AfterSTROKE Photo of Don and Carol with dog.

Isabel Bearman Bucher
© Copyright 1999 by Isabel Bearman Bucher

Sitting, music director Don Norton faces his choir, left arm raised, eyes intent and focused, music sheets spread in front on a stand. There's a pause, and then ...

"Out of the depths ..." lyrics rise, floating on the early spring air.

Don takes the bass part of a difficult passage, and then switches to tenor.

It's Thursday, choir practice night at the Covenant Methodist Church on north Wyoming Boulevard. Don's eyes widen, close, encourage, demand, crinkle with a smile. His face works in tandem - directing the dozen. He sings the melody, "Na, na, na, " while his arm pulls more from the song ribbon that now widens with the color of his direction. Then he stops it, using his hand in a horizontal cut, finally slapping his knees.

"No. Well, aha. Um." he comments, shaking his head, while the choir laughs, swatting each other with music scores.

He sings the melody again, modeling, and getting their attention back, adding slower, more intense interpretation, and then, he holds up three fingers.

"I just can't sight read this," comes a voice.

"Oh," he responds, with sympathetic agreement.

"We need to break it down in sections," adds another.

Carol Norton, rises from the first row and announces the begin-again place, after getting a nod from husband Don.

"I'm trying to read five lines at a time," pleads the new organist, when choir members try to blame her for all their missed notes.

When Don retired from the Army, as a major, a handful of years ago, he was free to pursue his great love - music. Almost three yeas ago, he suffered a tremendous stroke. His left hemisphere is totally dark; he has maybe a half dozen words. Carol is at his side, as she has been for 31 of her 55 years.

Saturday, September 14, 1996, was a crisp Albuquerque fall day. On her way to early A.M. errands, Carol bid goodby to Don, on his way to a church meeting, who was wishing his headache would go away. He had always suffered from migraines, but this one was different. It had lasted a week.


"At 12:30 P.M., the Veteran's Hospital called and told me to pick up my husband." Carol remembered. "That's all they told me."

Returning home, Don had suffered a massive stroke in the car. Alert police officers, seeing the base sticker on the car, took him to the Veteran's Hospital.

Six hours later, Carol fell into the arms of her neighbor, Lorraine Roff, sobbing uncontrollably. She was finally able to say that Don had suffered a spasm of the left carotid artery and there was massive damage to his right side. He was unresponsive, but knew Carol and Jessica, his daughter. Doctors stated that by the end of six months, Don would recoup what he would have for the rest of his life. After that, any improvement would be minimal, to not at all.

Carol lived at the hospital for the first weeks, finally returning to work as a secretary at a local radio station. She'd grab a bite for lunch or supper, sit by his bedside, and fall into bed at night. After that first couple of weeks, his smile returned, but there was no speech.

"I couldn't believe this happened to him," she stated. "We ate all the right foods - he exercised six days a week. There were no pre-requisites - family things."

Her immense faith took over, and carried her through the endless days.

Don came home a month later, and was able to get around the house with a quad-based cane and assistance. They used a wheel chair for outings until April of 97. At first, he couldn't be left alone, and so Carol's mother, and neighbors sat, while she tackled double duty on all the things that two people share. Each and every day, she prayed, hoped, encouraged by the small improvements she could begin to see in his understanding and physical strength. Very little changed in his ability to speak. She had to do everything for him, take care of the running of the house, drive to frequent medical appointments and face the never ending nightmare of endless hours of paperwork.

"In the beginning, we both cried," she related, discussing their long journey to communication. "He was/is just a brilliant man, a tech writer, mathematician, scientist, with a masters in nuclear physics. He could add rows and rows of figures in his head. I just couldn't understand what he wanted."

Well rounded, musical, always playing the organ at base churches, he used both sides of his brain, which helped in his rehabilitation. Because, in their long and devoted marriage, they did everything together, they finally bridged the seemingly impossible gap.

"I'd reach back into my mind and remember older times - experiences, " Carol explained. "Then, he began to draw maps, write out a few misspelled words, and I asked questions, narrowing things down."

Two began to think as one.

Jessica, now a music student in Texas, had a really hard time dealing with the situation the first year. She would only stay for short periods of time, and didn't pick up how to communicate with her father. Then one day, they sat down at the piano; she played the right hand, and he played the left.

"It sounded Great!" smiled Carol, showing obvious ongoing joy and relief. "She began to understand what he wanted to get across. Now she understands him as well as I do."

In November of 1996, a couple of weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, Don Norton went back to his church, and directed from a wheelchair. Carol took her place in the choir.

"I couldn't look at him," she remembered, the first time he directed an anthem. "It was like Jessica's first piano recital - hard for Don, me, the choir and the congregation. I held my breath, praying he'd make it through."

He did. And, it was just fine.

Today, Don volunteers three days a week at the Veteran's Hospital, and continues his full time music directorship. Aphasic, which means the loss of written and spoken language, his family, friends, church members and choir understand him. Facial, hand gestures, finger signals, and the few phrases he has, seem to get his thoughts and desires across remarkably well.

The Norton's play cards and a mean game of Yatzee. Carol reads him the Albuquerque Journal front page, Dave Barry, the comics and any story she thinks will interest him. Don's huge collection of classical music, oratorios, cantatas and Christian musicals keep him company. Carol thinks that because he taught Bible study, committing most of it to memory, for 15 years before the stroke, he's got a large and deep well, from which he can now draw. His compositions, preludes, postludes and responses have been used in his churches. None have been published. Don, now fairly self-sufficient, can add two, perhaps three numbers. He can type a bit with one finger on the computer, cataloging his huge music collection. He exercises a couple of days a week, and works on hard jig-saw puzzles. Carol tells you that she sometimes gets stressed over having to do everything, be everything, and still becomes frustrated with the deathless paperwork. She's developed T.M.J., a tightening condition of the jaw.

Don opened his eyes and mouth wide, when she stated this.

"Well, she quipped, with a broad smile, looking directly at him, "It's stress, and I can't help it if I'm sleeping."

She's sad that Don's huge collection of slides can be categorized into place, but will always lack the history of story, so a huge piece of his early life will be forever missing.

People say that Carol never questioned "why," she simply took things where they were, and marched forward with quiet and devoted determination. When you ask about her hopes and dreams, she simply says that every day, their dream is having each other, they still do everything together - what is, is. She would like to visit the Holy Land, one day.

Because of Don's stroke, she has been deeply touched by those with, and who work with handicapped.

"I've a bigger point of view now," she says. "I've got more compassion, and I see ways our situation is reaching others, and making a difference. Don touches others because he's always so cheerful, and caring, in spite of everything. Some people at the VA couldn't believe he just didn't have any anger."

Looking directly into each other's eyes, Carol likes to say that there are stories about people like Don, who just start talking again, after five years. Somehow, you know that these two people always had each other, and the stroke may have changed the logistics of their tasks, but not their immense love for each other.

There are those in this life, who toil hard and long on the trail, and forever, remain sweet of speech and nature.

Carol and her Don are two of these people.

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