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I’m getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?
Scott Simon sat beside his once gorgeous and vivacious mother, holding her hand, comforting her, and reminiscing about good times and bad as she faced her final days. The result of those hours spent in the hospital is Unforgettablea deeply moving, at times laugh-out-loud funny memoir about the colorful life of this mother and son. An instant New York Times bestseller, Unforgettable is a spirited, affecting, and personal tribute, and it is a testament to the universal bond between all parents and children.
"In a return to the bighearted storytelling that made him a star NPR correspondent, [Simon] pays full tribute to the ex-showgirl who...taught her only son to be honest, kind, and entertaining. Be assured, tears will fall."--People Magazine
“With UNFORGETTABLE, Simon reveals not the possibilities of social media but its limits. Those 140-character bursts...seem inadequate compared with the skilled unspooling of this memoir.”The Washington Post
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A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime
By Scott Simon
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Scott Simon
All rights reserved.
Our children want to know if you're dead forever. I tell them yes. But I wonder about that too.
Death makes life worthwhile. It gives each moment meaning. I hope I live to one hundred and fifty, and that our daughters can make it to at least two hundred. But death drives life. It frightens and inspires us. Do away with death, and we'd have no reason to get out of bed (or into it), grow, work, or love. Why would we do much of anything if we had the time for everything? It's the certainty of death that moves us to sing and write poems, find friends, and sail across oceans and skies. It's because we know that we don't have all the time in the world that we try to use the uncertain and unknowable time that we have to do something that endures. Death is sad, grim, unwelcome, and invaluable. But it's why we try to make something of life. It's why we have children.
I don't know what becomes of us when we die. But I believe I will go on to a place (which will probably look a lot like Chicago and Normandy) where I'll find my mother and my father, my stepfather, and all of our beloved cats, dogs, horses, turtles, and fish who predecease me. I'll get to take a walk with Gandhi, have a glass of D'Yquem with Mr. Jefferson, and a glass of just about anything with Sir Winston. I'll get together over tea and an asp with Cleopatra. I'll have a catch with Jackie Robinson (and hope that celestial climes improve my infield skills).
I believe that I'll get to look out over the world and behold my daughters. They'll feel my love, hearten to hear my gentle instruction, and miss me; but not so much that they won't spend most of their time giggling and enjoying life in full measure.
In time, I believe I'll be reunited with my fabulously kind and beautiful wife, even if she runs away with a Hollywood star or an Italian race car driver as soon as my ashes cool. I will count on heavenly powers of understanding to look down at her happiness and nobly smile, and if he expects to be with her too, I rely on God to work that out.
I do not know if God will reveal Him, Her, or Itself to me as a craggy old African man with a long white beard, or a mature, Rubenesque woman barely concealed by clouds, or as some kind of mollusk. I am undecided on the essential questions that can make theologians stammer: If there is a God, how does He or She or It let little children suffer? What kind of Heaven can there be if innocents have to share it with scoundrels? Do gnats have souls?
But when I spent the last days of my mother's life alongside her in the intensive care unit, our talk about death and whatever follows grew real. The hereafter was no longer hypothetical. It was the stop just ahead, and the next place I knew my mother would be (and the rest of us, too, in too short a time).
My vision of the hereafter has no scientific, religious, or even much mythical foundation. But I just can't get by, day after day, thinking that we go on to nothing when we're done here, and that we'll never again see those we love. I don't worry about being right. I just want to wrap myself in a belief that gets me through the long nights of life.
I am getting a life's lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?CHAPTER 2
Huge black fly in my wife's wine. She picks up fly & and says, "Spit it out!" Old Irish joke in my family works in French.
We turned the key, and got a call. We'd rented a house in California wine country for summer vacation and invited my mother to join us. She was eighty-four and had been declared cancer-free after a rough round of radiation treatments. We imagined how she'd ooh and aah through farmers' markets, watch our daughters ride horses and muck stables, and sip her Rob Roy (scotch and sweet vermouth, with a maraschino cherry lowered like a depth charge into the center) looking over serene green vineyards.
She'd had good luck in recent years, and plenty of reverses. She had a happy third marriage (adding to what she called her "railroad train of a name," Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gelbin). She'd had cancer surgery; it worked. She loved her daughter-in-law and treasured her two grandchildren.
But my mother had also lost half a lung to cancer. She'd seen so many friends depart she said she didn't want to answer the phone. "They say, 'Hi, Pat, I'm Betsy's niece, and I'm sorry to tell you ...'" She had a constant cough no doctor could fathom, felt tired and winded, and often fell down. She'd slipped on ice coming back from a physical therapy session, lost six teeth, and got a great big purple eggplant of a bruised eye (I called her Rocky). She had dental surgery and eye stitching, and when all that had healed, she fell out of a kitchen chair while reading the newspaper (we told her: listen to the radio). She got depressed at the idea she would never feel well again.
And then little nits of cancer—on the x-ray, they looked like dim, distant stars—began to glimmer in her one good lung.
