When I was 13, my mother learned that she had multiple sclerosis. By that point she couldn’t drive, get dressed or walk by herself. My father became her sole caretaker, and she was less than appreciative.
When she rang the buzzer, he never got there fast enough. When he brought her a glass of water, there was never the right amount of ice. He wore long sleeves even in the summer because she scratched his arms in anger when he was helping her to the bathroom.
They eventually moved from Long Island to Fort Myers, Fla., so she could have a house with no stairs and a driveway with no snow. But in Florida my father had no friends, so I worried how he would cope with the lack of personal purpose once she was gone.
One thing made me worry less. As a teenager, my father had been declared a prodigy by his art teacher. He had commuted an hour-plus each way from Brooklyn to go to the High School of Industrial Art in Manhattan and then to Pratt Institute.
He went on to become an art teacher and had some exhibits of his oil paintings in libraries and galleries in Queens and Long Island. But when my mother got ill, his creative life came to a halt.
As my mother’s condition worsened, she was admitted to an assisted living facility, where my father was her constant bedside companion. Once when I flew in from Los Angeles, where I worked as a freelance writer, I was wandering the halls and heard a patient yell at a nurse that he was being “micromanaged.”
I had an odd thought: Do one-celled organisms under a microscope complain about being “micro micromanaged”? I scribbled it into the notebook I kept in my pocket. When I returned to my mother’s room, she was napping. I remembered my father’s love for art and quietly asked him if he had any interest in drawing a single-paneled cartoon.
My father was not much of a talker. My mother’s overbearing personality had forced him into a shell — getting more than a word or two out of him was rare. When he was teaching me to drive, I had asked if it was more important to concentrate on the cars ahead or the cars behind.
“Both,” he said and then was silent for the next three miles. Extracting even the briefest of conversations from him was like hitting the lottery.
He gave no definitive answer to my cartoon query. I asked him again the following day. Still no real response. I ultimately dropped the idea of collaborating and went home.
I understood. He had enough on his plate already.
About a week later, my computer pinged with an email from my then almost 80-year-old father — with an attachment. I downloaded the file and there it was. The micro micromanaging cartoon that I had asked him to draw. The positioning of one cell scolding the other cell to “Move your membrane to the edge of the slide, please!” was just as I had described to him. His style was reminiscent of the 1950s; crisp simple lines with no wasted energy. It was perfect.
We began to do four to five single-panel cartoons per week. I would come up with a series of ideas, email them to him, argue with him about where the joke was and fight for an occasional curse word if the cartoon wouldn’t work without it.
My father had a lot of off-limit subjects: no foul language, no sex, no politics. Comic book heroes were a favorite topic of his, and we did a series called “Superheroes When Their Mothers Are Around.”
Here’s what a typical emailed idea to my father would look like:
We see a person drowning in the ocean yelling, “Help me, Aquaman!”
Aquaman, his mother at his side, is on the edge of the sand yelling back, “Sorry! I just ate. Can’t go in the water for another half-hour.”
My mother enjoyed seeing the cartoons as much as we enjoyed creating them. Unfortunately, she wasn’t around for very many.
After burying her, my father was propelled into the land of unknowns. When an elderly person’s spouse passes, there are often two paths to choose: give up on life or reinvent oneself. I was determined to make sure my father picked the latter.
I began to post our cartoons on social media and a (very) small following ensued. I then started a website where I would repost them. The process of emailing my father the cartoon ideas, talking on the phone daily and then giving feedback and tweaks on his art gave us purpose. By then, most of my magazine work had dried up, as had my jobs in television. Worse than the financial hit I had taken was the creative slump.
Even though we lived 3,000 miles apart, my father and I grew closer than we had ever been. He began to relax his litany of taboos and, with a modicum of pressure, nearly every topic was now in play except politics. Occasionally he would even pitch me his ideas, nearly all of which lacked punchlines. Conversely, I would take a crack at drawing, but the ensuing art was dreadful. We needed each other for this to work.
The art motivated my father in other ways, too. He joined Overeaters Anonymous, a gym, several book clubs and a temple. He eventually started dating.
Drawing gave him confidence. Besides, he told me, if his prospective date laughed at our cartoons, it checked a lot of boxes. I started coming up with more relationship-oriented content. He particularly liked the one captioned “Bad Blind Dates” with a porcupine seated at a restaurant across from a balloon twisted into the shape of a dog.
Shortly after my father’s 85th birthday, I got a call from my sister, Patti, who lives around the corner from him. “Dad’s in the hospital,” she said.
He had suffered a heart attack. I got on the next plane to Fort Myers to see him before it was too late. He was in his hospital room, snoring. On the back of his food tray, I spotted a napkin with some doodling. The caption said, “Surgical Luxuries.” The drawing was too messy to decode the joke, if there even was one.
But it gave me an idea.
“Dad, how about this for a cartoon,” I said when he awoke. “The World’s Worst Cardiologist. Then we see a doctor operating on someone, holding their damaged heart aloft as if it were a trout, saying, ‘This heart looks terrible. Good thing everyone has two!’”
My father laughed. Eleven days later, I was able to drive him home.
The first thing he did after I shut his front door was drag his oxygen tank over to his drafting table. The day of his heart attack he had been working on a cartoon of ours about how it was impossible to tell who was the better air harmonica player — with two men each holding their hands, sans instrument, up to their mouths. My father was determined to finish it that day, which he did, even when the plastic oxygen cord and his drawing hand became entangled.
As my father’s strength returned, he was over the moon about cartooning. He often carried a folder of his favorites to show to new friends at the synagogue, post office and Silver Sneakers yoga class. For decades his art muscles had atrophied, but as he built them back up, his teenage self’s enthusiasm returned.
Then last April I felt lightheaded, with odd heart palpitations — something that, as a devout exerciser, I had never experienced. I went to the doctor who sent me to the hospital, where, on my 20th wedding anniversary, I wound up spending the night.
The next morning, seconds after I had checked my email, five nurses rushed in. My resting heart rate had spiked to 187. They assumed I’d had a heart attack. I explained that I had just received an email saying that my father and I had sold our first cartoon to The New Yorker.
The nurses didn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the situation.
After nearly a year of waiting — and almost a dozen years since my father and I started collaborating — our first cartoon appeared in the magazine two months ago (and three weeks before my father’s 90th birthday). He may very well be the oldest first-time cartoonist in The New Yorker.
He is now painting, drawing and talking so much I have to pretend I’m getting another call to escape his exuberance. If he were to ask me whether I was prouder of the cartoon or of him turning his life around, I would say, “Both.”