On July 23, Scott Simon, the longtime host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, posted a tweet to his 1.2 million followers: “I just want to say that ICU nurses are remarkable people. Thank you for what you do for our loved ones.”
The tweet immediately preceding that one was about Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun. That week, Simon also tweeted about watching “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” about eating tamales, about a strange dream featuring Ed Koch. A typical Twitter feed, semi-entertaining from a semi-famous person, whose career has been built on inviting listeners into his life.
But then something happened. Something either moving or melancholy, something raw and painfully naked, which led Simon’s feed to be retweeted by Katie Couric, Esquire magazine, the AARP, the “Today” show, the normally sharp-edged BuzzFeed. Which led perfect strangers to tell Simon that he had made them burst into tears. Which led readers to think about good deaths and good lives.
Simon was tweeting about ICU nurses, it turned out, because his mother was in the intensive-care unit and she was dying. In the next days, he sent 140-character dispatches into the world narrating the minutiae of her last moments on Earth: watching movies together, singing her favorite songs, helping her floss her teeth. “I love holding my mother’s hand,” he wrote. “Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.” His mother, readers learned, was cultured and genteel, with a glinting, flinty wit. “Believe me,” she told Simon as he sat by her bedside July 27, “those great deathbed speeches are written ahead of time.”
Simon’s Twitter feed wasn’t written ahead of time, nor was it written months after his mother’s death, with the philosophical perspective grown-ups eventually try to gain after a parent’s death. He was grieving in real time, presenting to the world a rough draft of his own mourning — occasionally saccharine, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes tonally jarring. “Wish clever minds that invented the Space Shuttle or Roomba could devise an oxygen mask that doesn’t slip every 20 minutes,” he wrote, going for a laugh. He then followed up with: “In middle of nights like this, my knees shake as if there’s an earthquake. I hold my mother’s arm for strength — still.”
In a grief memoir, written later, he might have reconsidered this juxtaposition. Polished it. He’s a Peabody Award-winning journalist — he might have wondered whether his wording was occasionally too cliche. He’s a son — he might have wondered whether the intimate details of the last moment of a life should belong to the Twitterverse at large or whether they should belong to the parent living them.
Simon is no stranger to sharing personal stories in his professional life: He has written one memoir on sports and his Chicago childhood and another on adopting his daughters. In 2008, he invited his mother to be an NPR guest, interviewing her as part of StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening project.
What seemed to make Simon’s tweets so compelling were their rough edges, their unfiltered quality, the sense that some of them were earnest tributes and that some of them were like giggling in church. Tech writers immediately began linking to Simon’s Twitter feed, heralding the emotional reactions as stunning examples of what Twitter could accomplish. The GigaOM headline read, “NPR host’s live-tweeting of his mother’s last moments shows the power of 140 characters.”
More than anything, though, the reaction to the tweets was a stunning example of how quieted and cloistered conversations about death usually are.
Simon, who was not able to respond to e-mail from the hospital, did seem to indicate that his mother had some idea of their audience. “I am not sure my mother understands Twitter or why I tell her millions of people love her — but she says she’s ver[y] touched,” he wrote Sunday.
A few years ago, people began live-tweeting weddings, births, celebrations, even funerals — but the intimate intricacies of dying represent a scarcely charted frontier. Americans’ daily relationship to death (until we, ourselves, are sitting next to that hospice bed) is usually limited to contributing $5 to condolence flowers for someone at the office.
“It’s the last taboo that we have,” says Larry Samuel, who just wrote a book about it, “Death, American Style.” “Death has become almost embarrassing, like a mistake of nature that you’re going to die, instead of the most natural thing in the world. Cemeteries are on the outskirts of town; bodies are whisked away.”
The Victorians used to be better at it, with their cemetery picnics, death portraits, hair lockets, black clothes. A century and a half ago, there were a dozen ways for people to communally express their pain, but now stoicism is seen as strength instead of repression.
We’ll publicly RIP Cory Monteith on Twitter, but prolonged and sustained displays of personal emotion are frowned on. “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford right now,” the president tells someone on “24,” and this sentiment is supposed to be admirable.
It’s fashionable to roll one’s eyes at oversharing in public. Oversharing is crass, a symptom of a society with ego and without boundaries. But reading about a grown man crumbling over the bed of his dying mother apparently penetrated the hard shell of the Internet. It was reminding people what it meant to feel, and to be bare, and most of all, to have a mother.
Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gilband, Scott Simon’s mother, died Monday evening, and her son announced it on Twitter. A few hours before, as millions of people waited to find out what was happening in a stranger’s family, Simon posted: “I know end might be near as this is only day of my adulthood I’ve seen my mother and she hasn’t asked, ‘Why that shirt?’ ”