Lunch With Norm

Philosophical conversations and books form the bond of friendship for the writer and a retired doctor in his 90s.

There’s no accounting for the chemistry of friendship. Sometimes it’s the shared experience of being young together or serving in the military. Or it could be a function of family—a coincidence of neighborhood or parenthood.

For guys, it’s often common interests like work, sports, music or alcohol. Most of the close friends I have today I met in high school and college in the 1960s, and I haven’t made many more since. So I was unprepared for my friendship with Dr. Norman Wall, begun when the retired cardiologist was in his early 90s, more than 30 years my senior.

The beginning was not auspicious. We first connected in 2007 through Rabbi Steven Engel of Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism. Engel introduced us above the din of a reception following an evening service. “I think you’ll like him,” he told me. I got recommendations like that a lot when I was covering religion for the Orlando Sentinel, and often they didn’t pan out. But this one did. The man I encountered looked closer to 73 than 93, fit and lean with a full head of white hair, impeccably dressed and obviously vital. As impressive as his physical condition was, it was the life of his mind that proved so striking. When he called and suggested we get together for lunch, I agreed.

Over the past three years the invitations have come the same way. My cell phone rings, I answer, and there is a short pause. Then a gravelly voice says, “Mark? Norm. How about Wednesday at 1?” My answer is usually yes, and I look forward to another midday meeting with this remarkable man. Sometimes it’s just the two of us, but often three or more men get the same call—or an e-mail.

My lunches with Norm have become more frequent, and more intimate, since I was laid off by the Sentinel in 2008. More than anything, he wants to talk about books, ideas, history, public policy and philosophy. We recommend and lend books to each other, often upper-middlebrow fiction. Norm read and critiqued an early draft of my latest book, suggesting, naturally, that I focus more on a crusty, older character, a crusading, small-town lawyer with whom he obviously identifies. Recently, I asked Norm why he thought our relationship
has become what it is. “That’s easy,” he said with a chuckle. “You learn from me and I learn from you.”

Occasionally we eat at Norm’s house in Heathrow, but mostly his charming wife, Faye, wants him out from underfoot for a while, so he

chooses restaurants—the Heathrow Country Club, TooJay’s, Peach Valley or Shula’s. They’re all a short drive for him in his white GMC with the “Save the Wolves” bumper sticker. Norm calls the SUV “Rocinante,” the name of Don Quixote’s steed and John Steinbeck’s camper truck in Travels With Charlie. Over time, I’ve noticed his steps have become more tentative, his gait a little gingerly. So the only concession to Norm’s age I’ve made has been to accompany him to and from Rocinante. My motto: “No broken hips on my watch.”

For three years Norm has insisted on picking up the check, because he invited me. I never protested until recently, at TooJays, when I grabbed it. He objected, like a father insisting he pay for the pleasure of dining with a son or daughter. But Norm relented when I said that I wanted to say that at least once I took him to lunch.

I am amazed at how sharp Norm is, his mind still nimble, his attitude feisty. He reads The New York Times regularly and is extremely Web savvy. His humor is by turns clever, droll and sarcastic. Despite the years that separate us, we have a great deal in common, including that we are both Jewish Democrats, of a leftish mien. There are also coincidental connections: My rabbi during high school in southern New Jersey in the 1950s turned out to have been his friend and teacher across the river at the University of Pennsylvania, years before.

Norm is about the same age my father would have been if he hadn’t died in 1978. Perhaps that’s a part of it—he is a father figure without the familial baggage. Once, after I came back from a trip to my hometown in Jersey, and a visit to my old next-door neighbor (87 and residing in an assisted living facility), I shared with Norm her story about a secret act of charity my father had done. It was the only time I ever saw my lunch partner tear up, as if the good deed was typical, a testament and a tribute to his own generation.

Without making a conscious decision, we tend to steer clear of some topics that might be too sensitive or too personal—like parenting adult children. Norm’s own children, who are about my age, and his grandchildren live far away, so maybe I am a fill-in son. My two kids are away at college. Norm gives advice, but only when asked. In any event, I see him as a role model, something to aspire to in however many years to come there are for me.

Like everyone else, I can’t help wondering about Norm’s secret of longevity; he’s still driving and—when we first met—was playing golf. Among the books he has written is Living Longer, Living Stronger. Genes aside, his son Harry attributes his father’s extraordinary vitality to “exercise, naps, reading, good conversation and two belts of Chivas at night.”

Norm wants to be useful, and is. After I had minor heart surgery, he volunteered to be my back-up cardiologist, reviewing my tests and exam results, and he calls to check up on me when I am sick or injured. For months, while I was recuperating from a burn injury and a subsequent skin graft, my lunches with Norm were the only respites from the house I allowed myself.

Gradually, Norm has told me the story of his life. He is the youngest and lone survivor of nine children. His father left Russia at the end of the 19th century, part of the large migration of Jews escaping persecution and seeking a better life in America. Norm served in World War II in station hospitals in Africa and the Middle East, leaving the Army as a lieutenant colonel.

After the war, when his father died, Norm discontinued a prestigious fellowship and a bright future in Boston at the Lahey Clinic, en route to a planned career in a major medical center. He returned to his small hometown of Pottsville in Schuylkill County in order to help support his mother and siblings. There, he was hired by the Catholic nuns who were preparing to build a modern hospital and were grateful to have such a talented doctor, whatever his faith.

For half a century Norm cared for everyone in the area, from coal miners to bankers. He turned his work on the miners and their dust-damaged lungs and hearts into academic papers in national medical journals. He began bringing promising young medical students from the U.S. and Israel—where he helped develop Ben-Gurion Hospital and Medical School in the Negev—to his hospital in Pottsville for summer training programs. He retired from practice in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida in 1995.

Norm is a living history book, especially when it comes to the healing arts. His life has spanned a century of dramatic changes in the world of medicine. As he likes to say, “I had the best 50 years of medicine,” from the discovery of penicillin and the advent of open heart surgery to the takeover of health care by the HMOs. A keen, intuitive diagnostician of the old school in the years before (and after) sophisticated testing and technology, he believed in treating his patients holistically—before that term was invented.

Norm admits to a certain vanity at this point in his life. On his wall, he has a framed copy of an op-ed column he wrote in 2005 for The New York Times about importing foreign physicians to the U.S. to respond to the doctor shortage. An auditorium at his old hospital in Pennsylvania is named for him and many of his medical protégés have inscribed dedications to his honor in their textbooks.

If he has any serious regrets about his long life, Norm has kept them to himself, or dismisses them with a shrug: “What are you gonna do?”
The Yiddish expression “bashert” literally means destined, or fated. In recent years, it has come to refer to a future marriage partner, because it connotes “soul mate.” I think it was fated that Norm and I would meet, and that I would grow so fond of him.

For all the Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays with Norm, our lunches are not the tutorials on life as taught by
a dying man, as in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. I am watching a life well lived—and living.

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