Call me old-fashioned, but the last thing I’d want by my deathbed is a narrator.
In case you missed the story, NPR’s Scott Simon recently made the decision to broadcast his mother’s final days from her hospital room, one tweet at a time. Now, I’ve no doubt there’s ample precedent: These days, people update their followers in real-time about anything from labor contractions to hiccup remedies. But Simon has 1.3 million followers, and these tweets captured some serious attention across the Twittersphere.
First, a necessary caveat:
This is not a piece about Simon or the quality of his grief or anything else related to his sad circumstances. Rather it is a commentary on what seems to me to be a disturbing phenomenon in our society, whereby our communication technologies are increasingly commandeering what have historically been intimate human experiences.
According to The New York Times, Simon did not begin his deathbed vigil with a “project” in mind. When he began tweeting he did not know his mother’s hospitalization would end in her passing. His first tweet [below], a quick missive from the ER, was presumably a one-off — not freighted with the intention of more to come.
Mother called: "I can't talk. I'm surrounded by handsome men." Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now...
— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 16, 2013
But more did come. More than a week’s worth, in fact, during which time Simon’s mother continued to decline. And while his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
Yes, we are writers. And yes, whether we write novels or blogposts or stand-up jokes or tweets, we are doing what we somehow need to do — processing our world through our words. Most of us will go there for succor when we need to, and many will feel unburdened by the very act of capturing the experience — pinning it down to the sheet like some kind of rare, exquisite butterfly. For me, it is one of the greatest blessings of being a writer, a metaphorical safety-valve through which pain or grief can magically release. One has only to think of poet Donald Hall’s "Without," a tribute to his dying wife Jane Kenyon:
we lived in, two decades
by the pond, has transformed
into a single unstoppable day,
gray in the dwelling-place
But here’s the thing. I have been through the kind of vigil Simon describes, with several loved ones now. I have lived in that weird, insulated, windowless time-capsule, marking time according to blood work and respirations and the slow, hideous purpling of toes. I have logged the long hours in hospital chairs, chain-drunk its lousy coffee. I have breathed the smell of death. And I have no doubt that I am not yet done, that there will be more such vigils in my future, the hardest yet to come. But I also know that I will need to be present: clear-eyed; open to the raw, weeping edges of life.
Because there is a difference, I think, between being in the moment — participating in it fully — and stepping outside to report on it. The issue goes way beyond the deathbed vigil. Think of that video you just had to have of your kid celebrating his 5th birthday. These days, people tweet pictures of their dinner before they eat it, as though broadcasting their food trumps the act of enjoying it. We spend hours trolling our Twitter feeds instead of opening our eyes to the toddler quietly tugging at our sleeves.
To me, it is all an issue of timing. Of reflection versus reporting. I want to believe that Donald Hall wrote his poems in the evenings, when his wife was sound asleep, not thinking about his phrasing in the middle of a particularly painful blood draw.
While his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
So yes: The biggest part of me is not so much appalled as saddened by this new iteration of public over-sharing. I do not direct any of this at Simon himself: I know the impulse to reach out, to share the burden, even if that takes on new meanings as time goes by. I am not even specifically railing against Twitter, although it does strike me as a particularly insidious and intrusive form of communication. What I am most concerned with here is the fact that technology has once again afforded us a way to distance ourselves from the very substance of our lives — to put some other “thing” between us and our loved ones. For me, Simon’s experience simply affords an opportunity to pose a wider-angle lens on what is changing in our increasingly fragmented, technology-bound experience.
Twitter, I would maintain, is a zone. A place that is decidedly not where you are. A state of mind in which you’re always looking out for the next 140 character windfall, something you can scavenge out of this experience or that, like a photographer so intent on a picture that he neglects to take in the scene.
Wherever it is, whatever it is, it’s not a place I want to be when grief comes to call.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of poet Donald Hall. We regret the error.
This program aired on August 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.