Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

I read this book after reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. They were both rated in the top five nonfiction books of 2014 by Bookmarks Magazine and Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was a finalist for the National Book Award.

It was a happy coincidence (if that phrase is appropriate) that I read these two books on end-of-life so close together. The first, as I mentioned in my earlier review, was a landmark book about end-of-life issues and the role that medicine and the medical community plays in our culture. The work is praise-worthy for its scholarship, but the author is also to be commended for his approach. He gives us something that goes beyond the case studies of patients — his own perceptions and feelings about the individuals involved and his understanding and care for their fears and desires at this most vulnerable time.

This book goes one step further — to the very personal story of one family — and we are able witness their experiences as if they were our very own. Roz Chast has invited us to join in that last journey, with her own parents, by giving us the means to get to know them personally — their frailties, their faults, and their fears — and finding the laughable in a situation that we can (now or later) recognize as our own.

She tells her story through a handwritten narrative (as if actually hand-printed in a journal), generously illustrated by cartoon strips depicting the aging process. She tosses in actual photographs of what she removed from her parents’ home when they moved out of it, including what she calls “a museum of old Schick shavers”, a drawer of jar lids, and many, many, many pencils.

This is the thing — we recognize what is presented to us — the story, the cartoons and the photographs. It’s the recognizing part that transitions us from the first, scholarly book on end-of-life issues to the more personal one. It’s a transition that we will have to make, possibly more than once, when we are cleaning out and getting ready to say goodbye. It’s good to acknowledge it and it’s good to chuckle a little about it, while we are able. We can thank Roz Chast for giving us that.