Sandra Jean Norman passed away peacefully on Sunday, December 27, 2015, at 8:06 p.m., bringing to an end several years of health struggles. Though her death was not unexpected, it was nonetheless a hard blow for the entire family. Sandy, 61 years old, was the wife of my brother, Danny, for 44 years, and her family was at her side when she passed.
I first met Sandy and her sister, Naomi “Joan,” when she was barely sixteen, a skinny little thing who looked even younger. I was in college at the University of South Florida, and was home at my parents’ house for Sunday dinner. During that after high school period, the “big kids” of whom I was one, would often gather at the old school playground on fall Sunday afternoons to relive our younger associations in a very rough football scrimmage. The “little kids,” our younger brothers and sisters, would line up on the sidelines and watch their big brothers run around like fools tackling each other and laughing until exhaustion set in and the game ended. That was fun?
It’s gone now, but the “old school,” an ancient two-story brick building that served as Thonotosassa Elementary School for generations, had closed several years before, in favor of the new school, a modern facility built a mile or so away. On Main Street, in the middle of what there is in Thonotosassa, the open playground became a town park where the locals gathered to play, visit, and relive their youth. That was where I first met Sandy.
Sweaty and dirty, I was drinking a soda when my younger brother, Danny, approached me, accompanied by two very shy girls, Sandy and Joan. “Charles, this is my girlfriend, Sandy. We’re gonna get married.”
I was surprised, to say the least. Danny was a skinny sixteen-year old himself, in high school. He and Sandy seemed like an unlikely pair for marriage. I said something to Sandy — I can’t remember what — in the vein of “nice to meet you,” but she raised her downcast face, looked me in the eyes, and flashed a big smile. In that instant, I glimpsed what must have initially drawn my brother to her. She was beautiful. She was also a wonderful, loving selfless person, as I learned many times over the next 45 years that Danny and Sandy were together. My mother once said, on another occasion of Sandy’s previous health travails, “Sandy is the best of us,” and I must agree.
After the funeral, which, of course, I could not attend, I spoke with my grieving mother, Lucille Norman, about Sandy. She said, “Sandy was the daughter I never had. Anytime any of us needed something done, like hanging a picture, we called Sandy. She could do everything no one else had the sense to do.”
When Danny and Sandy got married in Harney Baptist Church, I was proud to take their wedding photos. She was a beautiful bride. I remember well when Sandy, as a newly-married woman with an infant son, invited me for supper. Did this lovely young, girl know how to cook? I had no idea. They lived next door to my parents’ house, so I parked my car in my parents’ big yard and walked to Danny’s and Sandy’s . When she opened the door, delectable cooking smells enveloped me. I told her it smelled great — what were we having?
Sandy lit up at the praise. “Fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and biscuits,” she said, smiling.
The food tasted even better than it smelled. I told her she was a great cook. It was true. Looking back on that time, that was the beginning of our closeness. Sandy was a genuinely good person, and everyone who knew her loved her.
Danny and Sandy raised two children, Timmy and Tammy, who became the substitute children I never had. Before I came to prison, I delighted in spending time with my nephew and niece. Their earliest recollection of “Uncle Charlie” was when I took them to see the original “Star Wars” movie. When I went to prison, Danny and Sandy brought Tammy and Timmy to visit me at Union C.I., Raiford, also known as “The Rock.”
The Rock had a large visiting park with two covered pavilions, picnic tables, and the “patio canteen restaurant,” that sold full meals of fried chicken dinners, hamburgers and French fries, and much more.
My nephew, Timmy, stared at the biker gang members whose arms were heavily-tattooed with dark ink. He’d never seen sights like that in Thonotosassa. “Charles, why do those men have cartoons on their arms?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do they wash off?”
“No. They are there forever,” I said.
Timmy thought about that for a moment. “If I did that, my mom would kill me.”
Sandy smiled. “You’re right, young man.”
I haven’t seen my nephew, Timmy, in a number of years. He’s been busy leading his own life and raising children, but I’ve heard that he sports a large, colorful, intricate tattoo now. Looking back, I wonder whether his initial visit to prison influenced his later decisions.
On one of their visits to see me, I pointed out another prisoner, a despicable man called “Frenchy,” who operated a separate candy counter with a chocolate milkshake machine at the patio canteen. Some weeks before that visit, Frenchy had been locked up after a mother complained that she’d walked up to the counter and caught Frenchy fondling her mentally-handicapped twelve-year old daughter while he fed her candy. Amazingly, a week later he was back on his job in the visiting park, around dozens of unsuspecting children every week. He was a favorite of certain influential prison guards, who got the charges dropped.
Tammy and Timmy wanted milkshakes. I went with them. When we got to the counter where Frenchy worked, I told them, “Kids, this is a very bad man. He is a child molester. Do you know what that is?” They nodded their heads, staring intently at Frenchy. “When you come to this counter never come by yourselves. Always go with me or your mom. If this man ever speaks to you, or tries to touch you, you tell me immediately. Understand?” They nodded their heads.
“Norman, I swear, I’d never do anything to hurt those children.”
“For your sake, you’d better not,” I said, dead serious.
The children got their milkshakes and raced back to our table. Little Tammy went
straight to Sandy. “Mama, you see that man over there?” she said, pointing at Frenchy.
“That man is a child molester. If you go over there, be sure and take me with you!” Tammy said.
“I will!” Sandy said.
We erupted in laughter.
I could tell you many more stories about Sandy and our family, sadly, too many of them shared secondhand, from a distance, with me serving life in prison. On Christmas Eve, Thursday, Sandy, in the hospital, seemed to rally, conscious and talking, realizing that she was in the hospital at that special time. In our family, everyone gathers at my mother’s house on Christmas Eve and opens presents under the Christmas tree. Sandy insisted that Danny help her get dressed so she could join the family at Mama’s, but that was impossible. She was too sick. Even at the end of her life, Sandy’s only thoughts were to be with her family.
The day after Christmas, Sandy had a massive stroke. Her family was at her side the entire time, and are deeply grieving her passing, as I do, from prison. My brother heroically tended to his ever increasingly-sicker wife for years, shouldering a heavy burden, then being saddled with more hard decisions and travails after Sandy’s death. It is to my eternal regret that I could not be out there with our grieving family and share those burdens, or to have been with them in the hospital when Sandy died.
One of the unmentioned punishments of prison is the exile from one’s family and loved ones. Surviving decades of imprisonment means that one must experience many losses of loved ones over the years, with the inability to be present to support and grieve with those left behind.
I thank God for the great gift He gave our family when He brought Sandra Jean Norman into our lives. May she rest in peace.