The sign, black magic marker lettering on pink construction paper, tells you everything you need to know about how he has handled his life.
And for Norman, as he sits up in his bed, sucking on a piece of ice, the sign tells you more about how he is handling his death.
Norman has cancer, which started in his stomach and has spread to inoperable levels in other parts of his body. He is dying.
The sign, though, comes later. First, you need to know about Norman, and then you’ll understand the words on that sign.
I’ve known of Norman for as long as I can remember, have known him for the last 20 years and have known him well for the past 12. He is around my father’s age – his late 60s – and we have shared a passion for movies, music and television. Our first conversation probably included a breakdown of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and our last dissected the series finale of Lost. In between, we have argued about Pink Floyd (overrated in my book) and Bruce Springsteen (a “mush-mouthed singer” who would sound better if he’d “spit out the marbles in his mouth,” according to Norman).
Norman has counseled me on all matters of life, from following my dreams and embracing life to improving my taste in famous women (“I wouldn’t let my dog sniff her, and I don’t even have a dog,” he would e-mail me after I would tell him of my newest celebrity crush). I always knew, though, that none of them ever topped his wife, Darlene, or The Darlene as he called her, which will we all knew was short for “The One and Only Darlene.” He knew he was lucky to have her and has known he was lucky since taking her on her first date long ago when she was about 12. He knew it when he took her to watch 101 Dalmatians nine nights in a row at the drive-in.
He knows it now, so many years later, with two grown daughters and a handful of grandkids, most of whom, it seems, inherited his love of music.
Or maybe they just all inherited his love. You see, that’s really what Norman is about. He embraced each day, seeing what new wonders he could find, whether it was in the routine business of a job, working on a foreign sports car or hiking through the Red River Gorge. Norman, as much as anyone you’ll ever meet, realized life is about the journey, the people and things you see and the new experiences you have each day. The destination is just the culmination of all those things.
“A lot of people say they’re ready for this,” he told me from the hospital bed set up in his home, “but I honestly feel like I’m better prepared for it than anyone. I’ve known all my life this day was going to come, and I spent my life preparing for it.”
That’s not to say, of course, that it’s easy. Norman still gets teary-eyed when he gets a visit from a dear friend or when he talks about his grandkids. He knows his medical care is difficult on his family, but he also appreciates having them close, giving each of them new moments and memories together.
Even with death around the corner, Norman still marvels in the delights of life he can find each day. He tells of his neighbor who keeps a lamp on in the window at night, knowing Norman can see it from his bed, giving him a signal (he calls it his personal St. Elmo’s Fire) letting him know someone his thinking of him. His oldest daughter comes over to put him to bed at 11 p.m., and when Norman’s light goes out and she leaves, the lamp across the street also gets shut off.
“Now that’s a good neighbor,” Norman said.
He’s also prepared to enjoy life, or at least help others do so, during his death. “I’ve been to funerals and some of the toughest, biggest, most redneck guys I know get put in their coffins with their hands like this,” he said, clasping his hands together in a peaceful yet submissive gesture on his chest. “Not me. I’m going to have mine like this.”
Norman then laid back and put his hands in front of his chest, moving the fingers in each hand into well-recognized shapes.
“‘Peace’ and “I love you,’ that’s what I want to say.”
Norman told me these stories this past Friday after I told him I’d be in town for the weekend. After hearing the news of his cancer, I asked if I could visit, and once I learned his health was getting worse, I didn’t want to delay any longer. I knew going into it this would likely be my final chance to talk with him, and I worried about what to say, about how to say goodbye.
Norman made it easy.
He welcomed me with tears. “I cry when I see people I love,” he said.
He told me I could visit for a short time, about five minutes, telling me he was tired and had difficulty with longer periods of activity. He let me stay for 40 minutes.
We did what we always do – we talked. We talked about my job. We talked about movies. We talked about Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. We talked about Lost.
“Were you satisfied with the ending?” he asked about the show we had texted about for the last few years.
“I thought it was beautiful,” I told him, and he agreed.
Norman, after all, is a man who knows about beautiful endings.
And as his voice got weaker and his throat got drier, we both knew our time together was coming to an end.
“You mean a lot to me, Kevin. I have always appreciated our friendship, and I’m proud of you. I love you.”
“Norman, I’ll never be able to fully express what you and your family have meant to me, but I’m thankful we had these years that we had. And since you mentioned the Lost finale, I guess I have to tell you this, and you know I mean it: ‘I’ll see you in another life, brother.’”
He smiled while he cried. “Yeah, that’s right, man. ‘I’ll see you in another life.’”
And with that, he turned his head, and I walked out, having said goodbye, at least in person, to my friend.
Before I left, though, I saw that sign one more time, that pink paper that once sat in his work office and now rested above his hospital bed. For a man who could look death in the face and talk about nothing but life, the four phrases on it perfectly captured the heart and essence of his being:
“Hallelujah. Amen. Let it be. So be it.”