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"The moment that my mother closed her eyes".

Scott Simon is an American journalist who captured world attention in July 2013 when he took to Twitter to grieve the illness and ultimate passing of his mother. Hundreds of thousands followed his poignant and terribly sad tweets about the woman he looked up to, and loved. 

Simon has since written a book about his mother’s life and has shared this beautiful extract with Debrief Daily, today.

The heart revises memories to fit the occasion, and there was no reason for my mother and me to use her deathbed to recall a lot of painful truths. During our colorful years of canned soup and chicken Kiev, my father was also drinking himself to death. My mother loved him, but she had to leave him before he could bring us all down in drink; then he died when I was sixteen.

Her mother, who was also her best friend, had already taken her life, which had left my mother feeling abandoned with a young son, unsteady work, and a husband who was funny, sweet-natured, but destructive.

My mother met lots of other men during those years. Almost all of the ones I knew were kind and good. But the one she really loved was married; that left her feeling even lonelier. She eventually met and married two fine men, but only after, as she put it, “a lot of trial and error.”

Scott's mother Patt at the Chicago Club

In my adult years, I’ve tried to imagine (for she kept all such worries from me) how many nights my mother must have spent staring at the ceiling from the springs in her sofa bed, figuring how to make it to the end of the month.

The days she went without breakfast or lunch (which I never did) so I could have a din- ner of cauliflower with shrimp cocktail sauce (a course my mother devised when she observed that the real appeal of a shrimp cocktail for me was the sauce), hamburger, green beans, Tater Tots, and chocolate milk; the long winter sieges through which she wore a worn winter coat because I outgrew mine and needed a new one each year. Or how many lunches she had to miss (or times she had to walk home instead of take the bus) to buy the baseball glove I was convinced would make me a major leaguer (or at any rate, a Chicago Cub).

Years later, she laughed off my admiration.

“I guess some days I’d miss lunch,” she said.

“And some days some guy would want to take me to Chez Paul’s.” (And she’d bring home a doggie bag to share.)

I wouldn’t say our lives were always a laugh a minute. But I’ll bet two days never passed during which my mother and I didn’t laugh loud and long about something that we would find funnier than anyone else.

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American Journalist Scott Simon

For my fourteenth birthday, my mother took me to Eli Schulman’s place. Not his Oak Street deli, the setting for some of the most cherished late nights of my childhood (my father would fish me from bed to sit on his lap with a company of other comics, who swapped stories, gorged on the buckets of free half-sour pickles that Eli set out—like floral arrangements—on the table, and sipped black coffee as they tried to hold back from scotch), but Eli’s steak place a few blocks south. It was a watering hole for athletes, celebs, and pols who liked to see their names in bold letters in tabloid columns the next day.

Eli Schulman glittered and winked sporting a dimpled smile and a paisley dinner jacket over a ruffled shirt.

“Patti, honey!” he beamed, for over the years he had seen my mother in his restaurant on a number of arms.

“Eli, I believe you know my son, Scotty. Today is his fourteenth birthday.”

Eli had a son the very same age. His face broke wide with delight.

“What a great occasion,” he declared. “We’ll take good care of you.”

He took us to a banquette facing out, the kind they might hold for Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Jimmy, the headwaiter, dashed over to mix a Caesar salad, a peppermill the size of a baseball bat under his arm. He rubbed a garlic clove over the sides of a real wooden bowl as if he were polishing the Stanley Cup trophy.

Scott Simon expressed his grief on Twitter, while sitting at his dying mother's bedside. Hundreds of thousands followed her progress.

Our waiter, Harry Briggs, remembered both my mother and father from happy times.

“I remember the night you were born,” said Harry. “Your dad said, ‘Harry, I don’t know if he’s gonna make it. He looks so small.’ ” (I was born two months prematurely.) “And I said, ‘He’ll make it, Ernie. He knows he’ll have a great mom,’ and your dad just laughed and laughed. We joshed a lot.”

Norb, behind the bar, remembered how my mother liked her Rob Roy. He plunged a skewer of maraschino cherries into my Coke.

Eli brought over Shrimp Marc (shrimp chilled in sour cream, mayonnaise, onions), an appetizer named for his son. No cauliflower tonight! Bring on plump shellfish, pungent garlic, and juicy red meat!

Harry brought over a heavy plate, still glistening and smok- ing with charred green peppers and onions.

“You like liver, Scotty?” I made a face.

“You’ll like this. House specialty. Extra crispy, so it doesn’t taste like liver,” and indeed the liver became my favorite dish at Eli’s until the day it closed.

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The strip steak shimmered. The baked potato crackled on being slashed to receive pillows of butter, swirls of sour cream, and a few shavings of chives (to provide a valuable portion of vegetable nutrition). Eli himself presented a slice of birthday cheese-cake only slightly smaller than Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The flames of fourteen candles danced like some fiery line of show-girls.

Eli, Jimmy, and Harry sang.

The bill was presented on a gleaming tray, and when Harry turned away, I saw my mother gulp.

“Darling, do you have any cash?” she asked quietly.

I carried just enough in my pocket for bus fare, a Suzy Q, and the Sun-Times.

“I guess I haven’t been here in a while,” said my mother. “I miscalculated.”

