"The Sopranos" helped save my sweet mom's life

I will never forget the first time I heard my 80-year-old mother say, "Someone’s gonna get whacked tonight!"

Published February 19, 2024 1:29PM (EST)

Author's mother and actors Michael Imperioli, Jmaes Gandolfini, Tony Siroco & Steve Van Zandt from HBO cable TV series The Sopranos. (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo courtesy of Barbara Neal Varma/Getty Images)
Author's mother and actors Michael Imperioli, Jmaes Gandolfini, Tony Siroco & Steve Van Zandt from HBO cable TV series The Sopranos. (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo courtesy of Barbara Neal Varma/Getty Images)

"The Sopranos" turned 25 this year, stirring memories of the groundbreaking HBO series that made fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini, a TV icon. I know I’ll never forget the very first time I heard “Someone’s gonna get whacked tonight!” Especially since it came from my sweet 80-year-old mom. 

I pressed the phone closer to my ear. “What’d you say, Mom?”

“Someone’s gonna get whacked tonight. On 'The Sopranos.' It’s a little gruesome,” she confessed, "but they really pull you in.”

I’m not sure what surprised me more: My own mother going gangster, or the sudden excitement in her voice.

“Wait, where are you seeing 'The Sopranos'?” 

“On TV. It comes on after 'The View.'”

It was a bit disconcerting to think my normally soft-spoken mommy was watching a show I thought too violent to watch myself. 

“And you’re OK watching it?” I asked.

“I have to close my eyes sometimes. Have you seen it? It’s getting real good. I think Christopher’s going to make his bones tonight.”

Looking back, I credit the show with contributing to the extended length and quality of my mom’s life after what would’ve presumably been a debilitating diagnosis.

A laugh escaped me then. I couldn’t help it. Good for Christopher, I thought, good for him "making his bones," whatever the heck that meant. Anything that made my mom sound so happy back then was gold to me. 

Just two weeks prior, during a routine chest X-ray, they’d noticed a suspicious bulge where a suspicious bulge shouldn’t be, sitting on her aorta. The thing about aneurysms, Dr. Google said, was they tend to grow over time, leading to stroke or instant . . . good God.

Mom used to dance in the kitchen when I was growing up, making up her own moves to songs she’d record off the radio using the little cassette player she carried around the house. I’d watch, entranced and entertained, peering over my PB&J as she’d pop in a cassette and then spin around or rock back and forth. Her favorite was “My Guy” by Mary Wells. She’d really rev up the engine then, shaking her hips and tapping a wooden spoon in the air, still damp from stirring her homemade spaghetti sauce. 

Mom also spent much of my childhood lying on her bed, obsessing for hours about the latest life event to test her fragile nerves. Big stuff, little stuff, it didn’t matter. Her anxiety had a way of leveling the playing field: Making the “wrong” move at her bridge game became as triggering as finding out her firstborn, my oldest brother, had Type 1 diabetes.

Soon after being told about the aneurysm, she’d taken to her bed again, depressed and afraid to leave the house, lest something happened.

Then she met Tony. 

She’d fallen asleep on the couch watching "The Andy Griffith Show" reruns. When she woke up hours later, Andy and Barney had been replaced with a balding guy holding a gun to the temple of a guy with a full head of hair, to hear her tell it. It startled her when the gun went off. The blood spattered. But for that shocking, magical moment, she forgot all about her sorrow. She kept watching.

"And if we do nothing?” Mom asked. “Will I just go out in a blaze of glory?"

Of course, being a sudden fan of the show made her a bit of a wild card in public. Mom never took up swearing or dropped any F-bombs, but she’d often repeat some adults-only phrases that Tony would say while failing to use her indoor voice. Noisy malls were fine. Movie theaters, less so. The center, red-leather booth at the Ruby’s Diner that we liked to frequent? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Barely a week after the initial diagnosis, we were back for the consult with her heart doctor. More bad news. Any surgery to reduce or remove the aneurysm would be risky considering its proximity to her spinal cord. The chance of paralysis was high.

“And if we do nothing?” Mom asked. “Will I just go out in a blaze of glory?”

Doc’s eyebrows went up.

“She’s been watching 'The Sopranos,'” I explained.

The eyebrows went down. “Actually, these things, when they resolve, tend to be quick and painless,” he said before quickly moving on. “The good news is the aneurysm is small enough to forestall surgery.” 

They would check it again in a few months with another X-ray. Meantime, she was told to keep her blood pressure down — that was key. 

As was keeping up with “The Sopranos.” Looking back, I credit the show with contributing to the extended length and quality of my mom’s life after what would’ve presumably been a debilitating diagnosis. Instead, inspired by Tony’s survival-at-all-cost attitude, she dutifully took her blood pressure meds, walked laps around her small condo for exercise, and even vicariously benefited from Tony’s therapy sessions — “He has panic attacks, too,” she told me — with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.

