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Gary Larson cow cartoon

Far Side {format} {format} 4:31 Jake Warga

A comic strip as metaphor and memories.

Broadcast: Dec 29 2003 on NPR All Things Considered Subjects: Holidays, Health, Comedy

Commentary: Memories of a late mother and her calendar

December 29, 2003 from All Things Considered

MELISSA BLOCK, host: As the new year approaches, commentator Jake Warga has started hunting for a new calendar. As he does, he can't help remembering one his mother had.


I walked into the bookstore, and there they were, a pile of "Far Side" Off-The-Wall calendars, the one where you tear a cartoon off each day from a pad about four inches square. You know the one. Here's an example. This one's a classic. View from an airline cockpit, a mountain goat seen through the clouds. One pilot says to the other, `Say, what's a mountain goat doing way up here in a cloud bank?'

I haven't had a calendar for years, but I remember when my mom did. I had brought it from her desk at home to the hospital she was at. I suggested she pace herself, but by the time I came back, she had devoured them all, marking the good ones. She was starved for many things. She had NPO on her chart, nothing per ora, nothing by mouth. She could chew on ice, crushed ice. Crohn's disease had put a stop to her intestine, a very painful stop.

(Soundbite of music)

WARGA: Two frames: At the top, on a cloud, an angel says to a line of recent arrivals, `Welcome to heaven. Here's your harp.' On the bottom frame, in a fiery cave, the devil says, `Welcome to hell. Here's your accordion.'

Each trip to the hospital, I would bring over a McDonald's Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, fries and a Coke. The combination was heaven for her, not that the food tasted great or anything, but the taste brought back memories. Once, my mom took my best friend and me to McDonald's for lunch. She wasn't hungry, so she just watched us eat. She sat closer to George, who was a bit surprised to see that a bite had been taken out of his new Quarter-Pounder. My mother, chewing, gave him a smile. He was shocked. This kind of thing didn't happen in his family. George reminded my mom for a while after that that she owes him a bite of cheeseburger. Then one day in college, he got a small package. Inside was, well, a bite of cheeseburger with lipstick marks and all. I thought it was funny, but I wasn't surprised. It was just my mom, the funniest person I know.

(Soundbite of air raid siren)

WARGA: City street scene. Nuclear cloud in the distance. Buildings on fire. Car jams. People running, screaming, panicking. And a dog on the sidewalk, looking down at an area on the street where there is nothing really to see. The caption: And then Jake saw something that grabbed his attention.

Days in the hospital turned into weeks, then months. Day by day, morphine slowly replaced reality. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was add DNR to her chart, do not resuscitate. It meant that if my mom's heart were to stop, no one was to start it again, no heroic actions. It's what all the doctors and nurses recommended. I was alone outside the ICU in the same hospital my father died, one floor up, just nine months earlier.

(Soundbite of music)

WARGA: The caption reads: Specialized obituaries. For a clown, the column is titled, `Pied.' The farmer `bought the farm.' A vampire, `staked.' Cow: `kicked the bucket.' The possum, `not faking it.'

I'd tell my mom, `I love you,' each day, even if I was angry at her for something. Her mood had changed from the funniest person I knew to the angriest and the saddest. She sometimes tired of me saying, `I love you,' replying, `Yes, yes.' When on a respirator, unable to speak, she was defenseless when I said it. A nod or, if it was a particularly hard day, a roll of the eyes. But soon, the morphine silenced her forever. She died the day before her 65th birthday.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

WARGA: A dejected train engine begs for money on a city street with a plea sign reading, `I thought I could. I thought I could.'

I buy the "Far Side" calendar from the book shop, but since I'm leaving soon for the season, I rip a few weeks ahead to when I'll be back. Sitting in my kitchen, sipping a Coke, I think of a daisy, you know, how you pluck the petals one by one. For each day I rip off the calendar, I say out loud, `She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me.'

BLOCK: Commentator Jake Warga is an anthropologist who lives in Seattle.