At age 90, Norma Bauerschmidt shrugged off her cancer diagnosis and climbed aboard a 36-foot motor home with her middle-aged son, his wife and Ringo, their pet poodle. For the next year, she crossed 13,000 miles and 32 states, taking a hot-air balloon ride, quaffing beers, scarfing cake and rolling across Yellowstone National Park in a wheelchair.
“Miss Norma” rejected the idea of radiation, chemotherapy and risky surgery for a chance to sponge up as much life as her final nomadic months would allow. She abandoned the perennial garden that graced her longtime Michigan home for a celebration lap around the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans and Maine. In Colorado, as the pain from uterine cancer grew, she traded her opiates for cannabis cream and hemp oil capsules.
“I’m 90 years old,” she told her doctor. “I’m hitting the road.”
For a while, Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle second-guessed their unorthodox form of elder care, wondering if a frail and sick woman, recently widowed after almost 70 years of marriage, could stand sleeping, bathing and washing clothes inside of a Fleetwood Southwind 36D, far from any regular doctor.
Their conclusion: “It’s no crazier than spending the rest of your days in a nursing home.”
Their new book, “Driving Miss Norma,” follows the trip from the elderly traveler’s driveway to her death last September inside the motor home, where she received hospice care and passed peacefully to the sound of her son singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” On Thursday night, the two will sign and read from their story at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham.
“In every smile, every goofy face, every stop on the map, we learned so much from her,” wrote her son Tim, 59. “I am so grateful that I did not rob myself of the opportunity to get to know my Mom. Ultimately, she taught me to say ‘Yes!’ ”
My senior citizen parents are safely situated in suburban Baltimore, but this story still resonates for me. As a 21-year-old college graduate, I spent three months traveling the country with a pair of friends, fishing in the Tetons, meeting Lakota Sioux on a reservation in South Dakota, playing pool in a barroom in Montana with a man who insisted California was the edge of the Earth. My wife and I still get wistful when we pass an Airstream trailer on the highway, being less mobile now with a mortgage and a child.
I am so grateful that I did not rob myself of the opportunity to get to know my Mom. Ultimately, she taught me to say ‘Yes!’
When I spoke to Ramie Liddle on Wednesday, she said most people ask them how such a voyage could be financially possible. She answers that she and her husband always lived frugally, buying little for themselves and opting against children. They spent many years together in a smaller Airstream, living largely without possessions or debt. Norma collected Social Security, which made luxuries such as a hot-air balloon ride in Florida feasible.
But mostly, her mother-in-law made a conscious decision to finish her life outside of doctors’ offices and pharmacies. Little about her past suggested she would favor the rootless lifestyle. After World War II, in which she served as a WAVE, she played her expected role as a housewife.
“They ate lunchmeat sandwiches with potato chips and dill pickles every day,” Tim Bauerschmidt wrote of his parents. “They were in bed after the ten o’clock news.”
But on the road, Miss Norma rushed into new experiences. At Mount Rushmore, she pushed the mock blasting detonator at an interactive display, making fake explosions with a 9-year-old boy. She watched a traditional dance in a New Mexico pueblo, and as people cleared a space for her wheelchair, she remarked, “This sure is something.” After her pain and bleeding stopped with the cannabis cream and CBD capsules, she told her family, “I think we need to go back to that marijuana shop.”
Her son and daughter-in-law had a book deal before Miss Norma died, and even as they were working on it, a movie deal emerged. As she watched the country unfold across her last days, Miss Norma imagined who might star in the role of her life.
“Meryl Streep was definitely a pick,” Ramie Liddle told me.
But in the end, she knew that nobody could act out her story. Nobody else could ride toward death in a state of almost pure delight. Nobody else could inspire the question, “Which is your favorite place?” and answer, “Where I am right now.”
Meet the authors
Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle will sign and read from their book “Driving Miss Norma” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street in Durham.