Tales of My Mother #7


I was an only child. When that fact came up in conversation, I used to tell people, "My folks figured that if you get it right the first time, don't press your luck." The truth is that I was a very difficult birth. I was due on February 29, 1952 and my mother spent most of that day and all of March 1 in a hospital in agonizing pain, unable to deliver. Finally on March 2nd, they went in and got me. She was a month shy of 31 at the time and after I was out, the doctor who'd poked around inside her in order to deliver me told her, "Do not under any circumstances let yourself get pregnant again. You will never make it through another birth alive."

Her gynecologist later concurred. That little fact is always on my mind when I read debates about abortion and come across someone who believes they should be illegal with no exceptions. What would have probably happened if my mother had gotten pregnant again is that either she would have aborted or both she and that fetus would have died. The latter option doesn't sound particularly "pro-life" to me.

She told me more than once that if she had gotten in a "family way" then, she would not have hesitated to abort. The gamble that the doctors were wrong was not worth losing her life and leaving my father and me without her. As far as I know, it was never necessary. They were lucky…and also very careful. After my father died in '91, she asked me to clean out his drawer and not tell her about anything in there that I thought she wouldn't have wanted to know about. They had no secrets from each other but each had one small drawer in their bedroom which the other agreed to never open. I have not cleaned out hers yet though she told me once it held letters and photos of male friends who preceded my father. His had nothing I felt she'd care about but it did contain an awful lot of very old and unopened condoms.

I never in my life wished I had a brother or sister. Never for one second. When I went to the homes of friends who had siblings, I only heard screaming and yelling and fighting over belongings…and envy from my friends that I had my own room and the undivided love and attention of my parents. I didn't even wish I'd had a brother or sister after my father passed and I became my mother's only local relative and so had total responsibility for her well-being and needs.

She insisted to her last day on living alone…and she did if you don't count the many days each year she spent in Kaiser Hospital. Every few months — every few weeks the last few years — she'd have some sort of attack and she'd either phone me or push The Button.

What I call The Button was on a little locket-like piece of plastic jewelry she wore around her neck at all times. I called it her "I've fallen and I can't get up" button but it was not the brand you see advertised all the time on TV using that catch-phrase. When my mother got old enough that she needed something like that — a service to monitor her and send help if necessary — I checked out several and found many to be way more expensive than others. The one I chose — and we were really happy with them — was this one. I don't know if there's a better service now but I think I picked the best one around at the time I was looking.

The Button could get pushed at any hour. Occasionally, it was just a matter of me making the 15-minute drive from my home to help her get up off the floor. If I wasn't home at the time, it could be a lot more than 15 minutes and I had friends standing-by in case I was too far. But once, it was a lot less than 15 minutes…

My mother was out in the kitchen one day making herself some lunch. She slipped on something, fell…and while she wasn't injured, she was unable to get back up. The Button was pushed, the monitoring person came online to talk to her (via a super-sensitive speakerphone in the living room) and she yelled to him to call her son. The monitoring person phoned her son…who happened to be two blocks from her home at that moment. I was on my way to Stan Freberg's house for something when my cellphone rang and a man told me, "Your mother is unhurt but she needs you to come over and help her get up." I said, "Tell her I'll be there in 45 seconds!"

Usually though, it wasn't that easy. The last two years of her life, the calls — either from her or someone monitoring The Button — averaged about one every thirty days and in the two decades before that, at least one every six months. The nighttime ones always seemed to come around 4 AM, which is never a convenient time for anyone. As some of you have observed in the time stamps on postings here, I'm often up at 4 AM. All too often, I capped my workday with an emergency call and instead of heading to bed, I was in my car, racing over there. The daytime ones always seemed to come when I was in the middle of something that she dearly regretted taking me away from.

That was a significant part of the problem: The guilt she always felt for disrupting my life. I would always do my best to calm her down and convince her she hadn't yanked me away from something important. Since (a) she usually had, (b) I'm a bad liar and (c) she was so perceptive, I could never quite convince her. One reason I think she died when she did was because she felt so bad about always disrupting my life with those calls.

They came at inopportune moments: When I was on my way to deliver a speech at Joe Barbera's funeral. When I was on my way to opening night of a play I really wanted to see. When I had about twelve hours to write a cartoon script and then sleep before the next morning when that script would be recorded.

