Best friends Chris Salvatore, 31, and Norma Cook, 89, are inseparable as Norma lives out her final days.
The dynamic duo are neighbors in West Hollywood, California, and have been close for the past four years. So when doctors told Cook she needed 24-hour at-home care this year, Salvatore stepped up to be her primary caretaker.
“I love her, she’s my best friend. I would do anything for her,” Salvatore, an actor and singer, tells PEOPLE. “I believe that human kindness is a magical thing and can heal what doctors can’t.”
Cook, who has leukemia, has been given only a few months to live and Salvatore is determined to make her feel “so loved” every single day.
“She has opted out of doing treatment for the cancer,” says Salvatore. “So now it’s my job to make her feel comfortable and at peace and not lonely.
“I’m giving her a gift of passing on and being at peace and having a good time in her last few months.”
Salvatore met Cook, an interior decorator, when he moved into her apartment complex four years ago. Cook lived right across the hall and would wave to the actor-singer from her kitchen window as he left his apartment.
“One day I said, ‘Can I come in and chat?’ Because she just seemed so sweet,” says Salvatore. “She offered me a glass of champagne, and it was like this immediate friendship.
“I was going through a break-up at the time, I was depressed and I would sit and talk to her for hours. Just knowing she was there and listening to me made me feel better, she was able to help me through some dark times.”
The unlikely pair began hanging out every day — cooking, talking and playing with Cook’s cat, Hermes.
“We became best friends immediately,” says Salvatore. “She had a lot of gay friends growing up that unfortunately passed away during the AIDS epidemic and, being gay, that bonded us right away — we talk about fashion and food mostly.”
Cook, who was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago, does not have any immediate family in the area (she divorced at the age of 43 and never had children). So when her health rapidly declined last year, Salvatore stepped in to take care of his “soulmate and bestie.”
“She was in and out of the hospital six times last year. And, the last time she was discharged from the hospital two weeks ago, the doctor said, ‘You can’t go home unless you have 24-hour home care,’ ” says Salvatore. “And I couldn’t let her go to a facility or nursing home. She was like, ‘I’d rather die than go to a facility.’ “
Salvatore became Cook’s power of attorney and primary caretaker after doctors told the 89-year-old she only had months to live. He then started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the necessary costs of at-home care not covered by her insurance.
“I was called to do this for her,” says Salvatore. “We had developed a small following because I used a hashtag for videos and pictures I uploaded of us under #MyNeighborNorma, so I asked anyone who enjoyed seeing our friendship to contribute.”
In one month, Salvatore raised enough money to move Cook, who is in hospice care, into his apartment as she lives out her final months.
“Being her best friend for the past four years, you create this bond, and then switching to being someone’s caregiver, well it becomes hard to disassociate the emotional bond you have with someone as you’re seeing them die in front of your eyes,” he says through tears. “It’s really challenging, I’ve tried to stay strong, because I don’t want her to see me upset.”
Cook can hardly stand and requires a breathing machine, but is still “a firecracker,” says Salvatore.
“That’s what I love about her,” he says. “She is sassy and she tells it like it is. Norma’s sharp, quick-witted. She’ll comment on my clothes if she doesn’t like them. That’s who she is, that’s just her personality and it’s unique and amazing and infectious.”
Salvatore says Cooks seems “happy” despite her ailments, and is eating and gaining weight.
“She is all there in her head, she’s aware of death, she talks about it, she’s okay with it,” he says. “She calls me the ‘grandson she never had,’ and we’re just trying to spend as much time together as we can.
“There’s good days and bad days, but we have each other.”
Hospice nurses visit Salvatore’s apartment twice a week to check in on Cook, who has been told she has two months or less to live.
“Norma tells me, ‘I don’t want you to be the one to find me dead,'” he says. “It breaks my heart, because I will be the one to find her. I don’t want her to think I will be crushed, I’m trying to stay strong for her and I tell her I’ll be okay but it’s tough.
“I’m so lucky to have her. She’s changed my life. she’s made me a kinder more compassionate person. I feel honored to spend her last moments with her.
Salvatore hopes his incredible bond with Cook will encourage others to be open to meeting new and different people.
“I want others to be inspired to be more kind to strangers and neighbors you may see who may seem different than you,” he explains. “Norma taught me that, and I want others to learn from her. Kindness heals and we’re all on this planet together. When you light a lamp for someone else it brightens your own path.”
And, he says: “Age is just a number!”
“It’s funny because you think you don’t have stuff in common with someone who is 89,” adds Salvatore. “But age doesn’t matter, it’s not something to hold you back from connecting to someone. You never know who could become your dearest friend.”