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03.03.09

COUTURE COUPLE CONTEST WINNER!!!

We have a winner! We were completely overwhelmed by the response we received from everyone and will definitely be doing more contests in the future. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, we laughed, we cried and I don't think I've ever had goose bumps for such a long period of time!

Congratulations to Barbara and Russell Norman! We are so excited to get the opportunity to meet you in Oregon! Everyone loved your story from beginning to end!


I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't Russ' biggest fan when I first met him. He'd squeezed onto the plane mere minutes before takeoff and claimed the empty seat next to mine…the very one I'd been planning to put my feet up onto. Bastard! Not only did he steal my legroom but he insisted on talking to me. At first, I nodded politely and quietly plotted my escape (there are parachutes on commercial flights, right?) but then he mentioned that he'd just taken a sabbatical from his engineering job, bought an RV, and was planning on traveling around the US for a year. Now, I'm not a camper (as there's usually an abundance of dirt and a paucity of showering involved) but I'd always wanted to travel the US. We got to chatting and realized we had a lot in common, namely that we'd each kicked a bad habit some years back (mine: a miserable 26 year marriage, his: an 8 year tumultuous relationship with alcohol). Our different paths of loss and triumph had brought us not only to the same plane but also to similar places in life, something we continued to talk and email about for weeks after parting ways at the airport. So what if Russ was a Gringo! He was thoughtful, intelligent, funny and, perhaps most importantly, easy going and honest. He was the antithesis of my Hispanic ex and a refreshing change from the few disappointing specimens I'd been on dates with lately. We discovered that we lived an hour away from each other so, after a few more weeks of chatting, we met for dinner. From then on, I insisted that he take the empty seat next to mine.

To borrow an admittedly overused cliché, I just knew it was right. Russ had a way of dealing with things (good and bad) that I'd never experienced in my Cuban upbringing. Everything was okay. And if it wasn't, it would be eventually because he would make it so. I liked that about him. He made me feel safe and at peace. And he made me laugh. He didn't speak any Spanish beyond the standard "yo quiero taco bell" but he'd quickly pick words up. "Besitos!" ("little kisses") he'd started saying to me whenever we'd say goodbye. When he didn't know the meaning of a word, he'd invent one. He once overheard me say 'pobresito' ("poor little guy") and said to me, "Poor besitos? Little kisses with no money?"

Our relationship evolved quickly. It would have happened quicker if my daughter (then 24 years old and far more experienced at dating than I) hadn't provided a reality check: "WHAT? You're about to quit your job and run off with an unemployed engineer who lives in a Winnebago? He could be a traveling murderer for all you know!" She had a point. So instead of marrying him after three months, I married him after six. (Because it's a well established fact that traveling murderers declare themselves by six months!) It was a simple wedding in Monterey, California with close family and friends. My daughter and son, despite their reservations about the whirlwind relationship, were there for us. It was a perfect day…sunshine, love, and tiramisu!

One month into marriage found us packing up my apartment, putting everything into storage, and readying for a year-long RV-ing honeymoon. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, my mother in Miami was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Any lingering concerns anyone might have had about Russ' true character were obliterated with his next move: he put me on the next flight to Miami and then spent the next four days driving the RV down there. We stayed and took care of my mother for the last three months of her life. Russ did this not just for me but with me and without reservation or protest. It was an act of unconditional love that some married couples don't share even after 50 years…and Russ shared it selflessly after one month. I was devastated to lose my mother but blessed to have Russ there to help me through it.

We eventually got on the road and, in the end, we spent two wonderful years in the RV traveling around the country. We sent postcards from our varied destinations and jokingly signed them "Your favorite trailer trash, Babs & Russ!" Many thought that two years on the road would tear any couple apart, but we'd already passed a difficult test so everything else was a breeze.

We've spent the last few years making a happy home in Oregon. We spend our evenings getting pruney fingers and toes in our jacuzzi and we spend our holidays contriving new Cuban/American traditions. Russ, who long ago won my kids over, only solidified his standing with them when he invented the Cuban Burrito…basically the day old leftovers of a traditional Cuban Christmas meal wrapped in a tortilla. We make it every year now.

I'd be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life listening to Russ butcher the Spanish language and watching him concoct the next great meal from leftovers. But, heartbreakingly, I most certainly won't get to. In a seemingly unfair twist of fate that has blindsided us all, Russ has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. It's a sobering and terrifying fact that I'm still struggling to grasp. I know that life is a gift and that dying is part of living, but I only just found him six years ago and I can't imagine life without him. But the time will come when I'll have to and when it does, I want to remember Russ exactly as he is right now, while he still has both hair and humor, and before chemoradiation transforms our life into something different than it has been for past blissfully happy six years. We've never had professional photographs taken, not even on our wedding day…and I can't imagine a better photographer to take our picture.

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