Life, Death, & Water: In Memory of Alice Gaines Milnor Norton, April 11, 1945 - July 26, 2022


August 2022
How to capture 77 years of life well lived? How to encapsulate all the thought, emotion, love, sadness, grief, celebration, and mourning on losing a mother, a friend, an inspiration, after 48 years? I don't know, or even begin to know, but the below is an attempt at remembrance, reflection, commemoration.

NOTE: I've been absent here - and online in general - for some time. The below should explain some of it, but there's more to the story which I'll share in future posts. But, I hope this is a proverbial breaking of the seal, and will allow me to write more, share more, create more, in the months to come. Thanks, all, for your patience.

How to capture 77 years of life well lived? How to encapsulate all the thought, emotion, love, sadness, grief, celebration, and mourning on losing a mother, a friend, an inspiration, after 48 years? I don't know, or even begin to know, but the below is an attempt at remembrance, reflection, commemoration.

This is water.

Those were some of the last words my mother - who passed away a week ago after an extraordinary battle* with Acute Myeloid Leukemia - said from her hospice bed at home in Boulder, Colorado.

I can’t say exactly what she meant by those words; I was in Montenegro, scouting an upcoming trip, and she was drifting in and out of consciousness, her mind, soul, and being straddling two worlds - the world of here, this physical world, and the next one, whatever that may be.

Kata for my mother placed on the summit of Kučki Kom, Komovi Massif, Montenegro.

I may not know for sure what she meant, but I can take a guess.

We’ve always loved sharing thoughts, ideas, philosophy, my mom and I. We’d spend hours debating deep questions, bantering and bickering and laughing as we sauntered around questions and answers that never came, at least not in any coherent, substantive form. Ten days before she passed, I sat by her bedside. As always, her default setting, her natural inclination was to provide, to entertain, to be conversant and focused, but her body-mind combination were beyond that stage. In a rare moment, she conceded to fatigue, and asked me to just read to her, share with her some thoughts, ideas, concepts and ponderings.

I started with one of my favorites, Loren Eiseley and a passage from his entrancing memoir, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life:

I am an evolutionist. I believe my great backyard Sphexes have evolved like other creatures. But watching them in the October light as one circles my head in curiosity, I can only repeat my dictum softly: in the world there is nothing to explain the world. Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid realm of rock and soil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty. To bring organic novelty into existence, to create pain, injustice, joy, demands more than we can discern in the nature that we analyze so completely. Worship, then, like the Maya, the unknown zero, the procession of the time-bearing gods. The equation that can explain why a mere Sphex wasp contains in its minute head the ganglionic centers of its prey has still to be written. In the world there is nothing below a certain depth that is truly explanatory. It is as if matter dreamed and muttered in its sleep. But why, and for what reason it dreams, there is no evidence.

- Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (Amazon or library)

This brought a mixture of emotions to her face, a combination of deep smile and furrowed brow, appreciation and consternation. What other emotions could arise from profundity like that?

"Wonderful," she said, smiling, echoing the final word of my grandmother when she passed. "Matter dreaming and muttering, Sphexes and Mayan zeroes. Wow."

Moments later, Lori McKenna’s voice waltzed through the room, a track from her playlist (wonderfully eclectic, ranging from Leontyne Price to Jackson Browne, Passenger to MC Solaar to John Denver) called People Get Old:

And that's how it goes
Time is a thief, pain is a gift
The past is the past, it is what it is
Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows
That's just how it goes
You live long enough
And the people you love get old

- Lori McKenna, People Get Old

A smile this time, serene acceptance. We all get old. That’s just how it goes. We don’t have to like it, but we better damn well accept it, as getting old, dying, is - along with birth - the only certainty in any of our lives. This, too, was a subject we had spoken of for countless hours, the strange way we deal with - or don’t, as the case may be - death in our society. Instead of looking at it, discussing it, trying to understand it in all its beauty, pain, and complexity, we prefer to shun it, hide from it, deny its existence in this life to the point that when it inevitably arrives, we scarcely know what to do, how to handle it, what tools to use to navigate the final chapter.

