story wears a grim face.
But Roz has a remedy for a largely joyless subject. She invites us into her intimate family conversations. Be prepared to become one of the family as you read. The intimacy of her observations and her humorous, sometimes self-effacing, sometimes exasperated takes on the interpersonal family dynamics propels a bittersweet narrative that plumbs anger, dread, and helplessness, all with a sufficient level of comic relief to see the author through the proceedings to the end.
The stage is set through reflections on some family history. The parents were born ten days apart and grew up two blocks apart in East Harlem tenements. They were in the same fifth grade class. They did everything together, soul mates. Being happy and self-realized was for modern people (degenerates). Rather, they believed that being a unit, holding on to each other and resisting change (not roiling the waters), would ensure they would go on together forever. They made it to their mid 90s via their sensible life plan (sensible to them).
Roz was born late; her parents were much older than those of her friends. She had an older sister who died at birth and was never spoken of after that. She recalls she mostly hated her youth in that Brooklyn apartment and as an adult, she came to loathe Brooklyn and the apartment: smelly hallways and elevator, same depressing security apparatus, same plastic flower decoration in the lobby, the interior encased in ultimate grime.
Roz and her husband and children had finally moved out of the city to the Connecticut suburbs when her parents were 78. For the next 11 years she did not set foot in Brooklyn, a feat she attributes to denial, avoidance, selfishness, laziness, being too busy, and being completely devoid of nostalgia.
Earlier attempts to broach the death subject with the parents had failed; their denial was total. There would be no spiritualizing or naval gazing. The parents had known great hardship when younger, and these later years were the time for speaking of Only Pleasant Things. They planned to stay the course in their tight unit. The minds of both parents and daughter harbored the same wish, that the folks would both die in their sleep on the same night and the daughter would never have to deal. But naturally, life intruded.
Appropriately, the memoir begins at the Beginning of the End, and concludes just past the End. The Beginning of the End is characterized by the first clear evidence that we are leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age, and entering a stage where there is undeniably something of existential import coming down the pike at them.
The Beginning of the End asserted itself when, out of nowhere, Roz experienced an intense need to visit Brooklyn. The Scene was as off-putting as anticipated, but was grimly repeated at 2-3 week intervals thereafter.
Her parents still argued, but that was reassuring; they still seemed to have a complete set of marbles. Yet the piles of papers, magazines, and junk mail grew larger; the grime grew grimier; her parents became ever more frail; mom’s face grew purple from her rages. Between visits, there were regular phone calls, the more memorable ones captured in a sequence of vignettes:
Mom has cataract surgery and then drives with an eye patch to the store with Dad guiding her.
Mom has a cold and speculates who could have given it to her and what precautions one must take to avoid getting sick.
Mom tells daughter that friend Gloria mentioned one can tell the degree of a woman’s sexuality from her shoes, leaving daughter staring at her shoes at the end of the conversation.
Dad remarks the apartment is a little chilly and they are wearing sweaters and robes, but don’t want to bother the super to fix the radiators. Daughter sends them a new space heater, but it came with a three prong plug, useless in the old apartment. They tell her they will be sure to try it out as soon as they file off one of the prongs.
Overall, it seemed their decline would remain blessedly gradual, mother with her ailments, father with his senile dementia. Mother belonged to a Poetry Club and played classical piano in a group. They each retained their basic personality traits. They accepted their daughter back into their unit, even if with some difficulty.
When the parents were 93, a friend mentioned Elder Lawyers and Roz contacted one. Getting the parents to meet the lawyer was a challenge, because of their anxiety about money and over the security of their bankbooks, and due to further apocryphal tales, such as when a couple signed over their savings to a daughter, who then put them in a home and bought a drawer full of cashmere sweaters.
The parents had always been frugal savers who put their scrimpings into banks. Their bankbooks were the physical evidence of their fortune. Along with the bankbooks were the free give-aways the banks would offer for opening an account, all later found in a closet, all unopened.
Roz accompanied the lawyer to their apartment and miraculously gained their trust and access to their financial records. Power of attorney was granted to Roz, a living will was completed, and Roz did not acquire a drawer full of cashmere sweaters for her effort.