Three months in, we went in for the follow-up chest X-ray. 

Two days later: “It appears to have grown.” 

They did a CT scan just to make sure. Later that night, the phone rang. It was her doctor’s office asking me to please bring my mom in the next morning to hear the results.  

We arrived early. I guided Mom into the waiting room and grabbed the last two empty seats in a row of cushioned chairs, sitting her on the end to ensure her shy tush would only have to touch her daughter’s. She’d been quiet on the drive over. Me, too. 

“So, what’s going on with Tony and the guys?” I asked, playing my ace.

She brightened. “Well, let’s see. Last night one of the guys got mad because another guy said his wife was fat.” She gave me a telling glance over her glasses. “You don’t say something like that to a mobster.”

“I imagine not.”

“So then the guy — the one who said the other guy’s wife was fat, wanted to—” She glanced around then whispered, “You know.”

“Whack him?” 

She laughed and patted my knee, eyes sparkling. Then just as quickly, they turned sad. “I’m sorry you have to go through all this again.” 

I knew what she was talking about. Years back, we’d lost my dad too soon, too fast to pancreatic cancer. We’d gone from shock to grief in zero to 60 days, give or take. There had been many waiting room vigils then, too.

I covered her hand with mine. “All what? You mean hearing your 'Sopranos' stories and catching stink-eye from everyone in the room?” I flashed her a devilish grin. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Then I went back to reading my magazine, blinking back tears.

The inner door opened and the doctor himself called us in, guiding us through his office and into a smaller, darker room save for the lightboards across one wall. 

He pulled three X-ray sheets free from their manila envelope and posted them against the glowing panels. An assortment of strange white shapes stood out against the black backgrounds. Mom and I stared at the array, two stargazers searching for answers. 

Doc pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and outlined the outer edge of a fuzzy, misshapen splotch about the size of my thumb. There it was. The silver bullet.

He held the radiologist’s report in his hand. I held my breath. 

“CT scans can show us so much more than a chest X-ray,” he began. “Which is a good thing, because in this case, it looks like it hasn’t grown after all.”

I heard the words but didn’t move, afraid even the slightest motion would scare the good news away. Mom stood just as still next to me. Seeing no response, he said it again. This time joy broke through. 

“Hear that?” I said, laying an arm across my mother’s shoulders and hugging her close. “It hasn’t grown.” I kissed the top of her head, her silky white hair felt feather soft against my lips. 

A few days later I rang Mom’s doorbell to announce my arrival for our weekly grocery run. Her door flew open, and who appeared but Dancing Mom, beckoning me with swaying arms into the living room.

“It’s 'The Sopranos,'” she said as she twirled around once, twice for good measure. Sure enough, there on the TV screen was her buddy Tony smoking his cigar and steering his way through Jersey during the show’s opening credits. Mom rocked her hips to the theme song and stirred the air with an imaginary spoon. She even threw in a knee twirl — balancing herself on an end table first, thank God — for good measure. I tossed down my coat and keys and happily joined in. Vons could wait.

The aneurysm did finally catch up with Mom, but not until five well-lived years later. Until then, we savored every moment, every laugh, every hug, lest it be our last. Truth is, we’re all living on borrowed time and would be advised to treat each waking day as a gift. Danger lurks, but so does grace.

As for that much-talked-about "Sopranos" finale, she never saw it. 

At the time, Mom said she didn’t want to know how it ended. Me neither, actually; there was something jinxy about it. Besides, Mom was doing so well. Even the aneurysm seemed to be behaving. Better to go out for ice cream instead.

But thanks to the anniversary of the show's first season, I kept seeing Tony’s face front and center on the Max menu, double-dog daring me to come on, watch the end, already! What—was I a wuss?

Yes. Yes, I was; afraid it’d be too emotional without Mom sitting next to me, telling me when to close my eyes. (Which turned out to be the scene when Phil’s head encountered his wife’s car, by the way. You’re welcome.)  

Eventually, though, Tony’s stare wore me down. So I watched it, killing a box of Kleenex in the process, missing her so much.

During the final season of her life, my Mom had lived vicariously through a fictional TV character, notorious mob boss Tony Soprano, and in some ways, she’d died that way, too. The day before, my husband and I took her to Ruby’s Diner again where she enjoyed a tall glass of vanilla shake, mercifully oblivious of what the next day would bring.  

Thankfully, when the gun in her chest finally went off, it was as quick and painless (I want to believe) as her doctor had predicted. No blaze of glory or violent, final scene. For Tony, either. Only the reward of a silent, peaceful end. One second, there is life; the next, it’s gone, cut to black.

Except I’m sure for my brave, dancing mom, instead of darkness, there was light.

By Barbara Neal Varma

Barbara Neal Varma’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Globe Magazine and Writer’s Digest. She’s currently working on her debut novel, a suspense story she hopes will make readers both laugh and lose a little sleep at night. She still misses her mom. Visit her at

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