Alice Gaines Milnor Norton with a little, toe-headed me, circa 1977.

“Dying is part of life,” I said, quoting my friend Tom Hornbein. “Death is what comes after.”

Tom had shared this and many more simple, profound thoughts with me a couple weeks before my mom began to decline, and I in turn shared them with her. That one, specifically, gave her both pause and solace. Dying is indeed a part of life, an integral and critical part of it, and she was embracing it with the same sublime beauty and grace with which she did every other part of life.

While she would proclaim her life to be one of simplicity, nothing special, just a simple one, going through her things this past week reminded me once again of what a remarkable path she took over 77+ years, one of passion and adventure and head-long dives into the unknown.

A small-town girl from Alton, Illinois, she always dreamed of a bigger world. A 1955 journey to France to visit her aunt who had married a Parisian opened her eyes to new places, culture, travel, and a lifelong love for it all. She studied in France while a student at Middlebury, becoming fluent in both the language as well as history and culture. She and my dad cruised through Yugoslavia on their honeymoon in 1967, and then traveled to the USSR - from Moscow to Almaty - with my then one year old sister in 1971.

After divorcing in 1978, my parents did their best to retain normalcy in our lives, and my mom dove into building a career, earning her CPA and then MBA while juggling kids and multiple jobs, eventually working her way up the executive ladder in the budding Massachusetts high-tech industry with Apollo Computer and Honeywell-Bull. France would again beckon, and she spent a couple years in Paris in the early-1990s with Groupe Bull.

Travel, adventure, and forging new paths were always top for her, as well as being close to my sister and me. By 1993, realizing we were not coming back to Massachusetts, she jumped headlong into a new adventure, moving to Boulder, Colorado, and starting a new life out west. Here, she worked hard, but also played hard, climbing 14ers and rafting the Colorado, adventuring to cross the Moroccan desert, climb to (almost) Advanced Basecamp on Everest at 54 and to the summit of Kilimanjaro at 57. Over the years, she got two new hips, two new shoulders, and one new knee, but none of it slowed her down nor elicited a complaint...she just continued onward.

“Share some more, please,” she said, words slurring slightly, her weakened hand softly squeezing mine.

“Are you up for a long one, Mom?” I asked. “It’s a bit unconventional, but I think you’ll like it. I think you’ll find - if you allow yourself - that it talks a lot about you and how you’ve lived.”

With her nod of approval, I read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College. I won’t go into it all here; you can (and should) read it or listen to it in full. In very unconventional, very Foster Wallace-esque ways, he spins words and stories into a complex cloth reminding us that we all have a choice in our lives: we can live in the unconscious, the default setting as he calls it, with us - ourselves - at the center, or to live with empathy, with a focus on others, on the reality that as big as our personal, daily challenges, trials, and tribulations may seem, those around us are experiencing them also - perhaps bigger, perhaps smaller - but experiencing them all the same.

When we adjust our default setting to focus this way, we unlock the door, giving ourselves the freedom to see the world and its myriad, mundane interactions as “not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” Wallace continues:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom.

- David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

“Sound familiar, Mom?” I queried. “Sacrificing for people, truly caring about them, in myriad petty, unsexy ways? That sounds about right, sounds like you.”

Furrowed brow, shaking head. She didn’t agree. But of course she wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t. While she adjusted all the other settings, the one default she was never able to change was the stubborn belief she was not good enough, caring enough, loving enough, simply enough.

But caring, sacrificing, giving as much as she could...that was part and parcel of her being. She gave selflessly to my sister and me, sacrificing much of herself to accommodate our needs and desires, our wants, our happiness. And it went far beyond our family: Her 2002 Kili climb was a fundraiser for the Webb-Waring Institute, raising over $250,000 for their research. In the early 2000s, she and a group of women friends in Boulder got together to join their skills and make a difference in our world. The result was BoldeReach, which by 2011 had raised more than $500,000 for select non-profits working to better the lives of women and children here at home and across the globe, from the Navajo Reservation to Afghanistan, Malawi to Guatemala. Her energy to leave the world a little bit better was, it seems, boundless.

