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Host's tweets from mother's deathbed challenge a taboo

Broadcaster's emotional messages divide US, where dying process is usually a private affair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 2:43am
 

US public radio personality Scott Simon has challenged a great American taboo by tweeting from the deathbed of his 84-year-old mother.

Conventional wisdom in the United States holds that the process of dying is an intensely private affair.

But Simon chose to freely share his thoughts and emotions with his 1.26 million Twitter followers.

In bursts of 140 characters or less, the host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday praised the nurses caring for his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, in the intensive care unit of a Chicago hospital.

He relayed his mother's last witticisms. He put up phone photos of her hospital room and the cityscape beyond its window.

And as life gave way to death on Monday, 61-year-old Simon recorded the moment. "Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping," he wrote at nprscottsimon.

And then: "The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage ... She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night."

The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage ... She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night

Next morning he wrote: "You wake up and realise: you weren't dreaming. It happened. Cry like you couldn't last night.

"Worst: telling our daughters. Oldest was flinty, youngest sobbed. But guess which one cried long into the night."

The tweets kept coming as the week went on, with Simon musing about his mother's wigs ("Any idea of a cancer group that could use them?") and how to tell the post office to cease delivering her mail. "So much flotsam in the wake of a life," he sighed.

Reaction to Simon's online stream of consciousness ran from praise to outrage. "I think what Scott Simon shared is wonderful and personal," read one comment under a Washington Post story. "Maybe not for everyone, but neither is any art."

But another comment, in the Los Angeles Times, read: "Ghoulish and disrespectful. Nothing to do with his poor dying mother. It's all about HIM."

Simon's tweets reflected not only the omnipresence of social media, but also the irrefutable demographic fact that members of the baby boomer generation like Simon are confronting death - theirs and their parents - in unprecedented numbers.

"We are entering an unprecedented period of death," writes cultural historian Lawrence Samuel in his book Death, American Style, which chronicles how death in the United States came to be "un-American".

He put Simon's Twitter vigil in the context of a "grief memoir" literary trend that has seen best-selling authors such as Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates write intimately about their own brushes with mortality.

"What is different is that it's Twitter, rather than a book," he said. "It has all the advantages, and disadvantages, of being in real time and in little nuggets."

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