Why Scott Simon shared his mother’s death with an unseen audience

March 31, 2015, PBS News Hour


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a time of pain, but one shared openly with an unseen audience.

Gwen Ifill recently recorded this interview. It’s the latest from our NewsHour Bookshelf.

GWEN IFILL: You may recognize Scott Simon from his public voice, as host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday.” But it is his private voice that brought him a different kind of attention, as he chronicled his mother’s final days in an unusually public way, on Twitter.

His series of 140-character observances about the remarkable life and poignant death of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman captured the imagination, and led him to the book “Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime.”

Scott joins me now.

I want to ask you first to tell me about your mom, but, first, one good way to do it is to read one of the tweets that you wrote which actually first caught my eye when you were keeping her — you were keeping vigil with her in the hospital in Chicago.

SCOTT SIMON, Author, “Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime”: Next to her bed in the intensive care unit. I actually got one of those orange camp mats at a sporting goods store and laid that down next to the bed, so that I could stay there, obviously.


SCOTT SIMON: I think this is the tweet you mean.

“My mother and I just sang ‘Que Sera, Sera’ three times. God bless you, Doris Day, for giving us such a great theme song.”

GWEN IFILL: I have to say, I met your mother, and she was larger than life.


GWEN IFILL: And what I thought about that was that you were in an incredibly sad time.


GWEN IFILL: And yet you and your mother were kind of going at this together, kind of sharing memories, and getting to know each other again.


I mean, we knew each other pretty well, but this was undoubtedly a whole different dimension. I think, by the time we were singing “Que Sera, Sera” together, we understood this — there was only going to be one end. And there was particularly an intense period, which you can read in the book, in which we were up with each other for 48 hours straight, in which we recollected old family stories, got the — some revisions of old family stories, got the chapter I was — the last chapter I was always missing from a few family stories, and had a very good time with each other.

I think my mother and I had always been able to have a good time with each other. But, you know, over the years, lots of stuff intervened, right…


SCOTT SIMON: … where you find yourself sometimes at cross-purposes.

But, this time, we were able to be with each other and concentrated on having a good time.

GWEN IFILL: And you had the gift of time.


GWEN IFILL: Some people, I know, have written you and said, I got there too late, or we weren’t there for the passing of…

SCOTT SIMON: We were astonishingly lucky. And I don’t shy away from using the term blessed. I didn’t know when I got to her bedside that it would turn into her deathbed.

I had hoped that she would get better and that we would face what — whatever it was together. But within a few days, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be the resolution that we wanted. And then, from there, we were able just to be together. Boy, I guess just about the greatest days of my life.

GWEN IFILL: You got to tell some of her secrets, actually.


GWEN IFILL: I was a little surprised reading them that it seemed like maybe that was OK with her?

But among the secrets, not a secret, because I just said her full name, she had been married a few times. She had done a few things in life.


GWEN IFILL: Read this next tweet. It’s where she talks about — basically, she talks about what’s going to happen to her, but in a funny way.

SCOTT SIMON: “I consider this a good sign. Mother says, when time comes, oh, the headline should be, three Jewish husbands, but no guilt.”


SCOTT SIMON: My mother was Irish Catholic.


SCOTT SIMON: She happened to have three Jewish husbands.

GWEN IFILL: But she also had guilt from the Catholic and the Jewish…

SCOTT SIMON: Yes, exactly. And you can imagine how that manifests itself in me all the time.

GWEN IFILL: And what does that say about your relationship with your fathers and stepfathers along the way?

SCOTT SIMON: I had a very good relationship with each of them.

But I think we always understood that it was my mother who brought us together. My stepfather was a wonderful guy named Ralph Newman, who a Lincoln scholar who got into some fairly famous legal trouble. And he in many ways — because my father died when I was 16.

That was the most stable love, I think, of my mother’s life, and in many ways the most stable male relationship I had with a father figure. My father was a comedian. And he was a wonderful, rapturously funny man. His career was mostly on the downside by the time, in fact, I ever came along.

My mother had what she began the refer to as a sweet kind of kamikaze love with her. He had a drinking problem. As she wound up saying to me during those days in the hospital, it’s easy to fall in love with a drunk. It’s very hard to wake up with one the morning after.

And they had nine hard years together. And I think my mother was at the point of saying that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for the two of them to get together. On the other hand, I can’t argue with that, because I…

GWEN IFILL: You’re here.

SCOTT SIMON: Exactly. I’m the proud issue.

GWEN IFILL: One of the interesting things about witnessing someone saying farewell, the way you had the privilege of doing with your mother, is that everybody can do it your own way.

And in your case, you mentioned humor. You mentioned singing.


GWEN IFILL: And there was another singing moment which you tweeted about, which I loved. It was about — the song wasn’t Doris Day this time.


SCOTT SIMON: “Mother and I just finished a duet of ‘We’ll Meet Again.’ Every word has meaning. Nurse looks in, asks, ‘Do you take requests?’”


SCOTT SIMON: ICUs are grim places, obviously.


SCOTT SIMON: There’s the bleeps. There’s all the siren sounds, the ghastly kind of organ noises. There are the carts trembling up and down that make you think like it’s something from the Middle Ages, where people are being asked to throw out the carcasses.


SCOTT SIMON: And there we were, singing these songs. “We’ll Meet Again” is happy and bittersweet both at the same time. But I think, at the point we began to sing it, it’s something, without getting ethereal, that we devoutly believed.

As I said to her — my mother said to me at one point: “Oh, baby, you and I can get through this. The hard part is going to be for you when it’s over.” And a couple hours later, at an even harder part, she said to me, “Will this go on forever?” She meant the pain and the dread.

And I said, “No, it won’t go on forever.”

And she said, “But you and me, we will go on forever, right?

And I said, “Yes.”

And I believe that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I would say, you wrote her great deathbed speech for her in “Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime.”

Scott Simon, thank you.

SCOTT SIMON: Thank you, Gwen.