During this year, her parents took their final trip, to Israel with a group of retired teachers. On return, dad recalled nothing about the trip. Later that year, Roz called to tell of her planned trip to the Galapagos, perhaps thinking it’s never too late to impress one’s parents. Not to be upstaged, mom replied that when they went, they got a signed certificate from King Neptune when they crossed the equator. She bet it was still at the top of their ‘crazy closet’. She said hold on, I’ll take a look. Roz convinced her not to climb to the top of the crazy closet. Mom acquiesced and hung up.
After a couple of days of hearing nothing, Roz called again and father answered. Instant dread. Mom had had a bad fall in the crazy closet, but refused to go to the hospital. Instead she wrote a poem about how stupid she had been. Her aversion to hospitals and doctors was complete. Doctors have a GOD complex, and are always changing their advice. Hospitals are where you go to die.
After a couple of weeks and no improvement, during which Roz and neighbors brought food in, there came a call after midnight from an emergency room. Her parents had been brought by ambulance. Finally, mom got a hospital room and Roz went back to the apartment with dad and spent the night. The next morning, dad asked “where’s mom?”.
Dad was far gone, a fact kept hidden from Roz by mom’s control and dad’s fixed surroundings. Roz imagined the worst part of senility must be receiving the same bad news over and over. Yet she understood it as a gift also, because once forgetting the bad news, life seems hunky-dory until reality intervenes once again. Dad could not be by himself.
During the two week stay while mom recuperated in the hospital, Roz came face to face with the reality of advanced senility. Patience and understanding were quickly found wanting in the caretaker. Dad became talkative, a nonsensical chatterbox. His paranoia became a bigger part of his persona, particularly regarding the bankbooks.
They visited mom every day, but when returning, his confusions piled on themselves, called sundowning. Perhaps due to the senile brain’s losing touch with circadian rhythms, anxiety and restlessness heighten confusion, resulting in aggravation and anger toward sundown. Once reassured and calmed down, it would be only brief hours before it was back to square one.
He was lost without Elizabeth, aggravating his disorientation. Items were always being lost, many times because they had been hidden away to keep them safe. Bad eating habits that had once seemed merely odd, now grated. He could not cut properly with his knife, ate very slowly, had way many preferences and aversions, would not drink anything chilled, had favorite utensils and cups, etc. Frequently he would comment that something had an unfamiliar taste. There would be Wheel of Doom prophesies about what would happen to someone who ate something he considered unhealthful.
After Elizabeth came home from the hospital, reunited at last with George, Roz left her happy parents after securing them in their beds in the apartment. She wondered later at her thought process that allowed her to leave, even though her mom was very weak. Rationalization won the battle to get away. The price was paid the next day. The next morning’s phone call was a shock. Dad said mom was at the stove cooking breakfast when she collapsed. Mom said two nice policemen came and helped her up.
Roz realized they would need outside help, but they were resistant: no strangers in the house, too many valuables (those bankbooks). Roz and neighbors continued to bring in food until the parents finally accepted Meals on Wheels, a godsend.
There had been an insane amount of paperwork involved in her mother’s hospital release. This showed Roz the need to carry a notebook so that all the necessary information would be in one place: medications and doses, doctor and hospital contacts, parents’ personal id and financial information, contact numbers for neighbors and friends, contacts and information for elder care agencies, etc, etc. It also served as a log of care-giving activities.
Initially, Roz took pride in her accomplishment in scaling this paper mountain. But continued efforts descended to boredom, combined with anxiety that she had made a mistake somewhere. All attempts to discuss assisted living were stonewalled. Likely, the parents could still see through all the advertising euphemisms used by such places.
The next year unspooled, along with father’s mind. He wouldn’t stop talking. Mother called him a runaway train. He followed her around the apartment all day and didn’t bathe. Sometimes he left the stove on. Mom fell a few more times, but refused to use the Life Alert thingy for fear of going back to the hospital.
They finally had accepted some part time help from an agency, a few hours three days a week, likely just to get Roz off their backs. It took one more fall to convince them their lives had become untenable in their apartment. After the fall, Dad went out to get some help and got lost in the building. Someone rescued him and helped mom get up.
