He was the kind of guy that you had to love right away.
A World War II veteran, a former seaman and deeply proud of it, he found a way to combine a gruff voice and unpretty exterior with the sweetest personality you could ever hope to encounter. He was a simple man, enjoying his whiskey and the early morning silence (often at the same time), his routine of waiting for the mailman and then bringing an apple and some mints to share with the neighbor’s horse when it was time to make the ever-lengthening walk to the mailbox. He creaked a bit when he walked, and had a hard time transitioning from sitting to standing, but he never complained about his physical health. He found life to be a beautiful thing, I think, but wasn’t the type to gush about it or wax poetic. He simply radiated contentment and satisfaction at a life well-lived.
He had married his Annie sometime in the early 1990s. They grew up together, the four of them: Norman and his first wife, Anne and her first husband. After their spouses died, Norman and Annie eventually got married, perhaps at first just for the security and companionship. Norman had promised Ray that he would look out for Annie after he died, and what better way to look out for her than to live with her? But over time, their relationship developed into a truly special, heartwarming sort of thing. They cared for each other, on an emotional level but also on a physical one; she would remind him to take his medicine and help him organize appointments, he would cook her favorite meals once she could no longer stand up long enough to do so herself. They shared a love for North Carolina barbecued shrimp, the sea, and family. And bourbon.
They have both been sick, in various insidious ways, as the years crept by. Knee problems, then a broken foot, then eye problems and various, assorted organ issues. They would corral each other through every health crisis, and stubbornly resisted outside help or the mere thought of moving to any sort of assisted living facility. They would accept help from their grandchildren, in the form of Thanksgiving dinner and a cleaned bathroom, but from their own children, whose exasperation was likely due to a sense of worry but came across more as condescension? Not a bit. “We’re fine just as we are,” they would say. “Thank you for your concern. Now go home.”
And so they lived a quiet, serene sort of existence on the Outer Banks. They were each well-entrenched in alcoholism, drinking throughout the day and even getting up at night to toss down a quick Bloody Mary, but they never got stumbling-drunk or even slurring-buzzed. They just maintained a certain blood alcohol content, and went about their business. Their daughters worried about this, endlessly, but they each acknowledged it matter-of-factly. “I’m not responsible for children, and I’m paying my bills on time and taking showers,” Anne would say. “I’m not hurting anyone except myself.” They were each well aware of the effects of alcohol on the liver, and indeed on the whole body, and made their decision to consume in an informed sort of way.
When he first started to get sick, this last time, they both accepted it with their normal stoicism. Off to the doctor, get a new medication, make some changes in diet, whatever it took. But this time, he didn’t get better. This time, after several days, he started getting worse. Much worse.
He ended up in the emergency room, dehydrated and ill. His children arrived, and decided he needed the top-of-the-line medical care. He was transported to one of the big medical centers in the Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham, more than three hours from his home. There, they hooked up IV’s and started running tests: x-rays, ultrasounds, MRI’s, you name it, they ran it. The diagnosis: liver and kidney failure. The prognosis: not good.
Through those first several days, his Annie remained at home, alone. She arranged for a housekeeper and a daily meal delivery, and did her best not to worry too much. Her family called and offered to come down and stay with her, but she knew he would be home soon and then they would be fine again.
Late Sunday afternoon, Norman’s doctor called Anne. Norman was now on a steady morphine drip and had not woken up yet that day. “It’s a matter of hours,” he said. Anne thanked him for calling, and immediately got on the phone with a local cab company. She convinced them to drive her all the way to the hospital; by the time they arrived, the cab driver was so enamored of her that he walked her up to the room and delivered her to his bedside. And, rumor has it, grossly undercharged her.
She sat down at his bedside and touched his face. For the first time all day, he stirred, and then woke up. They stared at each other for a bit, and held hands, and communicated without words. Then he said, “I love you.”
He closed his eyes, and never opened them again. He died a few hours later, with his Annie still at his side, and his children in the room as well.
Godspeed, Norman. You’ll be missed.