Twice, I was out of town at comic conventions. In 1995, I was in San Diego at that year's Comic-Con International, attending the Eisner Awards in a big hall at the hotel where I happened to be staying. Sergio and I had been nominated for an Eisner and I was sitting there awaiting our category when a bellman came in looking for me. My mother had called 911 or pushed The Button. In the emergency room, they asked her about relatives and she'd told them, "I only have one." She meant one within 3000 miles. "But he's out of town. I think he's at the Hyatt in San Diego."

Someone at the hospital phoned the hotel and of course, I was not in my room…but a wise hotel operator switched the call to the Front Desk. Someone there looked me up, saw I was a guest of the convention and figured I might be at the big ceremony then going on in their ballroom. They sent a bellman to see if I was and a person at the door told him, "Yes, he's here. He's a tall fellow seated at Table 1."

One minute later, the tall fellow at Table 1 was out at the house phone in the lobby talking with a doctor. The first thing she said to me was, "Your mother has had what appears to be a mild heart attack. She's resting comfortably and she wanted you to know about it but she said to tell you not to interrupt your trip to drive back."

I said, "I think I oughta drive back."

The doctor said, "I think you should too but that's what your mother told me to tell you."

I phoned my cleaning lady (also my mother's cleaning lady) and told her to head for my mother's house to fetch certain supplies I was sure would be needed at the hospital. Then I ran back into the Eisner Awards ceremony to tell Sergio that I was heading for Los Angeles and that he should accept without me if we won. I was just bending over to whisper to him when I heard a voice say, "…and the winners are Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier for Groo the Wanderer!"

Sergio leaped up and threw an arm around me and I found myself being led involuntarily to the stage. When we got up there, Will Eisner pumped my hand and muttered what I think was a compliment but I didn't hear it. Sergio shoved me towards the microphone and said "You go first" and if you were there and perchance wonder to this day why my acceptance speech was so lame and incoherent…well, there's your explanation. I mean, it would have probably been lame and incoherent to some extent if I hadn't been thinking about my mother and all I had to do but it was even lamer and less coherent than my norm. Ten minutes later, I was on the 5 racing north. I made it in a hair under two hours.

When I walked into my mother's room, she had two reactions, one immediately after the other. The first was, "Mark, you're here," uttered with relief and gratitude. The second was, "Mark, you're here," uttered with embarrassment that she'd yanked me away from somewhere else and made me make that drive. I ended up going back and forth two other times that weekend — once by car, once by plane — alternately hosting panels and tending to my mother's needs.

Then in 2009, I was in San Francisco interviewing Wendy Pini at a WonderCon panel when my Blackberry vibrated with the little code I'd programmed to tell me my mother had pushed The Button. I took the call, heard that paramedics were en route to her home, excused myself from the panel, dashed back to my hotel room, grabbed my laptop, taxied to the airport and jumped on the next Southwest flight home. Just before I boarded the plane, I got a call that she'd been taken to UCLA Medical Center.

90 minutes later, I was getting into my car at a lot near LAX when I received a call from a nurse, not at UCLA but at Cedars-Sinai. "I was told she was at UCLA," I said.

The nurse replied, "No, they brought her here," thereby saving me at least an hour of going to the wrong hospital and not knowing where my mother was. "She said to tell you to stay in San Francisco and not fly back here."

Instead, 40 minutes after landing, I walked into a cubicle in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai where my mother was being treated. She had the same two reactions as above, only more severe and again, I wound up commuting back and forth all weekend.

I have many other stories on this theme but I think I'm going to break this in two and continue it next time. I've more than made the point that it was a royal pain all those years to drop everything else in my life and race over to take her into the emergency room or meet the ambulance there. So now I need to explain how I managed to put up with it. I just reminded myself that collectively, it was nowhere near as much pain as she endured between 2/29/52 and the moment of my birth. The scale never even came close to balancing over that, let alone all she did for me after.

And that was all I needed to remember.

I'm telling you about all this — and there's more to tell — because of an e-mail I got from someone who wrote…

I'm somewhat younger than you are and like you are, I believe, an only child. My father is gone. I love my mother but I am afraid of what that's going to mean when she gets older and needs someone to take care of her. I cannot afford the time or money to take care of her and while I will do what I can, I know it cannot be enough. I would appreciate any pointers you can give me about what I have to do and what I can decline to do.

I can't tell this person what they can decline to do because I have no idea what his mother will need, nor can I gauge his sense of obligation and caring. But I can tell you what I did and what I realized was the most important thing I could do for my mother. I'll tell you about it in the next part, which should be along in the next few days here.