“Mother called: ‘I can’t talk. I’m surrounded by handsome men.’
Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now . . .”
Those lines were posted on Twitter by Scott Simon when he first learned that his 84-year-old mother had been hospitalized mid-July, 2013. Over a million people read his words, and Simon’s audience only grew as the National Public Radio broadcaster continued to tweet brief and poignant updates on his mother’s deteriorating health.
“My mother knows the name & story of every nurse & doctor in the ICU.
She keeps no one a stranger.”
“Mother & I just finished a duet of ‘We’ll Meet Again.’ Every word has meaning.
Nurse looks in, asks, ‘Do you take requests?’”
At the local library, I often drift toward the New Arrivals shelf. That’s where I picked up Simon’s new book, Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime. It includes all his remarkable tweets and fills in the backstory. Halfway through his childhood, certain plot points felt familiar. And I realized that I’ve been reading a lot of autobiographies lately – Hard Choices; Count Me In; Something Other Than God; Dot Complicated; I Am Malala; Yes Please.
Chances are, your summer reading included a few memoirs too. Right now five out of 10 books on the Globe and Mail bestsellers’ list are autobiographies. They have titles like Finding Me; It’s a Long Story and A Work in Progress. I was at a writers’ conference where someone in his mid-30s had just published a third memoir. Many contemporary blogs take a confessional tone; I skim-read one after another, grazing text like a stone skips over water. And wonder at our appetite for navel-gazing. We seem to be obsessed with documenting ourselves – noting down each of the milestones that make up a life. Is this trend egocentric? Self-seeking? What does a memoir set out to accomplish?
“I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU.
We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?”
Simon’s succinct summaries are a good place to start. He found inspiration and courage in his mother’s deathbed life. He borrowed freely from her accumulated wisdom. And by publicizing her last weeks, he created a community of people helping each other cope with grief.
Yet Unforgettable fell flat for me. Simon’s a brilliant writer, and his Twitter account – almost a diary – from that summer is heart-rending. But the universal grief he tapped into had no solace besides being ubiquitous. In his final post after her death, he was left citing Shakespeare.
“She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
Juliet’s homage to Romeo in Act III, ages before the real tragedy occurs.
Can words deliver meaning? Can anything, other than the “living and active” Word of God (Heb. 4:12)? In navel-gazing season, we need the book of Ecclesiastes to “call a halt to our various and futile attempts to make something of our lives,” as Eugene Peterson describes it, “so that we can give our full attention to God – who God is and what he does to make something of us.” That’s the dividing line between a biography that begins and ends with self (and there are a lot of them) vs. a personal story aware of its place, and placement, in God’s story.
This issue of CC has several uplifting examples of what God is doing to make something of us. And in that context, biographies are a wonderful thing. Meet the Olympic athlete who ministered to others in a WWII Japanese internment camp. A structural engineer who finds biblical inspiration in a man-made reservoir. And a parent who sees young children as uniquely designed to cultivate patience, that elusive fruit of the spirit. Ghostwriters for God? Not exactly. Maybe more accurate to imagine our lives as ghostwritten.
“Why, then, do I set before You an ordered account of so many things?” So queried St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, 398 A.D.
“It’s certainly not through me that You know them. But I’m stirring up love for You in myself and in those who read this, so that we may all say, great is the Lord and highly worthy to be praised.
“I tell my story for love of Your love.”
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