“I have some bad news for you Sue.”
That's how the phone conversation started when my dear friend Janet called to tell me her husband Dave, also my dear friend, had died.
I was so shocked by her news I totally forgot I was speaking to his widow and focused only on me, the friend - questioning her, making sure this was not some sad joke, wanting to know details of what happened. It took me a couple minutes to realize my error and come back to her and begin to offer comfort and help. It still hurts deeply when I recall it. And quite honestly, I have talked to God on many occasions regarding Dave’s passing, as it was very difficult to make sense of and accept. But, God is God and I am not.
Dave Norris left this earth on April 9, 2011. He and Janet were moving their daughter into a friend’s house in Indianapolis. While there, he noticed the lawn needed to be mowed and decided to mow it. That was so like Dave - he had a servants heart and never walked away from hard work. He suffered a heart attack while mowing and could not be revived. In an instant he was gone - only 60 years old.
We had just celebrated his 60th birthday in February. We went for a walk in Pokagon State Park (in northeastern Indiana) and then to dinner. Yes, it was February - but we were outside. Its where he loved to be.
Dave was a man of many talents and abilities. He had several careers. He had many accomplishments. To list just a few: Singing, writing, hiking, caring for the environment, loving husband, father and grandfather. He was a city planner and Res Ranger. He worked tirelessly in developing, maintaining and supporting the Mishawaka Res. The list could go on and on.
I met Dave through the church I was attending. Gosh, its gotta be close to 20 years. I have known Janet for over 25.
From what I remember, Dave started serving in the church pretty early on. He eventually worked his way to becoming head usher and also head Elder. This is worth noting, because if you know anything about the church I was attending, you know that ushering was not just handing out bulletins and passing a plate. We were a group of hoopin’ and hollerin’ Pentecostals that were serious in our singing, dancing and praising the Lord. Services were rarely quiet and sedate and ushers were kept busy handing out tissues, moving chairs to allow for more dancing and many other things. Our Pastor was liable to do anything during a service and ushers had to be alert to what he needed. Not going to preach today and just pray for people? Ushers needed to keep order and direct people to the prayer line. Because people were liable to fall out in the spirit while being prayed for, ushers had to be there to catch them. Someone getting their praise on and their dancing getting a bit too crazy? Ushers were dispatched to make sure no one got hurt. It took special discerning to give people space to express their praise, but also know when someone was just trying to be crazy. Uh oh, the oil vial is empty and it is needed to anoint someone - shame. Those ushers got a look from the pastor that would have melted most of us.
There is so much more I could say about the role of an usher (my husband eventually took Dave’s place as head usher). Just trust me that they had to be special people. They worked hard. Sunday was NEVER a rest day if you served in our church.
Dave led by great examples of being on time, being respectful, working hard and meeting the needs of those he served. So, from the get go, Dave was giving of himself.
Eventually, he and Janet started dating. He was older than her and very different from other men she had dated. First off, he was white and she was black. He was pretty quiet and Janet was not. Janet had two young kids and he never had any. But it worked. Long story on their courtship - they dated for years. Dave struggled with depression and alcohol - but overcame them - I believe very much due to his great love for Janet. He wanted to be the best man he could be and did not want to live without her.
One of the greatest memories I have is being privy to the day he asked her to marry him. He decided to do it at church, during a service and he needed help pulling it off. He asked me to be a part of it. What an honor. He knew I had fierce love for Janet and I would do anything I could to help make it go off without a hitch. I can’t remember all I was in charge of, but I do remember having to make sure a bouquet of flowers got to him at the right time.
Janet was sitting in the front row. He had arranged for a pause in the service and he walked up to her, got down on his knee, in front of the church and declared his deep love for her and asked for her hand. Many of us knew the journey it took to get to this place and very few could contain their emotion. Here was a man not afraid of showing the world just how much he loved Janet. Oh, he set a high standard for the ladies in the church that day. I for one never forgot it.
Together, they just took off. Janet is a singer and her song got better. Dave was a dreamer and started implementing those dreams. Dave convinced an inner city girl to live out on a nature preserve and take trips to East Glacier, Montana. They grew in their roles in the church and both became elders.
Bill took it all like the man of God he truly is, willing to endure some scrutiny to win the woman who would eventually become his bride.
