David Norwood | December 29, 2012

David was my oldest friend.  I never let him forget how old he was.  MANY weeks older than my hot young self.

He’s gone now.  He died of ALS this May, 18 years after being diagnosed.  Kind of a Stephen Hawking, but more wonderful.  And possibly as smart.


I’ve been thinking a lot about him.  I wish I could have teased him about being 48 years old.  I’m MANY hours away from being 48.

I miss you, David.  I miss you.  Your brilliance and creativity always daunted me, and yet you were so damned easy to be with.  No fair.  I don’t really get why you are gone.  I know the universe doesn’t have to make sense, but — wow — you are amazing.  Were.

Not that you were always GOOD.  Here’s the picture you blackmailed me with:

David Norwood and me.  David is the one who is smiling.

David Norwood and me. David is the one who is smiling.

Here’s what I said at your memorial, this past June:

I’m Nick Mayper, the guy sitting in front of David on the toy pony.  Others have spoken today about David’s talents, but I want to talk about his sensibility.  How he was in the world.

The Norwoods and the Maypers have been linked ever since Ginger [David’s mother] and my father met in college in 1944.  David and I were childhood friends.  We drifted apart for most of our adult lives, but then reconnected about three years ago.

Before I talk about David, I want to say that NOBODY lives for years on a ventilator without being hospitalized.  Nobody.  Not even someone as healthy as David.  It’s a tribute to Nomi and Ginger and all of the people who cared for him that he was hospitalized only once, 12 years into it.  It’s further tribute to them that he survived that hospitalization — but that’s another story.


Anyway, after hearing all of these descriptions of David’s talents, the first thing I’d like to say is this:

I resented the shit out of him when we first met.

It was February, 1965.  He was 12 weeks old.  I was six weeks old.  We each had heard rumors of the other and wanted to meet.  We arranged a play date for our parents.  We propped ourselves on pillows at each end of the couch, like bookends.  Once the parents were settled, I focused on him, and gasped.

He had perfect control of his head.  Effortless, symmetric, bobble-free.  It felt like he was taunting me.

After a while, I realized that he had no interest in taunting others — he just did his thing, unapologetically funny and smart and talented, setting an example without intending to.  He was cool.  We became friends.


Time passed.  I gained control of my neck muscles.

We brought our parents together for one play date after another.  Though the head control was no longer a source of tension between us, we were drawn, back and again, to the same pattern.

Here was the pattern:

we would settle the parents and then drift out of sight where ostensibly we hung out and played games or listened to music.  The reality was that at each visit I found clues to how I wanted to live my life.  Once, we played a sort of “king of the hill” game involving who could stand longest on a surfboard in his pool, and as he fell into the water I watched his long hair rise above his head and swirl to form a cloud.  This was the COOLEST trick in the world to me.  Later, when I had grown my own hair long, I recreated the scene for myself, many times.

My imitations of him usually weren’t conscious, though.  Let’s stay on the long hair for a moment.  It may seem trivial, but it’s a window into how he influenced me.  Long hair became unreasonably important to me when I was a teenager.  It meant cool, it meant gentle, it meant being myself, it meant music and diving into whatever interested me.  I knew that David was one of the inspirations for growing my hair, but what I see only now is that the meanings I attached to long hair all related to him and the way he lived his life.

He had a sensibility that was both intense and informal, creative and understated, gentle and confident.  I wanted this sensibility.  Still do.


Long hair was only one of David’s gifts to me.

Another was the life lesson I still carry — when riding naked on a toy pony, don’t ride in front.

Each time I visited him during childhood and early adolescence, he had something new and cool on display.  He showed me how to jiggle a pinball machine without making the tilt sign go off.  He had a darkroom, and all sorts of gadgets that he built himself.  He played Beatles records backwards for me and pointed out the clues that Paul Was Dead.  Once, when he was noodling around on his guitar, I mentioned Stairway to Heaven, and he launched into the entire god-damned guitar solo without missing a beat.   Every time I’ve seen Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impressions, I think back to the night that David cut our card game short, turned on the TV, and introduced me to a wild new program called Saturday Night Live.

He was fascinating, but more than that he was fascinated — fully engaged in his life.

After we reached high school, David and I saw less of each other.  I moved to the opposite side of the country.  We each established our work and family lives.  Our parents grew independent and able to play unsupervised by us.


Eventually, he lost control of his neck muscles.

Later still, we began to communicate again.  With the advent of social networking, our friendship had a renaissance.  We exchanged music.  We exchanged insults.  I teased him about being old.  He teased me about my computer ineptitude.  I derided Jimi Hendrix as a talentless amateur.  He threatened to give ME ALS if I ever said such a thing again.

It was fantastic to be back in touch with him.

It was so easy.


But the last time I saw David, I had trouble saying goodbye.  The difficulty was not just emotions — it was also logistics.  Though if generating words with the twitch of an eyebrow were an Olympic sport he would certainly medal in it, it is, to be blunt — S-L-I (back space, delete “I”)-O- (“slop   slope   slow”  Select “slow”.) It’s a slow way of communicating.  I didn’t want to be rude, say goodbye, assume that his half grin meant the same, and take off — only to learn later that he had wanted to say something else.  So I said “I’m going to say goodbye and then wait for you to say goodbye.”  “Goodbye!”  He gave me a look that I couldn’t interpret.  I looked at his computer screen.

“G” appeared.  Then, “e”, and, quickly, “t”.


Hah!  Vindication!  He DID want to say something else to me.  I waited and watched to see what he wanted me to get.




I didn’t even try to guess.  What did he want me to get that starts with “l-o-s”?


“l-o-s-t”.  I waited.  I can be thick sometimes.  The cursor jumped to a new line, and I looked at the two words:

“Get lost.”  I half laughed, half snorted.  Patted him on the cheek, told him that he had always been a grumpy old man, and left.


After he died, I did feel lost.  He has been a touchstone for me for all but six weeks of my life.  A companion bookend at the other end of the shelf.  I’ve looked forward to this memorial to help fill the space between.  We missed big chunks of each other’s lives.  Work, marriage, college, children — main sections of our standard biographies did not include each other.  Over the past three years he and I sketched to each other the basics of our adult lives.  I had anticipated our being able to add color and depth to the outlines over the coming years.  This memorial helps that.  And because David existed in so many dimensions, I imagine that we all have seen sides of him today that we never saw when he was alive.

Before I finish here, I want to describe the final emails that David and I wrote to each other.  Normally our relationship was very guy-ish — heavy on the teasing and light on the mushy stuff.  But I fall into black fogs sometimes, and when I do I isolate myself.  Earlier this year, when I had drifted into one of those states, David reached out to me with an email.  I responded with a little banter, and then, after a bit of absurd agonizing about the propriety of moaning to someone who lives with ALS, I mentioned the black fog.  Told him I appreciated his reaching out.  He didn’t judge, of course, and he didn’t brush off these words either.  He responded in kind.

I doubt that David realized how much he meant to me — how much my life has been suffused with the style and sensibility that I used to associate with the hair.  It would have embarrassed us both for me to tell him.  I’m grateful that our last exchange allowed me to hint at it.


We usually think of remembering as the opposite of forgetting.  We can also look at it as the opposite of dismembering — as a way of rejoining the pieces into a whole.  A way of fighting entropy.  This is what we do here today for each other — we each bring the images of David that we knew — smaller images and larger ones — and offer them to each other in the hopes that we all leave here carrying a fuller image of a re-membered, extraordinary and wonderful man.


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