‘Mother called: ‘I can’t talk I’m surrounded by handsome men.’ Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now …”
That was the first of several tweets Scott Simon sent when summoned to a Chicago-area hospital for what became the last days of his mother’s life.
The NPR host of “Weekend Editions Saturday” thought he was writing to combat the monotony of being confined to a small room in an intensive care unit as his mother lay dying from lung cancer. But those concise 124 character missives, sent over the course of several days in July 2013, told the poignant story of a son’s love and the lessons he learned from her about humor, resilience and the enormous power of kindness.
Tweeting his mother’s death in real time made national headlines; the tweets went viral and the online community grieved Simon’s loss right along with him. Simon since expanded the tweets into a memoir: “Unforgettable: A Son a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime” by Scott Simon (Flatiron, 2015) It is a tribute to Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, 84, a marvelously entertaining and inspiring woman, even on her deathbed.
Simon’s mother worked as a showgirl in Chicago night clubs, as a secretary at an ad agency during the Mad Men era, as a car show model and as a hand model in TV ads.
A single mother who married three times, the two lived together in a Chicago apartment. His mother slept on a rollout sofa bed in the living room, the blue light of Johnny Carson on TV flickering into the hallway late into the night. She sacrificed much in order to provide her young son with a new winter coat and the baseball mitt Simon was convinced would make him a major leaguer.
Ernie Simon, Simon’s father, was a professional comedian “who drank himself into a nosedive,” Simon wrote. His parents divorced when Scott was 6.
During one of their many bedside conversations that week, she explained to her son: “It’s easy to fall in love with a drinker. They’re charming. You make them happy. But it’s one thing to fall in love with someone who drinks and another thing to wake up with him day after day.”
Simon slept on the floor at the hospital, later buying a sleeping bag on Michigan Avenue. Pulling out his tablet computer, Simon downloaded her musical requests: Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Ol’ Blue Eyes and her beloved Nat: “Unforgettable, that’s what you are. Unforgettable, though near or far.”
One of his early tweets: “My mother and I just sang Que Sera Sera 3 times. God bless you Doris Day for giving us such a great theme song.”
“Things are more fun with you here,” she told her only child. “We’ve always been able to make each other laugh. We’ve always been lucky that way, haven’t we?”
In between chasing the pain and struggling to breathe, they resurrected scraps of memories. One afternoon they batted back and forth the names of her many suitors.
And they talked about her great gal pals; all of whom became aunts to Scott: Auntie Chris, Auntie Abba, Auntie Geri, Auntie Melba. “What I remember of that group of women from my boyhood is lingering impromptu evenings with lots of snorts and laughter, olives and cheddar cheese on rye crackers, the stroke of matches, the tinkle of ice, compact makeup mirrors folded with a snap. High heels under the coffee table, Tony Bennett on the turntable and an occasional crying jag.”
Taking breaks during, the temperature taking, the IV drip bag and oxygen mask changes, Simon sent out both colorful and tender tweets: “My mother: “Believe me those great death bed speeches are written ahead of time.” And: “Mother I don’t know why this is going on so long. I’m late for everything I guess.” “Mother asks: ‘Will this go on forever?’ She means, pain, dread. ‘No.’ She says: ‘but we’ll go on forever You and Me.’” And, then one of the last tweets: “Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping.”
Some in the online community complained that Simon’s intimate tweets were inappropriate or that he’d exploited his mother’s last days.
In response, Simon wrote: “My mother died and I mourned. That’s as much a part of life as love and taxes. Why be quiet about it? She was an old showgirl who have a great last performance and died with her son by her side. That’s an event to be shared with the jubilation of a birth.”