In fact, when Bill asked me to marry him, he followed Dave’s example and did so at church, in front of many of our church friends and Pastor. We were rehearsing for a play, where I had the role of the Virgin Mary, (funny huh) and I was called to the front of the church by the play’s director and there Bill got down on bended knee, recited a poem he wrote for the occasion and asked me to marry him.
We loved getting together with Dave and Janet and had them in our home often. Dave was grand to cook for as he loved a good meal. I don’t think I have ever cooked for someone who enjoyed it as much as Dave. His signature expression “It doesn’t get any better than this” was most often heard by me in the presence of food.
|A Huckleberry Delight in East Glacier|
He planned our trip out almost by the hour, especially the train ride. He had taken the 36 hour train ride for all his Glacier visits and knew the scenery we would pass and at what time. We had dinner at the second seating in the dining car so we could see the sunset. We sat in the observation car at a certain time because we would be passing the sunflower fields. Miles of bright yellow sunflowers, waving at us in the wind as we passed. Oh, it was a sight to see and well worth planning for.
As we were hiking through the trails, Bill and Janet would often go faster and get ahead. Dave always walked beside me and never let me walk alone. I would tell him he could go ahead, I would keep them in my sight (one of the hiking rules he taught us was to never lose sight of your group) because I thought for sure he was going slower for me. But he said “No Sue, I always hike at a slower pace” and I believed him. He took the time to enjoy the journey, smell the fresh air and notice the smallest details. On a particularly difficult trail that had a lot of uphill climbing I stopped as we stood before yet another climb. As I caught my breath I asked him if our destination, “Hidden Lake” was worth it. Because at that point, I was ready to just find a rock to sit on and let them go ahead. With great sincerity in his voice, he said it was. I trusted him, so I pushed on. We got to the higher ground and were greeted by mountain goats and the beautiful view into the valley where Hidden Lake was. A small, beautiful lake surrounded by trees and mountains. It took my breath away, not from exhaustion, but from the beauty. I had never seen anything like it and treasure the memory.
|East Glacier with Dave and Janet - not Hidden Lake, but another beautiful one|
Walking the trails with Dave meant you got to see things that your inexperienced eyes would have surely missed. Flowers, animals, streams that were hidden. Dave knew they were there and it helped to keep you going. Sitting on rocks near crystal clear waters of streams tucked away in a place it seemed only Dave knew about. Dipping your hot, tired feet into the cool stream was like a piece of heaven. The sound of the water lulling you, pulling you into its spell of wonder and contentment. It was hard to get up sometimes and move on.
One day we were walking the trail past a small body of water and Dave stopped us and pointed - there was a moose almost completely covered in water, but he had seen just a part of him sticking out. As we watched in silence, this huge moose lifted its head and body out of the water. For a girl who’s picture of a moose was “Bullwinkle”, this large creature was unbelievable and beautiful. Of course we just watched from our place on the trail, as clearly the moose could have run us over without batting an eye. Priceless. Dave was a wealth of knowledge and it was fueled by his love of this place.
Dave was pretty quiet in his manner until he laughed. Wow. His laugh was loud and boisterous - almost sinister - I loved it. But when you saw his smile as he laughed you knew there was no darkness in it, just joy.
None of us are perfect and Dave was no exception. He was human and struggled as we all do. He tended to “brood” about things at times and it was hard to get through when he felt that way.
One of those situations was when some things were changing at our church. It was a transition in pastors, in leadership and direction. To explain it all would take away the focus from my intent, which is Dave, so I will be brief in my description. I mention it because it happened in the last years of his life and I believe it to be very significant.
This part of my story is the one I struggle with the most. Because it affected me so deeply, I know my view is biased. Honestly, there are some things that still anger me about what happened. I have had several re-writes on this part, and hopefully I have curbed the anger enough to allow the heart of the matter to come through.
I had been a part of the church for 20 years, Dave not far behind. It was a crazy time of deception, lies and coverup. Certain leaders felt they were accountable to no one and many were unwilling to confront them. Those that chose to were labeled as traitors. Now, some of our core beliefs were transparency and shared leadership, so when the deception came to the surface, it was a huge blow to the church. Scripture was cast aside as were the teachings that came from our pulpit over the years - all of a sudden, certain people did not have to follow the teachings of Christ.