“Auntie Chris gave me a card,” I remembered. It was in the pocket of my sport coat, and we opened it as anxiously as a note from the Harvard admissions office. Auntie Chris had folded a ten-dollar bill inside.

We had enough to pay the bill and tip the hat-check girl, but nothing left for Jimmy, Harry, and Norb.

“Norb has something in the blender,” my mother noticed. “Jimmy is seating a couple in the back. When you see Harry go through the kitchen door for an order, let’s make a break for it.”

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We saw the swinging doors swish behind Harry, bearing a long tray below his arm, and made our move.

The lake wind whipped up the collars of our coats once we got outside on Chicago Avenue, laughing.

“I was going to stop for hot chocolate at the Drake,” said my mother. “When I thought we’d have a few dollars left.”

“Some other time.”

“Jimmy, Harry, and Norb are such lovely people,” she said. “And they worked so hard to give you a nice birthday, didn’t they? I feel terrible. I’ll cash a check tomorrow and stop by with something. They work so hard. They’re probably mad at me.”

We crossed onto Michigan Avenue to turn north and walk home. No cab—not even a bus—on a night we had to make a break from a swanky restaurant.

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“It’s a night to remember, isn’t it?” my mother laughed. “You can tell people, ‘My mother took me to Eli’s for my birthday, but had to borrow money from me so we could sneak out.’ ”

“Guess I won’t be able to take the El to school tomorrow.” “I have a little cash in a dresser drawer.”

“But I won’t have enough cash to buy drugs in the schoolyard,” I told her, and my mother gasped and laughed.

“We had a lovely dinner,” she said. “Didn’t we? And now a wonderful story.”

She did go back the next afternoon, and years later, when I went to Eli’s as an adult, they remembered that my mother had stopped by with envelopes the next day, which they refused; but she insisted.

My mother knew what it was to live on tips, and thought they revealed a person’s character.

“It’s something you do when no one you know is looking.”

An example of the intimate tweets shared by Scott Simon.

Eli’s (and Eli) have been gone awhile. But the intensive care unit happened to overlook the spot on which it stood, which is now a wing of the children’s hospital. Shortly after the palliative care team had trooped softly away, there was another whoosh of my mother’s door.

“There’s a man at the desk with cheesecake. For everyone,” said a nurse. “He says he knows you.”

Marc Schulman, the son for whom Shrimp Marc was named, his wife, and their daughters are good friends of ours. Marc had turned his father’s classic old Chicago cheesecake into a civic pil- lar: The mayor of Chicago famously sends Eli’s cheesecakes, rather than dead fish. Eli’s cheesecakes have nourished inaugu- ration balls. If all the cheesecakes Marc has donated to schools, churches, charities, libraries, ballet companies, and theater groups were laid end to end . . .

And now he’d brought cheesecake to the nurses on my mother’s floor.

My mother felt unwashed and unlovely. She’d told me that she didn’t want to see anyone. But now she said, “That’s Marc. Such a lovely man. I can’t let him go without saying thank you.” I brought Marc into her room. Curly hair, a summer shirt, hands so immaculate they made me wonder if cheesecake might be some kind of emollient.

My mother squiggled slightly to sit a little higher on her pillows.

“You look beautiful, Pat,” Marc told her, with conviction. “Oh, you’re so kind to say that, Marc.”

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I think a blush rose through all the tubes to brighten my mother’s face.

We talked about family. My mother had a story about Marc’s father, and Marc had one about my stepfather. He told us the latest about his beautiful and accomplished daughters. After Marc departed, I pulled a chair closer to my mother’s bed.

“You should see what Marc brought for the nurses,” I told her. “Salted caramel cheesecake. Vietnamese cinnamon cheesecake. And did I tell you? He invited Elise and Lina”—our daughters— “to visit his bakery.”

“Such a lovely man,” she repeated.

“And always so thoughtful. Well, his father was a lovely man, too. Remember all the good times we had at his deli?”

Want more? Try: Women without children are neither selfish nor bitter.

“I remember the tubs of pickles,” I told her.

“I remember all the jokes with my father. I remember you introducing me to Mar- shall Caifano”—a local mobster with whom my mother had had a couple of dates—“while he was eating cheesecake all alone, and my eyes popped out of my head. I remember my fourteenth birthday.”

My mother laughed about that night all over again until she coughed.

“All the worrying you do about children,” she said. “Boys especially. And you boys turned out just fine.”

“Do you know they sell Eli’s cheesecake in New York and California now?”

My mother shook her head as soon as I began the sentence. “I don’t mean any of that,” she said. “I mean the way you’ve
both made such beautiful families.”

I tightened my fingers slightly around her hand and my mother closed her eyes.

“Try to sleep,” I said softly, and after a moment my mother lifted an eyelid.

“Who’s on now?” she asked. “Rosemary, I think her name is.”

“Do I know her?”

“You were asleep when they changed shifts.”

“We’re sure about to meet now,” said my mother. “I have to use a bedpan.”

I just want to say that ICU nurses are remarkable people. Thank you for what you do for our loved ones.

Scott Simon is a journalist and the host of Weekend Edition Saturday on National Public Radio. He also guest-hosts Need to Know on PBS. This piece is an extract from his novel, Unforgettable, which you can buy here.