Just try not to be inspired by this story. A newly widowed 90-year-old woman receives a diagnosis of cancer just days after her husband's death. But instead of spending the remainder of her life in the clinical labyrinth of treatment, she heads off on an extended road trip with her son and daughter-in-law, enjoying sunsets, seashores, national monuments, her first pedicure — and now fame.
Nearly 300,000 Facebook fans are now following Norma Bauerschmidt as she visits Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and rides a hot-air balloon over Florida. News media around the world have picked up on the Driving Miss Norma sensation, and in her TV debut on the CBS Evening News, Norma said the trip had given her “a new lease on life.” And on March 31, she celebrated her 91st birthday in Marietta, Ga.
Norma’s daughter-in-law, Ramie Liddle, runs the Facebook page, giving her a front-row seat on the panorama created by all the sharing and commenting. When I caught up with her by email, she said the story connected with many different people and on a range of difficult topics.
“Widows who think that their lives are over; WWII veterans; the sandwich generation of people caring for their elderly parents and grandparents; those faced with decisions around their own health; folks who have lost a loved one to the side effects of cancer treatment -- these are just some of those connections,” she wrote. “Medical professionals have also weighed in. Then there is the RV community and dog lovers, too.” Ringo, their poodle, travels with them.
Here is more of our exchange with Ramie, lightly edited for length.
Q. How did this all begin?
Ramie: Norma's brother, Ralph (husband Leo's best friend from his teens) died in early June, 2015. Exactly one month later, [Leo] died. Norma was diagnosed two days after that. We left Presque Isle, Mich., Aug. 24 and began posting on Facebook Aug. 28. The Good News Network shared our story Feb. 21. At that time, we had 520 Facebook followers — mostly friends, family and nice folks we met along the way. As I write to you, we have 213,000 followers and our story has been covered by most major world news organizations. We are overwhelmed with the love and goodness that we are receiving. [The Facebook count was at nearly 300,000 — before the CBS broadcast.]
Q. How did you and Tim discuss the idea of having Norma join you in the RV?
Ramie: In the midst of our grief for the loss of Leo, we looked at each other and both knew what the other was thinking. We honestly can't remember who brought it up first. We didn't know if Norma had the energy to consider such a trip. We were thrilled when she said, "I'd like to come along."
Q. How do three people fit?
Ramie: Prior to welcoming Norma along, Tim and I lived in a 19-foot Airstream travel trailer. We are now traveling in a 36-foot motorhome and honestly, we have more than enough room. Norma gets the queen bed in the rear bedroom, and Tim and I sleep on a blowup mattress up front. It works!
Q. How has the flood of attention altered your trip?
Ramie: We have received invitations from all over the U.S. and from every continent but Antarctica (that one is okay with us). This gave us a renewed sense of adventure and we have begun to act on a few. We may plan our future travels to enjoy the many suggestions.
She is completely astonished that our simple life has touched so many people from around the world.
Q. Is Norma interested in the attention? (Asking because my own mom, of a similar age, can find the world of media and sharing flabbergasting, so she largely ignores it!)
Ramie: Great question! At first I was horrified. I thought the Facebook exposure would overwhelm Norma and that she wouldn't want anything to do with it.
Then, yesterday I was responding to some questions from a Chinese newspaper which asked, "What is the thing you are most proud of in your life?" I wasn't sure what she would say to that — there are so many things to pick from her long life.
When asked, she thought for a moment and said matter-of-factly, "What I am doing now."
She is completely astonished that our simple life (and it really is simple) has touched so many people from around the world. Her story seems to go across all race, religion, nationality, age and gender. Miss Norma has spent her life serving and now realizes that she is contributing more than she ever has by simply smiling at my camera and being herself.
Q. Is there anything you'd like the reading public to know? If you could write a news story about your travels with Norma, is there something you'd be sure to include?
A We have learned many lessons along the way, especially the importance of having a health advocate. Fortunately, Norma had us when she was presented with her diagnosis and treatment options.
This beautiful generation is very proud and they don't seem to easily ask for help. Everyone needs to have the support and counsel of a loved one to help them decide how to proceed when faced with end-of-life issues.
This crazy trip we are on isn't the answer for everyone, but we are very clear that it works for our family. Our best hope is that our story serves as an easy conversation-starter for other families with aging loved ones.
Postscript: Norma passed away in the fall of 2016 at the age of 91 after a year of traveling across the United States. To see more about her journey, visit her Facebook page.