Scott Simon's Twitter Vigil

Aug 1, 2013

Scott Simon's parents on their wedding day
Credit Courtesy of Scott Simon, via NPR

A few years ago, NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon interviewed his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, for StoryCorps. She talked about what a great companion he was; when he broke down, in response, his mother told him to "stop crying."

Patricia died on Monday night. We know, because we were among the 1.2 million followers of Scott Simon’s Twitter feed. Scott had been tweeting from the Chicago hospital room where he’d sat since she was admitted on July 21 following a surgery. Her condition was worrying, but not critical, until later in the week when Patricia began to fade. Her decline marked in real time

NPR listeners know Simon as a native Chicagoan, a foreign correspondent, and father of two adopted daughters.  He’s a  journalist who shares parts of his life in weekly commentaries, memoirs and novels…and on Twitter, a natural medium for a man prone to lines that could well be followed by a rim shot

But something happened during that week. Something raw and honest that caught on far beyond the public radio universe…his posts were re-tweeted by Katie Couric, The Today Show, Esquire and the normally snarky BuzzFeed, among the others. Strangers posted that the messages made them burst into tears.

It was an extraordinary response that belies what gets triggered by the grief of another, perhaps exposing how much we want to connect with grief. I recall interviewing an undertaker who said that death feels un-modern, un-American - like it’s some kind of failure or mistake of nature that you’re going to die, instead of the most natural thing in the world. We fear the bodies of the dead and bury them on the outskirts of town. Unlike those exemplary mourners of the Victorian era, Americans find death slightly embarrassing.

Social media is full of inanity, but it may also reveal a deep wish to acknowledge death and mourning in our lives. We saw floods of grief after the death of Michael Jackson and Corey Monteith from people who never met them. Simon's vigil for his mother allowed us in on the sad sweetness of singing and joking with her as she crept toward her end. She tells him:

Some said that watching the chronology was the best Twitter had to offer. Some criticized Scott Simon for sullying the experience of his mother dying. One tweeted that he should "put down the phone and pay attention to her."

The day after her passing, Simon told NPR's Audie Cornish that there was plenty that he did not share during his Twitter vigil, and that, if anything, his mother, an old showgirl, was touched when he read her messages posted from Australia, Great Britain or Singapore.

Audie asked him which song he’d like to leave listeners with in tribute to her. The familiar voice of Scott Simon broke, again, when he said Nat King Cole's 'Unforgettable', which they frequently sang together in that hospital room.

If Patricia Lyons Simon Newman were here, she’d might tell him to stop crying…as for the rest of us, his emotional display connects to something larger: long-buried sadness and loss, or the grief we know is coming sometime.