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One less songbird: A couple's love and loss during a pandemic

Nancy Norlander

Nancy Norlander looks at a photo of her late husband, Peter.

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The final call came early, about 4:45 a.m. on a Thursday, the last day of April. Nancy Norlander was still in bed when she answered, knowing what it probably was. Peter, her 60-year-old husband, was dying.

She was out the door of her house in Livingston by 5. Over Bozeman Pass, into the neighborhoods north of Belgrade, to the door of Edgewood Memory Care. She’d been coming to Edgewood just about every week for five years, until mid-March, when visitation was shut down because of the coronavirus.

She had been allowed back every day that week, though, because Peter’s condition had worsened. She was used to the new routines of visiting — mask, temperature check, signing in, being escorted directly to his room.

Peter had stopped swallowing a few days earlier. It was a result of the illness he’d lived with for years, a rare form of dementia. That morning, between rounds conducted by the overnight staff, he died.

She found him in the same position he’d been in when she’d left the day before. Motionless in a bed in a room he’d decorated with his artwork — his pictures of birds and scenes from Thailand.

“I just went in and sat by him for a while,” Nancy said.

She left before he was taken out of the room.

———

Nancy is 56. She had been watching Peter decline for a long time. But death is still sudden. She has family around — her parents and sisters all live in Bozeman — and that’s helped.

His death had nothing to do with the coronavirus. But the pandemic has taken things from her.

Her sister-in-law, Susan, who Nancy always thought would be here for this, can’t fly here. Nancy can’t plan a big funeral with all the other people who loved Peter, those who knew his love for birds and his big, infectious laugh.

When she does see people, she has to be careful who she hugs. That one’s especially tough. She’s a hugger.

“Even family members, if they haven’t been self-isolating, I haven’t even gotten hugs from some of them,” Nancy said. “That’s messed up.”

The taking began even before his death, when Nancy couldn’t see him anymore. He’d been at Edgewood since 2015 because of his illness, which made it too dangerous for him to be at home alone, and she visited often. The coronavirus closure in March put a stop to in-person visits at Edgewood except in the most dire of situations.

The residents generally don’t know how long it’s been since they’ve seen someone, but the closure is hard on their families, on people like Nancy. Staff at the 13-bed facility have helped residents get on video calls. They have a few people who make regular window visits, looking at their loved ones from the outside.

Nancy has been the only visitor allowed inside since the closure, the only person who’s had to come say goodbye.

———

They first met at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, which Nancy’s family bought in 1977. Nancy did all kinds of odd jobs there over the years: cleaning cabins, waiting tables and cooking breakfast.

Peter grew up in Thailand, where his father worked in ministry until the 1970s, when the family moved back to the United States. They lived in the Midwest when they came back, and he came to Montana with dreams of becoming a fly-fishing guide in 1980.

He ended up as a cabin cleaner at Lone Mountain Ranch. He and Nancy started hanging out in 1981.

“We just hit it off,” Nancy said.

She knew right away they’d get married. It took Peter a few years and a brief stint alone in Alaska to figure that out.

When they got married in October 1985, they lived on the Olympic Peninsula. They stayed there a couple more years before deciding to move back to Montana and the Gallatin Canyon. They worked at the ranch and lived nearby until it was sold in 2007.

Peter became a birder soon after they moved back. It started in earnest after a visit from his parents and brother in 1992, shortly before his father’s death. His father, a lifelong birder, had ALS, and Peter and his brother spent chunks of the visit spotting birds for him. Their father would tell them which part of the book to check to see what the bird was.

After that, it stuck for good. Peter was birding anytime he was outside, Nancy said. On walks, he would stop and stare. Binoculars were always handy. If they were outside early in the morning, he would ask Nancy to be quiet so he could listen to the birds. He could spot minute details in a bird as it flew by.

“He could just see everything about a bird at first glance,” Nancy said.

Yellow-headed blackbird

A yellow-headed blackbird perches atop a cattail Thursday, May 14, 2020, at Cherry River Fishing Access in Bozeman.

He served on the board and as president of the local Audubon chapter, the Sacajawea Audubon Society. He led wintertime Owl Prowls and participated in multiple Christmas Bird Counts each year.

He also became a master of bird calls. On long drives, he’d play CDs of them. He competed in statewide calling competitions. At one point, birdwatching friends banned him from whistling the calls while they were on field trips. He sounded too real.