I think, though, that what Wallace got to in the end is perhaps what resonated most with her, made her repeat the simple, koan-like phrase in the end: this is water. He began his speech with a pithy story about two young fish swimming. An older fish comes by and asks “How’s the water?” The two young fish, moments later, ask one another: “What the hell is water?” Wallace concludes with:

The alternative [to real freedom] is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about…simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

- David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

She smiled again at this, nodding in agreement.

Of all the things that amazed me in her life, it was the end - the dying, in Hornbein’s words - that impressed me most of all. When she was given a death sentence eighteen months ago - virtually untreatable leukemia born of polycythemia vera with a JAK2 mutation - the common response, the default setting, in most of us would be anger, sorrow, victimization, the “gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

But for her, there was none of that. Instead, there was acceptance, but not in the apathetic, rolling over sense. Rather, it was acceptance of a situation beyond one’s control, one in which fighting, anger, resistance of any kind would prove fruitless at best, counter-productive more likely. The best option - the only option - was an embrace of the unwanted, beautiful empathy for even the most horrid of life’s twists and turns. This is water.

A few days ago, I finally opened the letter she had written and labeled: “To be opened AFTER.” Amongst the beautiful words, thoughts, and love penned somewhere in the process of transitioning - most of which are personal and unshareable - were sentiments of Barry Corbet, climber/skier-cum-parapalegic-cum-adaptive-ski-pioneer and great writer and thinker: “Life is complete and terrifying and drop-dead gorgeous, and I have just as big a piece of it as anyone else.”**

Indeed you did, Mom. You lived it fully, beautifully, gracefully, and taught us all immensely how to do the same.

This is water.

Smiling and loving until the end. July 2022.


* Hers was not really a battle, for battle - the traditional phrasing used for our encounter with disease - assumes victor and victim, winner and loser, triumph and tragedy. For my mom, there was none of that. Her “battle” was more of a dance, the reluctant embrace by her of an unwanted but accepted certainty.

** The full quote by Corbet goes like this: “With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that there is no first life, no second life. There’s this life, and it’s everything we ever hoped for. It’s the brass ring we thought we had missed. Life is complete and terrifying and drop-dead gorgeous, and I have just as big a piece of it as anyone else. We get the whole ball of wax, with or without a disability. Like it or not, we are stalked by our everyday adventures, our ordinary conquests. Teach us to embrace them, to value them. Teach us that there’s no escaping the greatest adventure of them all — being part and parcel of the solar wind and the play of starlight, of the pull of tides and the convergence of hearts — this luminous life that is denied to no one. Not even gimps.”

36 comments on “Life, Death, & Water: In Memory of Alice Gaines Milnor Norton, April 11, 1945 - July 26, 2022”

  1. Jake, we heard last week or so. She was amazing. Loved traveling with her in India. She was thoughtful and liked to have a good time.

    1. Thanks, Dan. That trip to India was a huge highlight for her, especially being able to do it with you and Barb. She always loved her time with you both (as do we), and huge thanks to you for all your love and support over the years. Let's connect again soon - it's been too long!

  2. My condolences to you Jake! I recently lost my dad, and though you learn to live with it, I don't think you ever quite get over it. That's more indicative of how much you loved them. Excellent write-up; conveyed your love of your mother well! Love the Foster-Wallace inclusion! Good luck to you in your healing Jake!🙏

    1. Thank you, Ed. Yes, I think the hole left is a tough one, but a beautiful reminder of the space and love they inhabited while physically a part of this world. Good luck to you on your grieving your father's passing, and take good care.

    1. Merci, Molly. You have been a fixture in her life for so long, and so many memories forged together. I'm so happy you got to see her back in May, and I know it meant the world to her. Sending love and hugs to you all from Colorado, and hope you're enduring the heat in France alright.

  3. “In one of the stars I shall be living.
    In one of them I shall be laughing.
    And so it will be as if all the stars
    were laughing when you look at the sky at night”…
    Le Petit Prince
    St. Exupery

    1. Gladys, thank you for this. So beautiful, and so true. I see her everywhere, with ample love and laughter. I hope you all are well, and know we still enjoy dinner on the gorgeous table with the Alton connection!

