Chris Salvatore and Norma Cook
It with smiles and a few simple words of greeting. They grew closer over intimate dinners and champagne. Before long they were inseparable, and moved in together. “I love her,” said Chris Salvatore of Norma Cook. “She’s my best friend. I would do anything for her.”
Yet this loving couple inevitably drew strange glances for Chris was 31 while Norma was 89 and dying of leukaemia, which on Wednesday claimed her life. A heartbroken Chris confessed: “Norma reminded me that we are all created to love and all desire to be loved.”
Yet this unlikely May-December romance is not what you might think. Chris was no gold-digger cosying up to a wealthy older woman for her fortune. Norma had no money saved and no family to care for her yet she was rich in personality and found her soulmate in Chris, who is rich in heart.
Theirs was a platonic friendship and when cancer threatened to put her into a nursing home in her final days, Chris took her into his home to provide the 24-hour nursing care she needed. “I believe that human kindness is a magical thing and can heal what doctors can’t,” he says.
The close friends enjoying a meal out
Their loving friendship, untroubled by their 58-year age difference, touched America. “This year Norma helped the world see the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” says Chris.
I’d rather die than go to a facility
“To love one another is not about living struggle-free or never experiencing hurt or loss but to fully and deeply open our hearts to one another without fear.
“Age is just a number. It’s not something to hold you back from connecting with someone. You never know who could become your dearest friend.”
Yet they made an unlikely couple. Chris is a strapping, lean and muscular blue-eyed 6ft hunk with a neatly trimmed dark brown beard and a tattooed right bicep, while Norma was a petite, frail, bespectacled divorcée with long white hair pulled back off her weathered face.
They met four years ago when Chris, an aspiring actor and singer, moved into the apartment opposite retired interior decorator Norma in a complex in West Hollywood, California.
He was captivated by the friendly senior citizen who always waved to him from her kitchen window when he left his apartment. “One day I said, ‘Can I come in and chat?’ because she just seemed so sweet,” says Chris. “She offered me a glass of champagne and it was like this immediate friendship.
“I was going through a break-up at the time, I was depressed and I would sit and talk to her for hours. Just knowing she was there and listening to me made me feel better. She was able to help me through some dark times.”
Norma had lost many friends during the Aids epidemic and Chris admits: “Being gay, that bonded us right away.” Said Norma: “He’s the grandson I never had. He’s a really wonderful guy. He cooks for me. If he can’t make it as an actor, he can make it as a chef.”
Chris took her into his home to provide the 24-hour nursing care she needed
They talked about food and fashion over dinner and drinks and were soon spending hours hanging out in each other’s homes each day. Chris learned that she was battling leukaemia, struggling to make ends meet and had sold her car.
Norma’s monthly social security payment barely covered her medical costs so Chris helped her cook meals, drove her to the bank and to doctor appointments, did her shopping and took her to vote in November’s elections when she wore a Hillary Clinton-supporting T-shirt to the polls. They went to Mexican restaurants and sipped margaritas. Norma, who divorced at the age of 43 and never had any children, was diagnosed with leukaemia 10 years ago. She was still working until her health began to deteriorate last year but she was struggling to survive on her own. “She was in and out of hospital six times last year,” says Chris. After her last hospital stay over the new year, doctors told her she could not go home without 24-hour care. “I couldn’t let her go to a facility or nursing home. She was like, ‘I’d rather die than go to a facility.’”
When doctors gave her only months to live Norma gave Chris the power of attorney and he became her primary care-giver, moving Norma and her cat Hermes into his home.
He fed, cleaned and dressed her, pushed her wheelchair and kept her spirits buoyant. When Norma decided against further treatments for her cancer, Chris said: “Now it’s my job to make her feel comfortable and at peace and not lonely.”
Faced with crippling medical costs, Chris turned to social media, inviting complete strangers to donate toward Norma’s care. Within days he had raised more than £60,000.
Yet as Norma’s health deteriorated she could barely stand and required a breathing machine. Doctors and nurses visited Chris’s home frequently to check on Norma. “It’s really challenging,” said Chris. “It becomes hard to disassociate the emotional bond you have with someone as you’re seeing them die in front of your eyes.”
He was captivated by the friendly senior citizen who always waved to him from her kitchen window
wise-cracking “firecracker” who stayed happy despite her illness, said Chris in her final days. “She’s aware of death, she talks about it, she’s OK with it,” he said. “We’re trying to spend as much time together as we can.” Though heartbroken by Norma’s death Chris is thankful for their time together. “I’m so lucky to have had her as a friend,” he says.
“She’s changed my life, she’s made me a kinder, more compassionate person. I feel honoured to spend her last moments with her.
“Norma told me, ‘I don’t want you to be the one to find me dead.’ It broke my heart because I knew I would be the one to find her. I was trying to stay strong for her and I told her it’ll be OK but it’s tough.”
Chris sat for hours at Norma’s bedside chatting, watching movies and cruising the internet on his laptop. “We mostly talk, drink champagne and eat peanuts,” she said. They hosted a Christmas party together, sent friends a joint Christmas card and greeted the new year together. Two weeks ago he took her to see the ocean for the first time in months and they lunched at The Ivy.
‘I’m so lucky to have had her as a friend’ said Chris
Chris recognised the was helping more than just Norma. “I want others to be inspired to be more kind to strangers and neighbours you may see who may seem different than you,” he said. “Norma taught me that kindness heals.
“I’m so lucky to have had her as a friend. While she may no longer physically be with us her spirit will continue to fill the hearts of so many people. Norma’s lasting legacy is that her story helped the world see the true meaning of love. I thought I’d been in love before, but she opened my heart to a deeper love. Some people thought our relationship was odd or unconventional, but she brought so much joy into my life.” Holding back tears he said: “I think she wanted to see Valentine’s Day with me. The next day she was gone.”
In a final love letter to Norma, Chris wrote on Instagram: “Each of us is lovable even with all of our differences. Love has no boundaries. May you rest in peace, my sweet, sweet lady Norma.”