On Feb. 20, 1996, Jim Comer received the call that changed everything.
“Hi Jim, this is Lisa Huff,” Comer heard through the fog of sleep. “Your daddy is in the front yard in a daze. I think he had a stroke.”
Comer lived on the West Coast. His parents were in Dallas.
“I heard him yelling in the background,” Comer says. “In that moment, I knew that her sidewalk diagnosis was right. Neighbors told him they were taking him for Mexican food, but instead they took him to the hospital. By the time I got there, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk and he had no control over his body functions.”
To make matters worse, his father, 86, had been in denial for a least three years about his mother’s Alzheimer’s condition.
“He wouldn’t talk about it,” Comer says. “He would get up and leave the table. And I let him get away with it. The only thing I could convince him to do is take my mom in for a full physical, but they didn’t bring up the ‘A Word.’ We’d never talked about insurance, finances, end of life decisions, wills, powers of attorney.”
Now a speaker and writer, Comer did what an only surviving child could do: He moved back to Texas and, with the help of some Austin-area relatives, took charge.
These days, the former sketch comedy writer and performer is in demand speaking on the increasingly timely subject of parenting one’s parents.
Comer, 69, was born in Austin.
His father, John Comer, served two tours of duty in the Air Force during World War II and wrote a bestselling journal about his combat raids. His mother, Annie Haynie, grew up in Smithville in a family of teachers and shop owners.
“Like so many people, for a little while, I felt this tremendous need to make up for my brother’s death,” Comer says. “Of course there was no need. All I could be is me.”
Comer spent much of his childhood in Atlanta and Dallas, an average student who got elected to everything, including president of the student body. He longed, however, for theatrical training not available in his high schools.
He remained active in student government — if not academics — at Trinity University in San Antonio.
“One English teacher said: ‘Mr. Comer, you are a latent student,” he says with a laugh. “’You really could do it if you wanted to, couldn’t you? I sure wish you would.’”
After a brief stint teaching in Los Angeles, he moved to New York in the pivotal year 1968. “Hair” had just opened. Demonstrations and riots were part of the fluid social, political and cultural scene.
Fired as a waiter from various eateries, Comer started writing jokes for comedian Joan Rivers at $7 a line.
“She used one on Ed Sullivan,” he says. “I thought: I’m famous now. Somehow the people I served burgers to the next day didn’t think so.”
With a comic partner, Comer dived into open mic nights and started working the 1970s sketch and improv circuit. Once, they sent material to Lorne Michaels.
“He called us into 30 Rock and said he wanted to use us as writers on his new show,” he says. “We just knew it was a TV show, not what would become ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We left feeling great. Never heard from him again. It was the single hardest moment in my career.”
He tried writing for newspapers, then, serendipitously, wrote speeches for the president of Avon.
“I heard him practice,” Comer says. “He was god-awful! So I coached him. From then on, I became the speech coach for all the Avon executives.”
Once, comedy legend Bob Hope spoke at an Avon convention. Comer wrote his monologue using insider Avon humor. His first joke was about a much-maligned choice for the company car. Hope was dubious.
“He said: ‘I’ll tell one joke, and if they laugh, I’ll do the whole monologue,’” Comer says. “The joke: ‘Avon is treating me like a king, they met me at the airport in a chauffeur-driven Chevette.’ They went crazy!”
Comer left New York in 1982 thinking that he would become a TV writer in Los Angeles, but he ended up writing and coaching more corporate speeches.
“I spent too many years trying to be rich and famous,” Comer says. “But my best role has been coming back for my parents and helping others with theirs.”
What does an adult offspring do?
When Comer returned to Texas — luckily, he worked for an understanding boss — he found an unexpected scene around his parents.
“I could hear a collective sigh of relief,” he says. “The only surviving son is here. The man with all the answers. I didn’t even know the right questions. I had to find out real fast.”
After his dad spent six weeks at a Dallas rehab facility, Comer looked for a similar spot in Central Texas, where some kind cousins could help with care.
“I chose St. David’s because a nurse smiled at me,” he says. “It convinced me that would be the spirit with which they’d treat my father.”
Complicating matters, his mother insisted on staying in Dallas. His dad was deaf and refused to wear his hearing aids. Both parents had broken their hips and got around in wheelchairs.
“After five years as a caregiver for both parents, people began asking me: ‘How do you do it?’” Comer says. “I wanted to respond: ‘How do you not?’ The job was demanding, but there were no other applicants for the position.” (Comer’s father died in 2005 and his mother in 2010.)
After many a dinner party discussion, Comer wrote a book, “When Roles Reverse: A Guide for Parenting Your Parents.” Much of his material is collected at www.parenting-your-parents.com.
“The goal was to help families communicate early and often, before health disasters occurred,” he says. “The time to ask hard questions and make tough decisions about aging is when parents are healthy. There are no meaningful discussions on a respirator.”
Comer shares tips on Medicare, nursing facilities and wills.
“While we are on the subject, do you have a will?” he says. “It is hard to believe, but seven out of 10 Americans don’t. Ten out of 10 will die. I know because I Googled it!”
While some families welcome “the talk,” others refuse to face fate.
“There may be tears and angry voices,” he says. “No matter what the initial response, getting information is better than facing a health crisis uninformed and unprepared.”
His single most important lesson came just three months after becoming a caregiver.
“Mother, still in the early stages of dementia, asked if we could go to see her sister, Estelle, in Smithville,” Comer recalls. “That would have been a perfectly logical question except for one tiny fact: Her sister had been dead for eight years. Being a rookie, I made a bad decision and replied: ‘Mama, we can’t see Estelle. She’s in heaven.’ That was a news flash to Mother, who began to sob loudly, tears rolling down both cheeks, her body heaving with grief that my ignorance had caused.”
An Alzheimer’s expert later told him: “Quit trying to drag your mother into your world. She can’t go there anymore. Instead, you must go into her world.”
Doing just that retained his sanity.
“Caring for my parents was the most important job I ever held,” Comer says. “I discovered that dignity comes in many shapes, including bent, wrinkled and walker-assisted. Most of all, I learned that patience is the currency of love.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history