Most people have dreams that they intend to do “someday,” but never get around to them.
That’s been the case for a 90-year-old woman named Norma, who is described by her daughter-in-law Ramie as a “Midwestern housewife. She’s incredibly shy and quite humble.”
Up until last year, she’d lived in Michigan and had never even set foot in Wisconsin – the next state over. But she had traveled to Europe with her daughter Stacy, who died of cancer in 2008.
“Stacy was 44 years old,” says Ramie, who asks to keep their last names private. “She went through all of the treatments, and about a month after her last treatment with them saying, ‘Go live your life,’ she was dead.”
Norma was a stay-at-home mom to Stacy and her brother Tim, but before that, she served as a nurse for the Navy in World War II. Around that time, her brother Ralph introduced her to his best friend, a man named Leo. They married after the war and were husband and wife for 67 years.
In June of last year, Norma’s brother Ralph died. A month later, Leo was gone.
“Both were unexpected,” Ramie says. “Leo had a fall, and it kind of spiraled downward from there. She was in deep, deep grief.”
Two days after Leo died, Norma sat in her doctor’s office and had to endure even more bad news: She had uterine cancer, and there was a large tumor inside of her.
“They presented the options to us – quite the normal treatments,” Ramie says.
Ramie and Tim, who live in their RV, had an option of their own to present. They told Norma, “We could get a bigger RV if you’d like to come along with us.”
“She said, ‘I’d like that,’ ” Ramie recalls.
So when her doctor started going over all of the possible treatments for her cancer, Norma simply said no.
“I’m 90 years old,” she told him. “I’m not interested in going through that. I’m hitting the road.”
At first, her doctor was a bit stunned by her decision, “but then he sat back and said, ‘That’s exactly what I’d do, too,’ ” Ramie says.
So on Aug. 24 of last year, the trio did indeed hit the road. But that first leg of the trip was a bit worrisome.
“We wanted to be able to make it out of the driveway before she died,” Ramie says. “She was in deep grief and her health wasn’t great. We wanted to at least get her across the Mackinac Bridge to Wisconsin.”
But something interesting happened once they spent more time on the open road: Norma’s health and spirits started getting better.
“The photos – you can see from her face that she’s just thriving,” Ramie says. “Her health has absolutely improved. She loves to eat pie and drink beer and all of that stuff.”
Once they started posting photos and memories on their Facebook page, Driving Miss Norma, their story leaked out.
“So many people have said, ‘Hey, we want to take you out to lunch,’ ” Ramie says with a laugh. “We could probably not have to pay for a meal for the rest of her life!”
Although the family politely declines the lunch offers, they’re very moved by messages they’ve received from strangers around the world.
“They’re spilling their hearts,” Ramie says. “People say things like, ‘You’ve gotten me to get off my butt and do something.’ Or, ‘My kid wants to send his allowance to you so you can do something fun.’
“The private messages,” she adds, “are on a deeper level. Many of them have experience with cancer, and when we share them with her, she’s truly touched. She said, ‘Good. I guess we’re helping somebody.’ ”
Their list of adventures is now too long to list, but one of their most memorable was to the World War II museum in New Orleans. When the staff learned that Norma is a veteran, “It was like the red carpet got rolled out for a Hollywood movie star,” Ramie says. “They treated her like gold.”
After Leo’s death, the family spent time going through his and Norma’s belongings at home. They soon began to notice little newspaper clippings and advertisements “all over the place, in files and used as bookmarks,” Ramie says. And all of them were focused on one activity: a hot-air balloon ride.
They went to Norma and asked why she and Leo had collected those clippings.
“We always thought it might be nice,” she told them, “but we never got around to it.”
In January, Norma got around to it. With the help of Ramie, who found a company in Orlando that offers balloon rides with seats in them, Norma took to the skies.
“It was mind-blowing,” Ramie says. “She’s never been a big dreamer; like I said, she’s a Midwestern housewife. But she just couldn’t believe it.”
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The trio, now spending time on the Georgia coast, plan to keep on trucking for the foreseeable future.
“I know there will come a time when we open the door to her room in the RV and it will be Norma’s last day,” Ramie says. But for now, “She’s surprising the heck out of us. There’s definitely some medicine in this trip.”