The cartoonist — who has also received pioneering National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle recognition for “Can’t We Talk” — does admit her fondness for interacting with readers. “I like doing the shows, and I like showing the cartoons,” she tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I guess I like to work by myself, but sometimes it’s fun to actually hear people laugh. I like being able to toggle between the two.”
Then, as if writing a cartoon in her characteristic style, she can’t resist pushing her description a bit for emotional comic effect. “Basically, I’m a misanthrope — the less contact, the better,” says Chast, laughing. “I’m pretty sure at [awards ceremonies], they’re only feeling sorry for me.”
Chast waits a beat, then comes clean: “Oh, I really don’t hate it. I’m very good at making lemonade into lemons.”
Fortunately for Washington fans, Chast hasn’t soured on hopping the train down to the nation’s capital, where she’ll speak (and sign) tonight at 7:30 — at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center in Northwest. She’s fond of the mode of travel — “It’s not like going to the airport,” she sighs — as well as of the audiences who relate deeply to her writing about eldercare and the process of facing your parents’ final years.
“I guess you could say death is universal, and having parents is universal,” Chast says of her book’s broad appeal. “I think it’s also that most people get this: It’s not just that you’re losing a parent — it’s that once you get to that point, you know who’s next. It’s a little bit [about] realizing that, too, is universal.”
Chast hadn’t planned on writing a memoir about her parents’ last years, but she had accumulated years of rejected cartoons about her folks, who both died in their 90s, and so the beginnings of a book were already there. And when she entered the sometimes surreal world of her parents’ eldercare treatment, her cartoonist’s mind couldn’t help but find fodder amid the difficulty. Often, against the enormity of impending death, it was the small, odd things that stood out.
“It’s a weird thing in those homes,” she says. “When I eventually took my parents there, there were these posters that said things like: ‘We’re going to have a trip to the mall!’ And they had these themed-dinner nights, as if these people were 6 years old. Once, the theme was outer space. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is weird.’ This wasn’t an Alzheimer’s wing — this was for everybody.
“Just because they were old and as dependent as a child doesn’t mean they were children,” continues Chast, adding that such treatment would bother her “if I were 88 or 92 and had all my marbles.”
“My idea of respect is to treat them like a human being and not like they’re a child. Some places think they’re cheering people up [with posters and themes], but I don’t find that cheery.”
Chast sees that “Hey, isn’t this FUN?” approach to eldercare as a larger American symptom. “It’s all part of the denial-of-death culture,” the author says. “We treat them like: ‘Put on a smile’ or, ‘ Did we enjoy our Pablum?’ ”
Such treatment is not about easing the process for the aging, but rather doing so for those close to the patient, says Chast, who notes that her appreciation for elder-caregivers has grown substantially since she began speaking to health-industry professionals upon the book’s release. “I never spoke to hospice groups before this,” she says. “It’s incredible what these people do who work in the world of eldercare — and that’s going to be a lot of us.”
“There are these chapters of life that I knew nothing about — that we’re not supposed to think about,” acknowledges Chast, who includes herself among those who was long able to deny the realities of life’s last pages — thanks in part to how idealized death is “sold” in America.
“We’re all evidently going to die in our sleep at 100,” the cartoonist says sardonically. “The day before that, we’ll be skiing and playing racquetball and eating fantastic meals, and then: The End.”