My friend, Dr. Norman M. Wall, was convinced -- to an absolute certainty -- that on Feb. 9, 2014, he would be celebrating his 100th birthday.
At our weekly luncheons, where he was invariably dapper and immaculately turned out, he would talk about whether this weekend's observance should be a small, intimate gathering at my house, something larger, as his extended family was insisting or a benefit for one of the Jewish or Israeli causes he held so dear, at our synagogue. He was still talking about it the day he died, on Sept. 3, 2013, at age 99.
And what a day it was. He drove his big old GMC with the "Save the Wolves" bumper sticker to lunch, where, as usual, we talked about American politics, world affairs, the Jews, Israel, literature, medicine and the foibles of human nature. Norm was extremely well-informed, reading the New York Times daily, watching the Daily Show nightly, and was all over the Internet. Among the most senior subscribers to the Nation, the New York Review of Books and numerous medical journals, he also seemed to inhale half a dozen books a week. He often scolded me because I wasn't reading enough serious nonfiction.
That last afternoon, he pressed on me a thick book by an obscure (to me) Latin American writer, whose only points of commonality with my upper middle brow tastes were Norm's assurance of his leftish politics and preoccupation with sex. I resisted and then, also as usual, capitulated. (I read it after his funeral and enjoyed it). Following lunch, he opened the restaurant door before I could get to it, and that day walked into the parking lot without his cane.
Off he drove to the local library, one of his favorite haunts, to drop off and pick up some books -- as often as not specially ordered for him by the librarian. Then he went home, swam laps in his pool -- and died. That's the way to go: alive mentally and physically until the last instant, still thinking about the future.
Bit by bit in the seven years we knew each other, Norm parceled out details of his colorful life over our lunches, or allowed me to pull them out. He had a good death in the way he used to say he had a "good war" (two, if you count his recall during the Korean conflict). After Pearl Harbor, he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in what was then Palestine, and then ran military hospitals across Africa, before treating liberated European concentration camp survivors.
Working out of a cluster of Quonset huts on a hilltop outside of Tel Aviv in 1943, he personally appropriated surplus U.S. Army Medical Corps supplies and delivered them to the Haganah, where the Jewish Underground stored them next to the guns in the base of kibbutz water tower. The "donations" came without asking for or receiving permission or authorization from his superiors. Norm's contributions are today cited as the founding event of Tel HaShomer-Sheba Medical Center, the largest facility in the Middle East.
Rising to the rank of major, he was a robust patriot; two of his sisters died in America's war efforts. Yet as a lifelong, left wing Democrat, and Zionist, he never hesitated to criticize government policy - U.S. or Israeli -- when he thought either country had gone off track.
Later in his life, Norm would play a critical role in establishing a medical school at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, and would bring poor but promising medical students to work with him at the medical center he built -- practically from scratch -- in his native coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. A cardiologist as well as the chief of medicine, he was outraged by the lung disease he found in local miners. So he started a clinical study and wrote the first journal papers describing the occupational disease that later became known as "black lung."
Yet ever the handsome swashbuckler, in the early 1970s he undertook missions to Latin America on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, including a meeting with socialist Chilean President (and fellow physician) Salvador Allende. When he returned to Pennsylvania, FBI agents told Norm that, during his visit to Santiago, they had narrowly thwarted an assassination attempt against him. In the late 1970s, he and his son Jay smuggled critical medical supplies to Jewish "refusniks" in the Soviet Union.
Norm became a father figure to me. My own dad, who was born a year before him, died at 65. In my mind at least, the two men -- the globe-trotting doctor and the suburban furniture store owner -- were a lot alike. Their own parents escaped Eastern Europe and came to the Delaware Valley with almost nothing in their pockets. Barely able to speak English, they made their ways and raised families. Without the baggage of a blood relationship, Norm and I were free to fully enjoy each other's company, and we did. I became good friends with his son Harry, and my daughter and Norm's granddaughter became friends as well.
Always in love with the practice of medicine, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology, Norm appointed himself my consulting cardiologist, reviewing all my tests and exams. As I'm a committed hypochondriac, he was always willing to talk me down from whatever imaginary ledge I climbed out on after reading an article about some disease or condition.
And I wasn't alone, either as a surrogate son, or an unofficial patient. A parade of men who spoke at his memorial service, in the Pennsylvania hospital auditorium that bore his name, said they also considered him a father figure -- some themselves in their 70s and '80s. In his Central Florida "retirement," Norm dispensed informal medical advice on his front porch, and happily threw his weight around to get friends and neighbors prompt appointments with specialists.
When other doctors would join us for lunch, he would gleefully infuriate them by arguing the merits of socialized medicine, and speaking heresy ("Doctors make too much money!"). In the meantime, he would needle them, he was willing to "settle" for Obamacare. A masterful, intuitive diagnostician, he felt that modern financial pressure was forcing doctors to do too much testing and not enough touching -- or listening. Plans are under discussion for an annual lecture in his name at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.
This weekend, in honor of Norm's 100th birthday, a small group of his friends, along with his widow Faye, his son Harry, and each of our daughters, will gather to tell stories about him, and to raise money for an Israeli-American, medical fellowship in his name. And to raise our glasses to a wonderful life.
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