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Intimate story resonates on public stage

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By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist
They are sweet but haunting, sad but compulsively readable. They are Twitter posts telling in a brave new way the universal story of loss.
It's the experience of an elderly parent's death and a loving son's goodbye -- tweeted for all to read, all 1.3 million Twitter followers of NPR host Scott Simon.
I don't spend much time on Twitter, but here I am reading Simon's intensely personal tweets, which have continued since his mother's death Monday. "Discovery: couple who run cremation service delightful company! Warm & funny. Call themselves 'post-health professionals,'" Simon tweeted Wednesday.
I looked to see what he tweeted about before his 84-year-old mother was hospitalized in Chicago on July 21. Within a few days, Simon's witty posts about politics, sports and pop culture had taken an emotional turn. On July 25, he tweeted: "I am getting a life's lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?"
There are tweets to make any mother's son laugh, including this: "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?'"
In the end, Simon sat at his mother's bedside and tweeted her death.
"The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage," Simon tweeted Monday. She died that evening.
Through social media, this man invited the world into his mother's hospital room to witness their final days together. At first, I couldn't get past thinking it was an incredible invasion of privacy.
Some of Simon's tweets are so intimate they made me wince. Imagine sharing this: "Mother cries Help Me at 2:30. Been holding her like a baby since. She's asleep now. All I can do is hold on to her."
Yet Simon lets us see beauty that shines through suffering, writing, "When she asked for my help last night, we locked eyes. She calmed down. A look of love that surpasses understanding."
I'm visiting my own 90-year-old mom this week. What would she say about this? First off, she wouldn't understand how Twitter works, and what it means to live tweet any event -- for a few followers or a million. Part of me suspects that if I tried what Simon did, my mother would mete out a proper punishment from the great beyond.
Simon addressed issues of privacy and consent in an interview posted Tuesday on NPR's website. When he first went to the hospital, he said, "I didn't know it was going to be her death bed, and I, of course, was hoping and praying that it wouldn't be.
"She was funny and perceptive and bright," he said. "I don't think it's any less sacred because it was shared with a lot of people." Simon also said there was "a lot of stuff I didn't share," and that he wrote with "proportion and delicacy."
His mother knew he was tweeting. "I would read her an occasional message from someone in Australia, someone in Great Britain or Singapore and she was very touched," he said.
Twitter did remove a cloak of privacy, but then so does a memoir or an article about a loved one's death. In her best-selling book "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion wrote in searing detail about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Didion's book about her consuming grief won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction, and was adapted into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
I'm guilty, too. After my husband died of a heart attack in 1998, I wrote a column about that devastating experience. Reading it now, I see parts I wish I had kept to myself. That said, I heard from readers who said my story helped them with grief. I'm sure that's happening for Simon too.
As powerful as his tweets are, the most valuable thoughts he shares are those of his mother in her last days. They don't fit into Twitter's 140 characters. It took Simon three tweets Sunday to voice his mother's life lessons.
"I think she wants me to pass along a couple pieces of advice. ASAP. One: reach out to someone who seems lonely today," said the first tweet. "And: listen to people in their 80s. The have looked across the street at death for a decade. They know what's vital."
And finally: "Oh, and: Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you. It goes too quickly."
They are words worth reading, whatever the medium.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;
Story tags » Culture (general)Social mediaElderlyFamily

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