A DIFFERENT KIND OF LOVE
Norma Morris is not herself these days, and barring medical miracles she will never will be that person again. “‘Elegant’ is the thing that comes to mind,” her husband Ed Morris reflected about Norma before she was struck with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. His new book, Stardust: An Alzheimer’s Love Story, is a compilation of his lyrical and poignant Facebook recollections about taking care of Norma. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
Ed and Norma are both longtime Music Row mainstays. Ed was the country music editor for Billboard and until recently a writer at CMT. com, the website of Country Music Television. Norma worked for her daughter Erin Morris Huttlinger’s public relations firms with clients including Ralph Stanley and Steve Wariner.
“She literally seemed like she glided into the room in high heels,” Ed remembers of his first sight of Norma in 1959 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He was a graduate student and she was the assistant to the director of the journalism school.
“(Norma had) the perfect gait. She has a soft voice. She is not at all combative, which makes what I’m dealing with now seem like a stranger. She was just an elegant, well-spoken woman.”
Steve Goetzman, drummer for the band Exile, worked with Norma when she was the publicist for the band and also when he managed Wariner.
“When I think of Norma, the first word that comes to mind is demure,” Goetzman said. “As a small, soft-spoken, demure woman, her sharp dry wit always comes as a surprise. Her outward peace belies the furnace of quips cooking below.”
As a mother, Norma was the parent “who made sure that we always had everything we needed,” said Morris Huttlinger. “I have two younger siblings, and … I think we all learned to run our households like she ran hers. She was full of family traditions to which we all still cling.”
Many in Nashville did not know of Norma’s accomplishments before her career as a publicist. She co-authored a college textbook on computer literacy, was a stage performer in musicals and published photographs in People, TV Guide and other magazines.
“She was quietly competent at everything she set her hand to,” Ed said. “I never saw her fail at anything.”
After living apart for 35 years, but maintaining their marriage, Ed moved into Norma’s home outside Nashville to become her full-time caretaker. In an article published two years before that in Salon and reproduced in the book, he explained their unconventional marriage, which included other romances as well as separate homes.
“I am hugely grateful for my father’s dedication to mom,” Morris Huttinger said. “His hands are so full, regardless of the help we give him. He has to live 24 hours a day trying to care for someone who becomes more helpless and less communicative — less like herself. It is an exhausting undertaking that would be really difficult if he didn’t love her so very much.”
Norma began exhibiting signs of forgetfulness around 2015. The diagnoses were both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer’s Disease causes brain cells to degenerate resulting in continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills and severe memory impairment. Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that causes shaking, stiffness and slowing of movement, expressionless facial features and soft and slurred speech.
Neither disease is curable, although medications can slow their progress.
Stardust: An Alzheimer’s Love Story portrays today’s Norma, who is forgetful, fearful and frequently unable to find the words she wants to say. She can be stubborn as well, and getting her to take her daily regimen of pills is often an epic battle. She takes comfort in a ritualistic daily routine of listening to Willie Nelson’s Stardust album, which led to the title of the book.
Here’s a typical entry in the book: “She so wants something that she begins to tremble, something she can’t bring into focus through the kaleidoscopic shards of her broken memory, something she can’t find a name for even as her lips struggle to cast it into words. She leans forward like a tree breaking its roots, her thin arm extended toward the television screen, a sycamore limb in the winter reaching for the sun.”
Elaine Schock, owner of public relations firm Shock Inc., read Ed’s posts on Facebook.
“Ed’s writing is beautiful but even more than that, it is courageous,” she said. “I read every post about his love for Norma and their struggles. It takes my breath away and breaks my heart.”
The book is surprisingly funny at times. Ed, a dedicated left winger and atheist, diverts to musings about his dedicated avoidance of sports (even when his own children were playing), his dislike of all physical labor and home improvement projects (which partially led to maintaining a separate residence from Norma) and his antipathy for the song “Amazing Grace.”
“It’s not so much the melody or the servile, self-abasing lyrics that bother me — although they do,” he wrote. “It’s more the fact that it tends to be sung when there’s no grace, amazing or otherwise, in sight. The irony of praising a God who’s just screwed you over with death, dismemberment and bad weather is too much for me to contemplate without the companionship of strong drink.”
Norma liked her privacy before her illnesses, but Ed believes she wouldn’t object to the book, since she previously gave her blessing for the Salon article about their marriage.
“I have a reporter’s outlook,” he said. “The more truth I can yield to the community, the better off it is.”
Perhaps his book can serve as comfort and good information for others in similar circumstances, Ed hopes.
“It shows … that it’s not all grief and it’s not all downhill,” he said. “I think if you come to life with a certain joie de vivre then it makes it a lot easier. So much of it depends on the emotional makeup of the caregiver.”