Dave was head elder, so these things impacted him in many ways. I know there were many hurts during this time for Dave and he took it hard. Lots of people behaving badly and treating the people who loved them badly. He took a sabbatical from church. It was a dark time for us. We went to Dave and Janet for direction. They opened their heart and home to us - something we needed desperately. I talk about it in more detail further on. After a time, he ended up leaving the church and a few months later Bill and I did as well.
Dave moved on, but many of the hurts and misunderstandings remained hanging out there unresolved. Stubbornness and pride I guess kept people from doing what should have been done. Thankfully, I know he came to much peace about it all in the last year or so of his life. But to me, it remains grievous that he died so soon after all this. My point in sharing this? You never know when your time is up my friends. If there are hurts, try hard to correct them. If there is offense, make a move towards reconciling. You may think you have all the time in the world to make amends, but the reality is - we don’t.
Around this time I found out that Dave was a gifted writer. I hosted a couple open mics in the lodge at “The Res” in Mishawaka, IN, the nature preserve that he and Janet were caretakers of. Woops, let me get it right - Rangers. (Ranger Dave and Ranger Janet beautified this place and took care of it with great love) Dave read some of his work at one of these open mics and amazed us once again with his depth and beautiful words.
|Dave's open mic performance|
The last time I saw Dave was on his 60th birthday in February 2011. We walked through Pokagon State Park and then went to dinner. Janet and I walked and talked about where do we go next, what is God saying to us. Dave and Bill walked not far behind talking about what men talk about.
We went for dinner at a favorite place of theirs not far from the park. We had a great time and Dave seemed very much at peace. He talked to us about some ideas he had for the future and was designing a backpack for hikers that he wanted to market. We were surrounded by great food, laughter and dear friends. It just does not get any better than that.
|60th Birthday dinner|
I shared this at his funeral:
When we speak of Dave Norris, I must say: Where is there a better man? Can you tell me?
There is my wonderful husband who stands above the rest in my eyes – but I am biased.
No, outside of my husband, of all the men I have ever met that walk the earth, there are few that could hold a candle to my friend Dave.
Dave set the standard for men when he courted his bride Janet. When he proposed to her, he did so in front of his church, on bended knee for all to witness. He wooed his bride the way Christ woos me, with persistence and passion. I knew from that moment I would settle for nothing less than that kind of fearless love and devotion – he set the bar high.
And the wooing never ceased as whenever Janet would walk into the room, a grin from ear to ear would be on Dave’s face. And if she was singing - if you were wise, you never tried to speak to him as all his attention was turned towards her, admiring the woman who was his queen. And don’t let him catch YOU talking – you ran the risk of seeing the OTHER side of Dave as he gave you a look that made you know, you don’t want to mess with him.
Janet and Dave unlocked the treasures in each other that seemed to be held captive while they were apart. Their joining brought to light all that God put inside them.
Dave was an elder, father, servant and friend. He has been all those things to me at one time or another and I am a better person for it.
I have so many stories of Dave; From their wedding, trekking through Glacier Park, years of going to church together, and the many meals we shared – and I can’t even get started talking about the love we shared of coffee…its hard to choose just one.
I share one that changed my life and encompasses who Dave is. A couple years ago my heart was broken in ways I never imagined possible. At the time, Dave and Janet were elders at our church, as well as our friends. We sought Janet and Dave out for direction and wisdom. They welcomed us into their home, and as I sat before them, broken, hurt and confused, Dave said, “Let’s talk about things not as elder and congregant, but as friends, because that’s what we are”. He had no idea how badly we needed to hear those words. There was no “posturing” in Dave, no invisible rules to follow because he held a title. He never chided us for questioning, but understood our pain and offered comfort, support and prayer. Dave saw our need and tended to it. His tender heart, which had also been broken by the circumstances, helped mine to stay tender and not get bitter. Even in his pain, he pointed the way toward Christ. For that, I am forever grateful.
There is no better man.
These writings offer just a glimpse of this man’s story. Dave Norris was a complex man with wonderful gifts and they live on in us. He was real. He was fun. He was caring. He was a great man. He was my friend and I loved him. He is in my heart still and I miss him. I thank God he was in my life and I carry a part of him always.
Till we meet again Dave; till we meet again...