Nancy preferred wildflowers. They tend not to fly away. She learned how to do a chickadee call, though. If she and Peter were in a grocery store and got separated, they’d use the call to find each other.

———

Nancy started noticing changes in him in the late 2000s. There were days Peter would suddenly get mad and yell at her. He’d never really done that before.

The next day, when she would talk to him about it, he wouldn’t remember what happened.

She thought it was just her at first. His brother suggested she take him to a doctor, that something must be wrong. She put it off.

Then she got a call from Peter’s boss. He told her a similar story — that Peter had an angry outburst and didn’t remember it later.

“That’s when I decided it wasn’t just me,” Nancy said.

It took a couple tries to get Peter into a doctor’s office, but when she did, the doctor agreed that something was wrong. In 2011, a neuropsychologist gave them a name for what was happening: behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia.

The illness is rare, but it’s the most common form of dementia for people under 60. It doesn’t usually cause memory loss. It often shows up in personality changes. A person might have frequent mood changes or lose the ability to read others’ emotions, among other symptoms. Over time, it causes a progressive decline in a person’s ability to function.

There’s no cure. People can live with it for a while, but it’s ultimately fatal.

Peter was just beginning his 50s when they found out. Nancy remembers walking out of the neuropsychologist’s office with Peter and into an elevator. She was crying, but he didn’t notice.

“Peter goes, ‘Well, want to go out for some lunch?’” Nancy said. “I was bawling in the elevator, and his brain was already gone.”

Peter never admitted he had the disease. He understood it, could explain it to people, but he’d insist he was fine. Nancy saw all the ways that he wasn’t.

One time, she came home from work and found a gas stove burner left on. The house was filled with gas. Peter was outside, unaware.

Another time, a smoke alarm woke them up. Nancy had to work hard to get him out of the house. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t stay inside.

She didn’t sleep well, worried what he might do in the middle of the night.

“There was a lot of fear during the years he was home,” Nancy said.

She knew he needed full-time care. She found Edgewood, which specializes in caring for people with all types of dementias. But she also knew it would take some convincing to get him there. He didn’t like doing things that weren’t his idea.

A plan was hatched. Nancy would take Peter there and the staff would tell him Edgewood needed to hire him as a safety and maintenance person. There were plenty of things they needed his help with, they told him.

It worked. In February 2015, four years after his diagnosis, Nancy moved Peter there.

Edgewood became his world. His picture was on the wall. He had a name badge. He filled the bird feeders, swept the patio, went with the staff on safety checks. Once in a while, he’d cook Thai food for everyone.

Renee Keeney, executive director at Edgewood, said it was about living in his reality, not forcing him into theirs. He didn’t think he was sick, and having a job with room and board made enough sense to him.

He was always happy, Keeney said. His laugh filled the building. He kept tabs on the robins and sparrows in the backyard. People brought more bird feeders over because they knew he liked filling them.

“He seemed very content,” Keeney said. “He never wanted to leave. He just needed a purpose.”

Edgewood Memory Care

Edgewood Memory Care Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Belgrade.

———

Nancy visited twice a week. She brought art supplies. He’d taken up origami, and drawing with watercolor pencils. He filled the walls in his room with his pictures.

She brought him beer, at least until he decided out of the blue to stop drinking it. At first it was good, dark beer. Then she found out he liked Costco beer just as much.

Years went by like this, Peter living his new life, Nancy living hers, but still visiting, every week. She slept better after he moved. Not immediately, but eventually. She started focusing on caring for herself after years of being so focused on him.

His disease progressed, taking more and more away from him. He stopped recognizing people. There were days Nancy wasn’t even sure if he recognized her.

One time, she did the chickadee call, hoping he would respond. He didn’t.

“It got to where, when I left, I would cry in my car,” she said.

She cut back on her visits earlier this year, going just once a week. He’d started losing his ability to speak, which made it even harder for her to know if he knew who she was. She wouldn’t stop going altogether — she wanted to see him, to know he was OK.

She was coming home from seeing a friend in Billings when she got the call in mid-March that Edgewood was closing to visitors. She’d just seen Peter, not knowing it was the last time for a while.

It wasn’t unexpected. She knew it was the right thing to do. She takes the virus seriously. She started working from home and self-isolating not just for Peter, but for her parents.

But it was hard not seeing him. And she had a lingering worry: If his condition got worse, if the end was coming, would she have a chance to say goodbye?