It was a difficult day, that first trip going to check out an assisted living place in Brooklyn where mom’s friend lived. The parents hadn’t left the apartment in a year. Getting them dressed and to the place exhausted all, particularly mom. She collapsed on her friend’s bed. She looked so unwell that an ambulance was mentioned, at which point mom let it be known there would be NO hospital and got up. An image of the Brooklyn Place remained as Roz got her parents back to the apartment: decrepit, hobbledy oldsters, torn carpet, flaking paint; old, old, old, …., OLD.
When they got back to the apartment, mother was too tired even to make it to the door from the elevator; she collapsed in the nearest stairwell. Meanwhile, father had a meltdown trying to unlock the apartment door, shouting through tears that the thing was broken. Once Roz got them in bed, she escaped once again. The strain of being responsible on her own for them both, with no professional assistance, had been overwhelming.
Roz experienced an epiphany about aging. After age 25, there is an incremental falling off of vitality. Each year the increment is slightly larger. Then, if you are one of the lucky ones, you hit 90 in relatively good shape, much slower of mind and body, much weaker, but still involved in living. After 90, all bets are off. Expect a cliff or two, a need for increasing outside intervention, and a withdrawal from living. So the next time someone says they want to live to over a hundred, ask them if they have lost their mind already?
It took Roz less than a week after this experience to find an acceptable living facility less than ten minutes from her house. It was nice and clean. They had an opening. It would be her parents’ new home. She convinced them to come up for a ‘trial stay’. They packed overnight bags, put on hats and coats, locked the door, and never saw their apartment again.
Around this time, a distant cousin had called Roz suggesting that the parents might like to come to Missouri for a visit. He was a doctor and he had been speaking every few weeks to Elizabeth on the phone. How could he not know that Elizabeth could not even walk from the elevator to her apartment door? Suggesting a trip through an airport for them was like suggesting they go hang-gliding. When dealing appropriately with old people, one must be able to put oneself in their old, old shoes.
Some initial resentment, over her parents having left their apartment for her to sort out, was quickly put into perspective. At age 94, they had left their home of 48 years and everything in it, moving not to another home, but to a strange place for old, old people.
They had not dealt with their mail for a year, and there were banking, tax, and insurance issues to be dealt with. There was a lot of paperwork, and phone calls of the kind requiring too much patience. She brought her parents some clothes and items from the apartment to make their new place more homey. She got them some new furniture and interfaced with utility companies. She felt like a parent helping a kid setup a first apartment.
Next came the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of sorting all her parent’s possessions, 50 years of life crammed into four rooms. She had never snooped into her parent’s things, so for all she knew, there might be some treasures. There were none in a conventional sense, but there were three boxes of letters, the courtship letters, and the WWII letters.
The courtship letters dealt mostly with the weather and who had colds. By time of their marriage, the letters had become only slightly more affectionate. The WWII letters described their daily affairs, he in the Navy in the South Pacific, she a teacher trying to have a normal social life. There were several hundreds. They wrote daily, sometimes twice a day. Always, there were thoughts about how much they missed each other and how they wanted to be together again.
Their possessions were mostly junk, but it was their junk, so Roz decided to take pictures before relegating it to the dumpster: old pairs of glasses, old shavers, office and art supplies including drawers filled of pencils, mom’s purse collection, mom’s and dad’s ‘work stations’ covered with boxfuls of their clippings and paper collectables, family photo albums, a drawer full of jar lids, antique first aid supplies in the medicine cabinet. She followed a friend’s advice. When it comes to cleaning out the parent’s possessions, take nothing that you don’t think your children would want.
One positive from such experience is that one never looks at one’s own stuff in the same light again. A postmortemistic view takes hold. One’s potential buying decisions are more harshly critiqued. Better use of the refuse can entails.
The new Place didn’t make you want to kill yourself. It was genteel and old-person cheerful. The colors and decor and infirmity aids were standard issue retirement home. The jigsaw puzzle tables saw lively action, the pool table not so much (unless some grand kids were visiting). It had several amenities, gym, bingo parlor, bar, activities her folks had never enjoyed in their lives. The thought of it all made them exhausted and wanting to be in their room.
After replacing mom’s cane with a walker and convincing her to use it, the parents were able to settle into the routine of the Place. Dinner evoked the atmosphere of a high school cafeteria, but with old people. Cliques sat together, people who had been there a while, bonded and wanting nothing to do with meeting new people. To sit at their table uninvited was to invite rudeness.