"Guess I'll do whatever I have to do," she said, which were radiation sessions where she was trussed up like a Christmas goose and zapped for half an hour with a ray strong enough to peel paint—or kill cancer.
"You always come roaring back," we told her. "Like a lioness."
"I'm more likely to have a small little bark, like a poodle," she said.
"You'll live to be a hundred. People do nowadays."
"Not like this."
So we'd reached that point where my wife and I began to say, "Let's see Grand-mère"—what our daughters called her; Caroline, my wife, is French—"as much as possible." But all of my mother's trials only made us think of her as strong. She had survived bruises, spills, cancer, grief, and sorrows, and just kept going.
* * *
She was getting ready to join us in California when she noticed she had lost about twenty pounds—without trying—and so she brought her blue jeans to a seamstress and her body to the hospital for a blood test. She'd read an article that said tuberculosis was on the rise; weight loss and a constant cough were among the symptoms. She didn't want to put our daughters at risk.
The blood test didn't reveal tuberculosis. But the doctors didn't like what they saw. We had turned the key to the house when Matthew, my mother's husband, called.
"Your mom is in the hospital."
"Nothing. They just didn't like what they saw."
"What did they see?"
"They don't know. But she can't fly out tomorrow. ..."
By the time I spoke to my mother a few hours later, she seemed more distressed that the airline would exact a fee to change her flight than about her condition.
(I see now that this may have been an act.)
"They get you every damn which way these days, don't they?" she asked me.
Still, she was eighty-four.
"Still, maybe I should ..."
"No." Her voice was firm. "Your daughters deserve a vacation with their father. Besides, I'll be out in just a few days."
A few more days passed. I kept my mother informed about all the daughters, dogs, and horses, and how there were radishes as big as baseballs and strawberries as red as lipstick in the fields just outside our windows.
* * *
One morning my mother called before dawn. We could still hear coyotes whine (they make you flinch, like mewling children) in the hills above the vineyards.
"Darling, I can't talk now," she said. "I'm surrounded by handsome men. They're taking me in for surgery—well, you know, they don't like to call it surgery, that gets people worried, so they call it a surgical procedure—but they're putting me to sleep to put a camera into my lung and take a look at something."
"Smile" is all I could think to tell her.
* * *
My mother called again a few hours later to say doctors had detected a mysterious dark something in her one good lung. It could be a fungus, it could be scarring—or it could be cancer.
"I think I better ..."
"Don't," my mother said in a scolding tone she knew made a difference with me. "Matthew is with me. I'll be fine. Look, darling, this isn't the end," she said. "This thing in my lung—that may be the end of me. But even if it's cancer again, we'll have some time."
But during all this time, we heard just about nothing from any doctor. We were told that a pulmonologist who had once diagnosed her with cancer was overseeing her care. She stopped in to see my mother once, and never returned my (increasingly truculent) phone messages. I'd get an occasional call back from one or another young resident who had at least seen my mother. But whole days went by when my mother said no doctor had looked in on her. The nurses were attentive and considerate, but she felt that doctors just didn't want to bother.
I left a message for the pulmonologist: "When our cat was spayed, the vet called twice a day. Is one call a week too much to ask for a patient who's under intensive care?"
(That message didn't work either.)
So I told my mother I was going to get on a plane. This time she didn't argue.
"I just want to get this cleared up, whatever it is, good or bad, and go home." Then she added, "There's a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art"—it was across the street from the hospital—"that we could see, anyway."
My wife was driving me to the San Francisco airport when one of the young residents phoned.
"Your mother doesn't want any more care," she announced.
"But I just spoke to her. She sounded strong. She's tired of all the uncertainty and wants to go home, of course," I began, and the resident jumped in.
"She said she doesn't want anything else done for her."
"That's not possible. I know she doesn't want any extreme measures, but aren't we a ways from that?"
My wife bore down on twisting roads. Our hearts thumped in our ears.
"She says she doesn't want anything more."
"I have her power of attorney," I told her. "I'm empowered to make medical decisions for her." But the resident persisted.
"I talked to a senior physician. He says we have to follow what your mother said. She wants no more care."
"I think you heard my mother say she's tired and wants to go home. You just heard certain code words and think she's saying she wants no more care. Can't you hear that she's fighting to find out what's wrong?"
I was mad, loud, and no doubt insufferable.
"If you're going to be a good doctor someday," I shouted, "you have to listen with your heart! She wants help. Help her!"
I phoned my mother and struggled to sound unruffled.
"What time do you land?" she asked.
"If you go straight to Rick's," she said of a friend's restaurant, "I'll bet you can still get a margarita."
She didn't sound like a woman who wanted out. But I boarded the plane in San Francisco wondering—based on the word of a young resident with tin ears—if those would be my mother's last words to me.
New family motto: no tamale left behind.CHAPTER 3
My mother knows the name & story of every nurse & doctor in the ICU. She keeps no one a stranger.
I heard it so often when I was growing up: "Your mom's no milk-and-cookies mother," although she happened to bake terrific cookies (including Chicago Gingerbread Bears for the Super Bowl, with orange icing numerals for 34 [Payton], 9 [McMahon], and a supersized 72 [William "The Refrigerator" Perry]).