She called and asked. The answer was yes.

———

More than a month went by. They tried two video calls. Peter was asleep during one of them. In the other, about 10 days before his death, he was up and walking around.

He couldn’t speak, but he could point to Nancy’s name on the screen. He seemed OK, or at least some new version of OK. It didn’t last.

The Monday before he died, his hospice nurse called Nancy. He couldn’t swallow anymore — no medication, no liquid, no food.

The nurse said Nancy could visit whenever she wanted. She knew what that meant.

Nancy worked that morning. She works in accounting for Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. She told her boss about Peter, and she made arrangements in case she had to be gone for a while.

In the afternoon, she drove to Edgewood. She became the first visitor to go through the new routine. She rang the doorbell. A staff member let her in and checked her temperature. She wore a mask. She signed in, confirmed that she didn’t have any COVID-19 symptoms. Then she was escorted to Peter’s room.

She sat by his bed. She played music. She sang. She told him all the things she wanted him to know, that she was going to be OK, that he didn’t need to hang out for her.

She cried. She learned you can’t blow your nose while wearing a mask. She held his hand. He held hers back.

Tuesday came. Same schedule — work in the morning, Edgewood in the afternoon. Music, singing, holding his hand. It was tougher to get him to hold it back, but he did.

On Wednesday, she couldn’t get him to hold her hand anymore. He kept his hands under the covers, his eyes closed.

He died in his sleep early Thursday morning.

———

Nancy called Peter’s sister right away. Susan lives in New Hampshire. She and Nancy are close. They talk often. Susan even spent a month with Nancy and Peter in 2014, when he was still living at home.

Susan wishes she could be here to help, but she can’t fly anywhere without self-quarantining for two weeks on both ends of the trip. She can’t afford to do that — too many people rely on her, including her 94-year-old mother.

So for now, the two sisters-in-law grieve together from opposite ends of the country.

Susan, 69, is the oldest of the five Norlander children, all born in Thailand. She remembers the day Peter was born in Bangkok. She and her two sisters were so excited the new baby was a boy.

She remembers growing up with Peter, how he liked tinkering with things. She remembers going birding with him. She remembers his laugh.

The last time she saw Peter was in 2018. She remembers going into Edgewood and seeing his big smile and hearing his ebullient greeting: “SUUU-SAN!”

“It was wonderful to see,” Susan said.

His disease is part of a genetic puzzle for their family. There is a genetic mutation that can cause both ALS — which killed their father — and the disease that killed Peter.

A test proved that Susan didn’t carry it, but that one of her sisters did. That sister died of ALS in 2016. Her youngest brother died suddenly in 2018, and Susan said there are signs that it may be related to the same mutation.

She has one sister who’s still alive. They live in the same town. Their mother lives in an assisted living facility nearby.

Susan talks to her mother on the phone every day, but she hasn’t been able to go see her in a while.

“When Peter died, I couldn’t go and give her a hug,” Susan said. “I couldn’t hold her hand.”

———

There’s a lot to do when somebody dies. Nancy has started taking care of some of it. So far, she’s made a bunch of phone calls, trying to notify all the right people.

One of the calls was to her mortgage company. The voice on the other end told her it would be a 25-minute wait before she could be helped, because coronavirus. She decided to put that one off for another day.

People want to come see her. They can come, she tells them, but they’ll have to sit in the backyard, 6 feet apart, or go on a walk. Hugs are only for a select few.

Nancy Norlander

Nancy Norlander holds a photo of her late husband, Peter.

Some things would be the same either way. His obituary had been ready for years. It begins with a nod to his bird calling ability: “There is one less songbird among us.”

She’s started going through Peter’s stuff. All of it stayed when he was moved to Edgewood. She didn’t want him to ask for something she’d thrown away.

Her mother was over recently to help her go through a coat closet. Nancy tossed some coats in a trash pile, others in a donation pile. Then she’d come across one he wore all the time, and she’d have to pause.

Birds are around. She notices them on her walks. An app on her phone helps her figure out what she’s looking at.

Her father is becoming a big birder. He and her uncle took Peter birding in those final years. It showed them how much fun it can be. When she goes on walks with her father now, he’ll stop and stare, totally transfixed.

“It’s the gift Peter gave,” Nancy said.

No big funeral plans yet. Hopefully later in the summer. It needs to be at a time when she doesn’t have to be so careful who she hugs.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.