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Norm’s Evolving Why for Living (revisited)
Clarifying Purpose Takes Time
It was mid-October, and she was forcing herself to eat. By Thanksgiving, she would go into the hospital for the last time. By Christmas, she would be dead.
In the back of Norm's mind, he knew that could be how 1980 would end for his family. His mother was slowly starving from stomach cancer, but the members of his family were not looking ahead three months. They were taking the inevitable steps one day at a time.
That's why inviting Kate out to the farm for the first time to meet his family was appropriate. Yes, it complicated his mom's Saturday. Yet, from his sheltered, workday life, it seemed right. After all, Kate and Norm were good friends who worked in the same office.
And, beyond that, they oddly complemented each other on several levels. Kate had grown up in Whitefish Bay, a fashionable suburb of Milwaukee, and felt out of place in rural Wisconsin. Norm grew up on a farm in rural southern Wisconsin but longed for city life.
He had worked his way up to first-tier management and was just beginning to realize how his employer's corporate culture worked. Kate, a new college graduate in agricultural journalism, was dealing with the frustrations of her first job.
At 23, Kate feared she would end up some day like her mother, fighting chronic bouts with mental illness. At 37, Norm was discovering the loss a dying mother can feel in not being able to see her children accomplish all that they were about to achieve.
"Don't be afraid to go into a nursing home, when the time comes you can't take care of yourself," his mother would admonish him during his growing-up years. Norm would watch her hazel eyes go blank as she tried to anticipate how he would fare as a single, older adult who walked with crutches.
Over the long months of treatment for her cancer, his mom continued to talk about the broad scope of life. Norm was trying to live in 1980 -- still trying to understand the psychological ramifications of living with lifelong cerebral palsy.
Norm was surprised Kate had agreed to come to the farm. But they both knew it was going to be one of the last nice weekends of the fall. And they knew it was going to be one of his mom's last weekends at home.
"This is Kate," Norm said to his mom, as he and Kate entered the old farmhouse with the kitchen table set for a noon meal and the stove throwing off a welcomed warmth against the chilly air from the still-open front door.
His mom hugged Kate as a greeting, and Kate awkwardly returned the gesture. Norm knew Kate liked her space, but his mom tended to hug everyone. A misunderstood signal but that was unimportant.
As Norm hugged his mom, the pit of his stomach turned. It had been a week since he had seen her. She was smiling but more frail and thinner than he imagined she would be.
The family sat down to a lunch of chili and home-made bread, but Norm noticed his mom's bowl was bare. She sat there gaunt and wide-eyed, sipping her water and nibbling at her crackers. Only the clinking of the silverware against bowls of chili broke the silence. Norm looked at his sister, Pat, and her husband, Tom, and realized how much had changed in a week.
In overalls, his dad sat subdued at one end of the table, hardly saying a word until he learned Kate worked at Badger Breeders.
"Swiss Valley Jerseys!" Kate remarked, flashing her Jessica Lange smile and running her fingers through her honey-blonde hair. "We have one of your bulls in our stud."
"They bought him three years ago from us," Norm's dad proudly replied. The frown on his white forehead, which was always protected from the sun by his hat, had temporarily disappeared.
"I really admire what Norm has accomplished," Kate added, again breaking the silence. "He's become my mentor at work."
"... Our big brother," Pat chimed in, chuckling. "I guess that's sort of like being a mentor."
"Big brothers can be a pain, too," Norm said. "Remember when I used to correct George's themes in college? Big mistake."
"Being the oldest is not easy," Kate agreed. "I have a younger sister and brother, and I can't believe what they get away with that I could have never done at their age."
"You just get worn down after the third and fourth kid," Norm's mom said weakly with a pasty smile.
A trip to the home farm was giving Norm and Kate what they each needed. For Kate, he surmised, it was something different to do during what she considered a backwater time in her life. Perhaps quasi-dating an older man with a disability who grew up in rural Wisconsin was also a partial atonement for her life of privilege in Milwaukee. And the rebellious, liberal side of her relished a challenge to convention.
For Norm, it was a chance to show his family he could establish an adult relationship with an attractive, intelligent woman. Yes, he had a good friend in Kate. No, a friendship between a man and woman did not always have to lead to romance -- a concept not easily understood in rural Wisconsin. Was he interested in developing a romantic relationship with Kate? Of course. But that was still an open question. He was still growing. He was going to be alright.
They had come in separate cars. It was safer that way. It demonstrated their independence. It showed they were not a "couple."
After lunch, Kate and Norm walked slowly down the farmstead's driveway. They crossed the road and tramped across a field of tangled corn stalks toward a hill of red-tinged oaks. Swinging his crutches sideways to maintain his balance while walking across the rows, Norm occasionally caught some of the corn stalks left by the corn picker. He would stop, untangle his crutches and move on.
"Nice family," Kate said in a muse, as the sun began to take the chill out of the fall air. "I really like your mom."
"She's gone downhill quite a bit during this last week," Norm replied. "She's not eating much at all. Not your typical Saturday lunch. She used to like food so much."
As they walked back to the house, high, thin clouds began to move in, and the air became chilly. Kate left, and Norm went into the house to spend time with his mom, who was sitting in her favorite chair by the window with a knitted shawl around her arms.
"Good to have Kate come out. I watched you two go all the way across that field," she said slowly. "It takes someone special to take the time to walk with you like that."
"I'm sure she didn't mind. It was just so nice out."
"How long have you known Kate?"
"About a year. It's nothing serious," Norm emphasized. "We're just good friends."
More than 40 years later, Norm feels better about that last lunch with his mom. At the time, he began to feel it was inappropriate to bring Kate into a family situation which should have been a private affair. And, for a long time, he felt bad about it.
“I feel the reason we are all here, our purpose of being, is to help others find their little piece of happiness and heaven right here on earth.” ― Ken Poirot
But, now at 79 and facing the last leg of his own life, he realizes that having to face death early in life helped him clarify his "why" for living. His original motivation was not far from that "why." He wanted to show his mom that he would be OK when she was gone.
She had done well in raising him. He would continue to thrive precisely because of – not despite – his disability. That called for re-imagining circumstances and mustering resilience in the face of adversity.
It was an opportunity to show the resiliency of human beings. Looking back, Norm believes 1980 was pivotal in evolving his "why" for living into its current version: "help us all see how much we are alike."
Norm's takeaway tip from this episode: Refine continually your “why” for living.
Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
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