Norman Nathan Parker was born on Jan. 12, 1966, the third of four children, and grew up in Back Bay, N.B., a village on the Bay of Fundy, where his parents Glendon and Melva worked at the Connors Bros. sardine cannery. Jutting out into the sea, with a white, red-trimmed lighthouse standing sentry nearby, Back Bay is a place of flinty, taciturn people, folks who, despite hardship, have managed to live off the briny riches of the mercurial bay—calm one minute, fog and treachery the next.
Norman’s disposition was sunnier than most, a charming boy with green-brown eyes and sand-brown hair who shared a bunk bed with his little brother and never learned to read or write. At 15, too young by law for full-time employment but by temperament too restless for school, his parents secured special dispensation from a judge to let him work. This he did with gusto, at Harvey Hooper’s lobster pound, and later on the sealing line at the cannery. Soon he struck out on his own—“he couldn’t work under anyone,” a relative says—buying an 18-foot skiff for clamming and periwinkling at low tide. About that time he took up with Rose, a woman older than he and already pregnant. Ashley became his daughter, too, whatever her ancestry, though he was soft. “You’re the adult,” Rose would say. “Punish her!” And he’d try. More often he’d mouth the words to Roy Orbison—Oh, Pretty Woman—“grab my hands and dance,” says Ashley, “he’d get me twisting.” At night he’d wait for teenage Ashley to get home; it broke his heart she got pregnant at 14.
He was full of contradictions—a fisherman who couldn’t swim, a family man who drank too much Bud and caroused (“he loved his women and the women loved him,” says Ashley). When, after 16 years, he and Rose split, Norman quit booze. Yet he’d go back to it now and again, and meet new women. “He was a charming guy, I can’t remember the women he been with,” says Melva. When his friends hit rough patches with girlfriends, they went to Norm’s to drink and throw darts. “House for battered men, they called it,” says Melva. With Melinda, a much younger woman, Norman had Nathan, a red-headed boy. Though things with Melinda grew rocky, Nathan got his father’s full attention—they fished and four-wheeled on nearby Frye Island, where there was good hunting, too (years back, Norm shot himself a 14-pointer, and searched for the trophy for days after the wounded buck fled into the bush). When Nathan came to live with him full-time, Norman quit drinking for good.
Seven years ago, Iona, of Saint John, moved in beside Norman. When he turned up, Iona shut the door in his face (she’d just fled a bad marriage). Norman asked her to coffee, on Valentine’s Day. She refused. Norman sent a cousin over with a Tim Hortons. She liked that. “We went for coffee, and dates, and I moved in with him, and then we’d argue and I’d leave,” she says. (Grown bald, he told her he was years older than he was, since she was nine years older than Norman.) One day he took her in the skiff to see the whales. “It was the first time ever I seen it, and there was five,” Iona says. “They were very close to the boat, and if they’d a come up under they’d have flipped us. But I felt safe with Norman. It was like it was his spot and that was where his life was. He was a water man. And when I come in off the water I could hear those whales in my ears for hours.” When they were in Saint John to shop at the Wal-Mart last spring, Norman stopped Iona by the videos and stationary, getting down on his knees. With a brand-new ring he asked Iona to marry him. “I suppose I coulda took you to supper,” he said. He’d never asked anyone before.
Not long ago, Norman bought a lobster boat, the 34-foot Wendy and Michael, and planned on gathering sea urchins next. On Nov. 19, the last day of deer season, as he and Nathan, now 10, returned from Frye Island (a buck had eluded them there), the weather turned. Tossed by choppy waters, the engine stalling, the boat strayed back toward the island, hit the rocks and began sinking. Norman told Nathan to jump. In the sea, Nathan kicked off his boots and heard his father’s voice—“swim, swim, swim”—and from shore looked back to see him face down in the brine, a gash in his head. Nathan dragged him in, put his life jacket under his head and, in his stocking feet, ran 6.5 km over rough terrain for help. A fisherman later found him, collected by the tide, drifting in the bay.