Wednesday, May 6, 2015
'Unforgettable' by Scott Simon: Portrait of a Classy Lady
I wanted to read this nonfiction book, subtitled A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, because Scott Simon wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, Pretty Birds. Set in Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, it follows 17-year-old Bosniak Muslim high school student Irena Zaric as she goes from basketball all-star to sniper. Although the tale is fictional, Simon met women like Irena when he worked as a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia.
Pretty Birds was a book that, to borrow a phrase from John Green, filled me with a weird evangelical zeal. I don't know whether or not I ever actually convinced anyone to read it, but oh lord, how I did try.
Pretty Birds made me cry. So did Simon's memoir of Patricia, his glamorous, ultra-thoughtful mother in her last days. Patricia had had a bout with lung cancer, which had cost her half of one lung. She was in remission, but then her husband (Simon's second stepfather) noticed she was losing weight without trying.
She was hospitalized in her hometown of Chicago and put on a respirator. It turns out the therapy that had eliminated her cancer had also weakened her lung-and-a-half to the point that she could no longer breathe on her own. Her ability to breathe was rapidly running out, and there was nothing left for medical science to do.
Simon, who lives in California, came to Chicago to stay with his mom. He slept in a camper's sleeping bag on her hospital room floor - although he didn't sleep much, because it's hard to sleep in an intensive care unit. Simon's wife and two daughters followed him to Chicago, and his wife was able to spend time with her mother-in-law, but children weren't allowed in the ICU. The girls had to say goodbye to their Grandmere (Simon's wife is from France) secondhand.
Unforgettable started out as a series of Twitter tweets Simon posted while Patricia was in the hospital - typos and all. He used those spur-of-the-moment written thoughts as a jumping off point to tell his mother's life story and also to capture a sense of what it was like to be with her as she knew her clock was running out.
She was a classy lady up to the very end. A single mom for most of Simon's life, she was from an Irish Catholic background. (Her parents were named Francis and Frances.) She married a Jewish comedian and gave up a nascent acting career when she became pregnant with Scott Simon's only sibling, a little girl who did not survive infancy. They divorced as a result of his alcoholism, and he died when Simon was 16.
Simon is a good son. Death is hard for everyone, but he made an honest effort to really be present with his mother at the end of her life. I'm glad I read this, because I feel it was a privilege to get to know Patricia, even in a small way. She was an amazing person, and I'm certain Simon's daughters will grow up to be better women for having known her influence.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for this review, which represents my own honest opinion, through the Amazon Vine program.