California Man Who Cared for Neighbor, 89, Says She Wanted One More Valentine's Day: Her Last Words Were 'I Love You'
"The last thing she did was put her arm around my neck, kissed me and said, 'I love you,' " says Salvatore
Chris Salvatore, 31, is mourning the loss of his best friend Norma Cook, 89, after she died due to complications from leukemia on Wednesday.
The unlikely friends from California shared a love and a bond that was “so true.”
“She was a beautiful human,” Salvatore tells PEOPLE through tears. “She changed the world with her big heart and ability to speak with anyone, of any age.”
Cook spent her final moments with Salvatore in his West Hollywood apartment, where he had a bed set up for her in his living room.
“The last thing she did was put her arm around my neck — she was so weak, I don’t know how she did it — and pulled me in and kissed me and said, ‘I love you,’ ” he says. “That was Saturday.”
Cook passed away early Wednesday morning.
“I knew the end was coming for a few days, because she was coming in and out,” says Salvatore. “So I spent all my time with her, making her happy and comfortable.”
“It’s so quiet in my apartment now, though. Her presence is so strong here, still, but it’s very peaceful to know that she’s at peace and not in pain anymore. I feel her watching over me.”
Salvatore says Cook’s final hope was to live long enough to celebrate one last Valentine’s Day — with her best friend by her side.
“I got her a bunch of candy, a big chocolate heart box and roses and I walked in the door and said, ‘Will you be my valentine?’ ” says Salvatore. “She just wanted to spend one last Valentine’s Day with me and I wanted her to feel very special in her final moments.”
Cook passed away at 1 a.m. on Feb.15 — one hour after Valentine’s Day was over.
“It was peaceful and she had nurses, friends and me with her,” says Salvatore.
Salvatore, an actor and singer, met Cook, an interior decorator, when he moved into her West Hollywood 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.
The unlikely pair struck up an immediate friendship: They got together every day — cooking, playing with Cook’s cat, Hermes, and sipping on champagne (Cook’s drink of choice).
“We became best friends immediately,” Salvatore told PEOPLE in January. “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[ed] about fashion and food mostly.”
Salvatore, who documented his friendship with Cook on social media using #MyNeighborNorma, became her power of attorney and primary caretaker after doctors told the 89-year-old she only had months to live. Cook was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago and did not have any family in the area.
Cook was put in hospice care on Jan. 10 and was living at Salvatore’s apartment, where she was “constantly” surrounded by nurses and friends during her final days.
“When you would talk to her she would respond in her breath or eyes or a slight smile it was like she could still hear us,” says Salvatore, who slept on a couch next to Cook every night before she died. “Seeing so many people surrounding her and knowing I wouldn’t be alone when she died gave her a peace of mind, I think.”
He adds: “Since Friday she was kind of in a comatose stage and she would come out of it to say the most profound things. One morning she told me she was ready to go and that she was waiting for God to come take her.”
Cook’s last coherent words to Salvatore were: “I love you.”
“She made sure I knew that.” he says. “She said it over and over each time she was lucid, just in case.
“Death isn’t easy, but me being by her side as she went through this — I don’t think she would have wanted it any other way.”
Cook made Salvatore promise he wouldn’t organize a funeral for her — only a celebration of her life to bring together her large, eclectic array of friends.
“A great teacher of love, she brought people of all different ages, races, genders together and now we’re all bonded,” says Salvatore. “She always told me she wanted to change the world and I really think she is doing that with her story and the amount of love she gave to people.
“She brought love to the world at a time when our country really needs that.”