Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The decline and demise of everybody

One of the oddest books I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, is Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?”

She’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine and her book, illustrated with cartoons, handwritten text and a few photos, zigzags with hilarity and grimness through a reality no one wants to talk about: The inevitable decline, and most often messy and tragic end of one’s parents, and by direct extension, ourselves.

Chast is the one at the right of the couch. 

No wonder her parents wanted to talk about something more pleasant. Credit Chast’s humor and talent as a writer and cartoonist for her ability create a book such taboo topic.

At our church, the non-denominational Blessed Lady of Medicare, a few months ago someone handed out a questionnaire called “Five Wishes” that congregants were supposed to fill out to specify their last wishes for burial, the sort of memorial they want and other end-of-the-road details no one really wants to think about let alone put down in writing.
It’s a sensible exercise given the demographics of the congregation. Quite often the weekly church bulletin reads like a litany of people with “conditions” and those who’ve succumbed to the final “condition,” i.e. death. 

The questionnaire doesn’t seem daunting until you realize the prospective stiff in question is you.

Stew and I picked up a couple of copies. Stew didn’t want to deal with it at all. I took both of copies and dutifully buried them in my nightstand under a stack of magazines and books. Occassionally I would pull out the questionnaires, look at them, harrumph, and promptly re-bury them as if they were contaminated with kryptonite.

Both questionnaires eventually disappeared. I must have thrown them out. I just don’t have Chast’s sang-froid.

The early church service we attend is more like a discussion group but other than prayers for the ill or the dead-and-gone, the subject of death and dying—our own or that of our loved ones—rarely is up for extended discussion. And when it pops up it’s usually wrapped and Fedex-ed Upstairs quickly with a brief note about life everlasting or a comforting scriptural passage.

Of recently I’ve adopted what I describe as a Buddhist take on dying.  It's probably a glib denial under another name.

I try to concentrate on the moment and to be a reasonably decent person right now.

I’ve concluded that obsessing about one’s eventual departure, which is certain, and the circumstances, which are anything but, only extends the potential unpleasantness of it all from the future to the here and now.

It ruins the day, and done daily it ruins the life we have left.

Indeed, there have to be more pleasant things to talk about.
The genius of Chast’s book is how methodically and unflinchingly she took notes and drew cartoons about her parents’ last few years, from the beginning of the end, to the very end, including some indignities and dilemmas like her mother’s incontinence, her father’s dementia and the mounting bills for nursing homes, ambulances and the services of a saintly Jamaican nurse, among others.

I recommend Chast’s book. Despite the topic, it’s not all depressing. If anything, I found many parts of it inspirational, particularly her courage in writing the book.

I’d bring it up at church though I don’t think it would be received with much more than a polite groan.

May I also recommend a new HBO show called “Getting On.” It’s set in a geriatric ward of a hospital populated by folks with all sorts of physical and mental problems who are attended by medical and nursing staff with problems of their own.

Yes, it’s a comedy and it’s hilarious. Trust me.  

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