Countering our culture’s disregard for all things elderly, comics have become a medium of choice for celebrating the lives of our oldest and wisest generation. Bird in a Cage (Conundrum Press, 2016) joins a growing roster of graphic novels about the elderly that explore how much they are loved, how rich and complicated their lives are, and how difficult it can be to say goodbye to them.
Center for Cartoon Studies graduate Rebecca Roher offers up this de facto homage to her maternal grandmother, Mary “Grandma Wylie” Campbell, who at eighty-two was hit by a car while crossing the street and spent her remaining twelve years in a debilitated state or, as the title suggests, like a “bird in a cage.” Up until the accident, Grandma Wylie was one of those spitfire-type grannies we’re accustomed to seeing onscreen—think, characters played by Shirley MacLaine or Estelle Getty. As an octogenarian, she was still hustling around town with a full schedule of activities, which makes her accident all the more heartbreaking. Infuriatingly, the nature of the accident itself highlights how elderly women in general are overlooked members of society. They are invisible insofar as they are deemed incapable of productivity and reproduction. Ever in society’s blindspot, “women of a certain age” are ignored at restaurants, disrespected in the workplace, and even, as Roher points out, hit by cars simply because they are not seen.
After the accident, Grandma took residence in a nursing home, surrounded by a female-dominated care and support network as is so often the case with elder care. Roher’s mother and two sisters, cousins and aunt, and Grandma Wylie’s older sister and daughter visit her often to talk with her doctors, to sing to her, and even—in the sweetest, most touching moment in the book—to group massage her freshly-bathed body with shea butter. Clearly enjoying the physical attention, Grandma smiles as sweetly as a baby in a bathtub, which hints at the evolving roles of care-taking within a family.
But Grandma Wylie was not without fault or criticism, and Roher makes sure to honor her life by presenting an unsentimental and complete picture of it. She delves deeper into her past, recounting her upbringing in the Walden-esque Muldrew Lakes area of Ontario, her domestic family life in urban Toronto, and even her partial abandonment of her family when the author’s mother was a teenager. Our elders are only wiser because they’ve learned from decades of mistakes and poor decisions, and as this tale suggests, it’s okay to celebrate that, too.
Comics is a visual vocabulary, and Roher’s language is lovingly considered. Panels are demarcated without the use of traditional borders, or are “uncaged.” Clearly on par with her feelings about Grandma Wylie, her pencil lines reveal the pressure of the hand used to make them—intimate, compassionate, and wistful. Roher’s wispy and gestural pencil marks seem appropriate for illustrating a work of memory, which is how she classifies this story in its preface. Mutable. Erasable. Intentionally un-inked.
Overall this book is a gem, and is one of the more visceral examples of its genre. My one complaint is the book’s title. Unlike Bird in a Cage suggests, the story actually isn’t a depressing cliché of aging—that of being trapped in a deteriorating body. Instead, it’s about the reciprocity of familial love, and the reflexivity of bodily care. Through the unique way that the comics medium can create visual “presentness,” it is a thoughtful and loving dedication to Grandma Wylie and through it, she is reawakened.