On the other hand, one wanted to avoid a table of people who had basically lost inhibitions and control. Good manners were appreciated at more genteel tables, but for the others, directness bordering on rudeness was necessary to make a meal tolerable. Her parents had mirrored each other exclusively for too long and had lost some social sensibilities. Yet they had each other, providing a quality of life forever beyond the reach of many residents.
Their adjustment was not perfect. After a while, George summed it up: “This place is a hell hole.” At the staff’s weekly assessment meeting, Roz was advised that her father didn’t like to bathe. Elizabeth referred to themselves as inmates.
Their dynamic remained constant. It could be infuriating sometimes listening to them resolve simple things such as when George should eat his Danish, or how many olives George should take at dinner. George often ended the discussion agreeing with Elizabeth and remarking how brilliant she was. Any attempt by Roz to intervene in such discussions would, as always, evoke a united front: “Who asked you?”
Roz was in charge of their seasonal door decor. Dad didn’t understand why the door needed decoration. Mom said it was lovely, but a waste of money. But the other doors had decor, and Roz knew they needed to go along to get along.
After midnight sometime during their fourth month in the Place, the phone rang. Without thinking, Roz wondered what kind of person calls at that hour? Someone from the Place was calling. Daddy had gotten up from watching TV, taken three steps, and collapsed with a broken hip. With younger people, you fall and then something breaks. With the old old, something breaks and then you fall. He was never the same. He was 95, frail, and tired. He declined physical therapy. He was not able to toilet himself. After two weeks, they put him in a nursing home for recovery.
Roz took her mother to visit daily, but dreaded it. Mother never asked about her or daddy. As always, everything was about her. Once when Roz scored a parking spot close to the door, mom let a “thank you God’ escape her lips. Roz let her know she was thanking the wrong person and should keep those thoughts to herself.
Unlike the Place, the nursing home did not attempt to disguise what it was. It was institutional and depressing. George spent three weeks in bed, developing terrific bed sores. He didn’t want to eat. Worst, he missed Elizabeth when she went back to the Place each night.
Finally, the nurses and doctors agreed he could go back to the Place if they hired extra help. The expenses were becoming astronomical, and the parents’ health insurance hadn’t carried over to Connecticut. Roz had been worrying that there would remain no part of their nest egg for her to inherit. Now she worried if she would have to take them into her home when their money ran out.
Her thoughts ranged from Gallant to Goofus. Gallant: She forgives her parents their transgressions of her youth, committed out of love. Goofus: She seethes with resentment at crap that happened 40 years ago. Gallant: She treasures the time spent with them now, knowing they don’t have much longer. Goofus: When with her parents, she wishes she were somewhere else. Gallant: If their money runs out, she will be thrilled to have them move in with her. Goofus: The thought of them in her house makes her want to take a very long nap.
George was deteriorating, on morphine. He didn’t leave his bed and mom didn’t leave the room. Whenever Roz asked what happens when the money runs out, a staffer would reassure that somehow it always works out. George finally became so tired of the hard work of staying alive that he wanted to pack it in. Elizabeth called him defeatist and explained he was coming with her to 100 if she had to drag him. He entered hospice, which further aggravated mom. But it finally became clear to her that this was the end. He was given a DNR bracelet.
Her last conversation with her dad was while she lie next to him in his bed. He asked what his granddaughter Nina was doing. She said Nina is playing her banjo. When Elizabeth wanted to get some lunch for dad, Roz told her to stop and consider the possibility that dad was dying. Her mom shouted that she would not talk about death. With her dad seemingly comfortable, Roz went out for lunch with a friend. George died before she returned, at a moment when Elizabeth had left the room. Roz learned it is common for people to wait to slip away until the loved ones are not there.
Roz took her mother home. There was nothing to say. The family ordered pizza. It felt surreal. Her mother slept on the couch since she couldn’t go up stairs. That morning it was discovered that Elizabeth had suffered total loss of bowel control during the night. The shock of the loss of a mate of 70 years, followed by strange pizza and then by this humiliation, was cause for great sympathy. After washing and dressing her, Roz took her mother back to the Place.