My mother was glamorous. She'd worked in nightclubs; she'd modeled; she'd dated mobsters; she was a divorced, single mother (when that was considered slightly racy) who had been married to a comedian. She also was a secretary, a typist, and an ad agency receptionist in the Mad Men era.
She sold clothes in posh shops on Michigan Avenue. Carl Sandburg patted her fanny and she had a date with Gene Kelly (if either had led anywhere I might have been a better poet or dancer).
My mother was at the famous, furtive Rat Pack concert at the Villa Venice that Frank, Dean, and Sammy did for their godfather, Sam Giancana. It was an offer that they—and my mother—couldn't refuse.
She was the Jon James Hairspray Girl and the Archway Cookies Mother. She was the pert Midwestern mom who sat, mute and smiling, next to a fair- haired husband and a freckled son (not me) in a baseball cap while brawny- voiced men sang, pirate-style, "Go with Sohio!" (a local gas). She was the gal in a spangled dress at the Chicago Auto Show who ran a hand over a fender and said, "The new Chevrolet. Sleek, powerful, and economical."
Spending twelve hours on high heels in a loud, dark, smoky club, hauling soggy Chicago winter coats in and out of a closet and sidestepping the fanny- pats of patrons who assume a cover charge includes "covering" the hostess, is not as arduous as mining coal for a living. But it's also not glamorous.
My mother was a working girl. 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. She rode the bus. She packed her lunch—and often went without lunch toward the end of the month to pay the rent on the first.
(But she made sure that I had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a staggering assortment of after-school snacks.)
The Jon James (a local drugstore brand, not to be confused with L'Oréal) Hairspray Girl spent most of that ten-hour photo shoot shivering in lingerie under a rain slicker while a crew sprayed water into a fan and blew it into her delicate face, to show how the miraculous Jon James kept the beautiful brunette's hairdo beauty-shop fresh in a raging rainstorm (in fact, her hair was held in place with clear industrial varnish; when my mother washed her hair that night it came out in chunks, along with hunks of her hair).
My mother had cool hands that could have been from a sculpture in the Musée Rodin. Instead, she was the thumb under the Royal Crown and Diet Rite Cola Save-A-Seal (before that meant saving real, honking Arctic seals). Hers were the hands that wrung a dozen perfectly formed cubes out of the amazing flexible ice tray, and plunked beautifully balanced scoops of Stewart's Private Blend Coffee into a pot. Her hands zipped zippers, folded fresh, sweet-smelling laundry, and held a scrubber, sword-like, above a toilet bowl.
The term for this kind of modeling is "hand jobs." Imagine being the kid in the seventh grade whose mother does hand jobs.
My mother sold rags, too, up and down Michigan Avenue: boutique, couture, women's sportswear, men's suits, prom dresses, wedding dresses, and debutantes' gowns. Many of her fashion commandments still ring in my mind when I step into my closet:
Dressing poorly calls attention to your clothes. Dressing well does not.
Better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed. Who knows what the day will bring? If you wind up meeting the Duchess of Cambridge, Frieda Pinto, or the cardinal of Chicago—or get taken to a hospital emergency room—do you want to be a well-dressed man in a blazer, or some guy wearing an Arctic Monkeys SUCK IT AND SEE T-shirt?
Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.
If you wear solid colors for a photograph, you won't cringe when you see yourself years later.
There's usually a reason something is on sale.
My mother sold fur coats to men and their giggling gal pals on Friday nights, and took them in return Monday morning. She sold opulent party frocks that needed elaborate tailoring to women who said, "But only if you get it to me in Wilmette by Thursday night." So my mother schlepped them herself, often taking me along on the train (there was a famous pancake shop near the station). One of the reasons my mother always left a good tip (and why I hope I do) is the memory of people (and to be fair, there were just a few) who would open the door for their dress and say, "It's about time," and close it on my mother's smile.
She was a secretary at an ad agency when an account executive told her, "Patti, honey baby, help us out with something here." For the next couple of hours, my mother's hands pointed to a frozen chicken Kiev, varnished to glisten, for one shot, and in the next to the hot, delicious version, oozing steam and butter (the steam was puffed in with a vaporizer; the butter was unchilled lemon Jell-O, speckled with chopped chives).
Excerpted from Unforgettable by Scott Simon. Copyright © 2015 Scott Simon. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A most wonderful book. Had me laughing and crying
When you lose your Momma, your life is rocked in ways you never knew possible. Scott Simon does an excellent job of honoring his mother and their relationship. This book has a lot of healing thoughts - and if you are one of the fortunate ones whose Mom is still living, you will still enjoy it - and begin to truly appreciate your time with her!
I enjoyed the book very much. Well written and moving.
Scott used words that I would say about life and love---a delightful story of a wonderful life.
There were plenty of typos in the book that really took me out of it (that I'm sure will be fixed in the final edition), but that aside, this was a loving well-told story about life, love, loss, and keeping the most important pieces. Well worth reading, especially if you can personally relate. I'm sure you will find pieces of your own story somewhere in here.