Book review: ‘Unforgettable’ chronicles life and death experience
May 29, 2017
For fans of National Public Radio, the name Scott Simon conjures up lazy weekends of thoughtful interviews, provoking commentaries and lighthearted sports news.
Not only has Simon left his mark on Weekend Edition, the Saturday show he hosts, but his name has been synonymous with NPR for decades. In addition to his role as a prominent voice on public radio, Simon has authored several books. His most recent and arguably most personal one is "Unforgettable; A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime," in which he details the last days of his mother's life, as she succumbed to the final stages of lung cancer.
With a loyal and supportive social media following, Simon originally documented those final days of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman via his Twitter-feed, and the book includes some of the many tweets from his time at her side in palliative care. From those sound-bite short documentations of the experience, he expanded the story, and the result is both immensely personal and profoundly familiar, adding up to a stirring read.
"I think I wrote the 140-character lines for distraction, for companionship and because although my world had pretty much shrunk to the confines of a single room in an intensive care unit, what I heard, saw and felt there touched on the universal experience of life and death," he writes.
Simon came to realize, as he spent those final days with his mother, that her passing was no longer an abstraction for later in the future; he was literally watching it play out in real time.
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The wholeness of living
His glamorous mother had "worked in night clubs; she'd modeled; she'd dated mobsters; she was a divorced single mother who had been married to a comedian."
In spite of all this, though, Simon insists that they lived an unglamorous lifestyle.
"We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with radiators that clanged and coughed and a shower that ran hot and cold when the toilet flushed," he writes
Simon not only tackles the realities of his mother's death head on and in stark terms, he shines a bright light into some dark corners of their life together. His father, a comedian, was a drunk who binged himself into an early grave, so Simon was raised, in part, by his mother's friends — a tightly-knit group of strong women, as well as a handful of transitory men, and ultimately two men who stayed.
The imperfections of everyday life are where the kernels of truth dwell, and Simon shies away from none of them, weaving a tale about the wholeness of living — seen as the life of then, the life of now, and the life of next.
There are plenty of moments for tears, while Simon steadfastly waits to escort his mother through the final door, as she was there to escort him in through his first.
One poignant tweet reads, "In the middle of nights like this, my knees shake as if there's an earthquake. I hold my mother's arm for strength — still."
Their deep bond is evident on every page, as is the formative role she played in inspiring Simon to be the courteous and attentive radio host who so many have grown to love. She once told him, "don't waste time trying to figure out how to avoid doing something good."
In her final days, he finds her characteristically writing thank you notes to her manicurist and dry cleaner, not wanting any loose ends, and also because "she wrote letters as a way to take stock of life." Charging her spirit with some of her favorite music — Nat King Cole's milky voice blending with his daughter's from beyond the grave — Simon recounts her final minutes in such excruciatingly stirring detail that the heart aches.
"In that horrifying and exquisite moment, I held my mother as I have held my children. I tried to look without blinking into her bottomless brown eyes. I told her, 'I'm here. Look at me. Give me everything. Every fear, every pain. Leave them with me. I'm your son.' Our eyes locked for a long time."
And now, try to listen to Weekend Edition with a dry eye.
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