The incident wasn’t spoken of again, although a year later, her mom told her that she suspected Roz didn’t invite her over because of the incident. Actually, Roz just didn’t want to have her mom to her house; she could not enjoy her company; she was still afraid of mom’s fearsome temper. This was too sad, because that was now likely the only thing in the world her mom had to look forward to.
Her feelings for her deceased father changed in a different direction. All the things about him that had driven her batty now seemed trivial. The remaining emotion was deep affection and gratitude for having him as her father. Now, she just had her mom to deal with as they both adjusted to their new lives without George. Elizabeth was bitter toward the hospice nurses who had ’caused’ George’s death. She argued that he had not been in great pain and did not need so much morphine.
Elizabeth slowly got back into the routine of the Place, leaving her room for dinner. Roz sometimes joined her. For a year her health slowly declined until an intestinal fistula was diagnosed and a colostomy recommended. Roz could not imagine such a suggestion. In her health state at 96, how could she survive the operation and its recovery and manage the colostomy apparatus. Are all doctors losing their marbles?
Elizabeth suspected her brains were beginning to melt also. The neurologist came and gave her a neurology test, then prescribed an SSRI for depression. Later she stopped leaving her room. She fell several times at night when going to use the bathroom, declining diapers or a bedside commode. She was losing weight. She entered hospice care. Roz sat with her and said her good-byes and said it was ok to let go.
The Place suggested round-the clock care, requiring hiring two nurses. This raised the outflow to $14,000/mo, none covered by insurance. After two weeks of the new care, Roz went for a visit. Her mother was sitting on the couch fully dressed eating a sandwich with her daytime aide Goodie. This scene threw Roz off. Where in the five stages of death does it say to get dressed and eat a tuna sandwich?
Roz tried to feel thrilled, but her relationship with her mother did not admit such a feeling. She tried to get in touch with the barrier to such feelings and reminisced about the childhood parenting she had received from her mother. She realized her mother was only an authority figure, nothing more. Their relationship was entirely characterized by Roz keeping her head down and agreeing to whatever.
Goldie and her mother bonded and her mother remarkably surrendered control. She couldn’t feed, dress, or toilet herself, so there was a lot of control to cede. Goldie moved in, slept on the couch, and handled both shifts by herself. Elizabeth gained back her lost weight, aided by nutritional drinks.
Roz felt guilty about subcontracting the intimate care of her mother, embarrassed that the work was being done by a minority woman, relieved that her mother was in such good hands, grateful that her parents had scrimped so that their care could be provided for, jealous that her mother got along with Goodie better than with her own daughter.
Elizabeth’s drain-circling had slowed, but was still evident in that she slept mostly and when awake, her mind fantasized in a dream state, evident in the ever more strange stories she told about her life.
A friend sent an excerpt from Swann’s Way:
“The process which had begun in her … was the great renunciation which old age makes for death, the chrysalis stage of life, which may be observed whenever life is unduly prolonged.” Even ardent lovers and lifelong friends “after a certain year, cease to make the necessary journey, or even cross the street to see one another, cease to correspond, and know well that they will communicate no more in this world.”
Roz held a 97th birthday party for her mother. Elizabeth ordered and ate a Reuben sandwich. By the end of the month, the stories had stopped. She was too tired to visit when she was awake. She existed in a state of suspended animation for four more months. A hospice nurse remarked she had never witnessed such tenacity. Roz was frequently called because her mother had ‘taken a turn’. Yet Elizabeth always kept on going.
During a visit, Roz tried to start a final conversation about their troubled past, saying she wished they could have been better friends. Mother: Does it worry you? Roz: No, does it you? Mother: No. Roz: Do you want me to go? Mother: It doesn’t matter.
Roz went to the car. Her loud sobbing and the depth of sadness surprised her, as did the anger. The relationship was what it was. There may never have been a time it could have been made better. Roz was called back on the final day when death was imminent. She did not get to the Place in time.
Roz keeps her father’s and mother’s cremains in boxes on her closet floor. Her father’s are in the special tote bag that accompanied him through life, his adult security blanket. She likes keeping them close to her. Maybe when she completely abandons the desire to make it right with her mother, she can plan a more permanent place for the cremains. Meanwhile, she thinks it makes a nice home for them. They still appear in her dreams.