  4. Gorgeous. I am only halfway through and am loving getting to know Alice and you better. She was an exceptional force and an inspiration. Chocorua - amazing, just picked my daughter up from 2 weeks on lake Ossipee in the shadow of Chocorua. And MCSolaar, I couldn’t love her more for listening to that. Hugs to you. Her spirit is everywhere.

    1. Thank you, Meg. You bring such kindness, insight, and spirit to our world. Thank you for that, for your writing, and for you. Hope we can all connect again soon! And, love that you were just under Chocorua, and that you know MC Solaar - amazing!

  5. Beautiful tribute, Jake. I have no doubt her incredible legacy lives on in you, and probably your kids.

    1. Thank you, Becky - you knew her in the early days! I hope all is well, and love that you're down at CC now! Hopefully our paths will cross down there one of these days; it would be fun to reminisce about Topsfield in the 1980s! Be well, thank you, and best to you and your family.

  6. Jake, you have captured your mother's spirit so well, even her misbelief she never was good enough. "My God, Alice," I used to say during the seven years we lived together. "You're as good as it gets. And no, we're not going to paint the living room blue tonight."
    The love that came from her and her family overwhelmed me for its sincerity and its consistency. I still receive cards from her sister, Sally, and her brother, George, cards of love. I am so grateful for the time I was able to share with her and her family--both the Nortons and the Milnors. She made my life so much richer and loving.

    1. Mike, thank you. You were such a big part of her life, and brought so much joy, love, and laughter to us all. I've come across so many great memories - from times in Aspen to the Harley ride and more - all bringing back smiles. In her final weeks, we laughed about a lot of those memories, and she proudly retold the stories to Sally, George, and me. Thank you for all your love, support, and memories, and I do hope to see you sometime soon. With love and respect, Jake

  7. Death be not proud, but Jake you show just how proud we children can be, and must be when our parents continue to be larger than life when we ourselves grow big.

    This is a fanciful, fancy, and so very warm-heated whisper of pride in a woman who took time in the gyre if life to create and nurture you.

    You’re a good son.

  8. I am lucky to met Alice and I never forget her . Sad see her so few times in France and Antarctic on Ponant cruse .
    Your mother was a great woman and I miss her .

    1. Merci, Jean-Charles. She spoke so highly of you and the times you all shared around the world. We all miss her, indeed, but I find her light and energy around all the time. Sending you all love across the Atlantic.

  9. These are the most lovely of thoughts, Jake. What a blessing you are to us all. Thanks to your mom for helping forge you!

  10. Dear Jake,
    You write so well, so thoughtfully, so in the moment. In this case your mother was your inspiration. And what an inspiration she was for all of those who knew her. I feel blessed to have known her as long as I did. Thank you for your words and that incredibly great picture of her and your dog.
    Lots of love,

    1. Thank you, Burr, for all your love, support, and friendship over the years. I know it meant a ton to my Mom, and to all of us. Hope to see you soon!

  11. Jake, thank you for sharing this. Truly beautiful....what a gift she was (and is). Sending love from New Hampshire, -Thom

  12. Hi Jake. We are from your past, next door in Wayland. Peter Wilson and Jean Tempel. We are so sorry for the loss of Alice. She has always been special to me and to us. We would love to catch up.

    1. Dear Peter and Jean, so wonderful to hear from you after so many years. I remember you all very well, and such great memories from childhood with you all on Birch Lane. It would be great to catch up, and I'll reply to your other message shortly. Thank you, and best to you all, Jake

  13. Absolutely stunning. Best obituary I have ever read. Better, it's the best meditation on living, dying and the dance with disease and mortality that I've come across. Thank you, Jake. Thank you, Alice. Your petty, unsexy sacrifices of getting words on the page are deeply heard and appreciated!!

    1. Thank you, Susie. You know better than most the dance of life and all its inherent challenges. Thank you for being such an inspiring and bright light, and let's plan a meeting SOON!

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