Norma Ann Wright was born on March 11, 1941, to Niel “Mac” and Helena “Pat” McCuish, in Sudbury, Ont., and grew up in nearby Burwash. The village, where Mac worked as postmaster, was built around the Burwash Industrial Farm, a correctional facility that offered early lessons in compassion: the inmates coexisted with residents, fulfilling their manual labour needs. An outgoing girl with glacier-blue eyes, Norma, an only child, was happiest with other kids, playing outdoors until the coyotes began to howl.
“Nonnie,” as she was often called, inherited her dad’s warmth but was often at odds with her mom, who had been hardened by a difficult upbringing. After Grade 10, she spent summers waitressing in Wasaga Beach, and used her earnings to pay for boarding school. When she graduated, nursing was a natural choice, and she trained in Sudbury. Norma loved the contact with patients, and “the challenges of getting someone well again,” says daughter Rachel.
Norma, who grew into a striking woman with lush, reddish-brown hair, was dating someone else when she met David Wright through friends. But David, a science student whose adventurous spirit rivalled her own, “was the one,” says Rachel. They married in 1964, and soon moved to Grenada, where they spent two years as CUSO volunteers. While David taught school, Norma ran a clinic, and became adept at shooing “creepy-crawly creatures out of the house,” says daughter Rebecca, who was born on the island in 1966. They adapted well to the lifestyle, and took in stray dogs and injured turtles.
When they returned to Canada, Norma worked as a nurse and took university courses, with the understanding that when David finished his Ph.D. in freshwater parasitology, “it would be her turn,” says Rebecca. In 1973, he got a job at a research centre in Burlington, Ont. They bought a house, and Norma, who had become pregnant with Rachel, enrolled at McMaster University in nearby Hamilton. But later that year, when David was driving home from a friend’s cottage, he was hit by a drunk driver, and died from a brain injury.
Norma was devastated by the loss, but with two kids, “there was nothing she could do except keep moving,” says Rebecca. If anything, says David’s brother Peter, “it just made her more determined.” With the life insurance money, she completed her B.A., and earned a master’s before applying to medical school at McMaster. At first, she didn’t get in—she was accused of trying to net a “rich husband,” says Rebecca—but she reapplied the next year, and was accepted.
Balancing classes, exams and hospital rotations with single motherhood involved family and friends—and not a lot of sleep. But even though she often dozed off in the evenings while watching TV, “we were all together,” says Rebecca. They became a tight unit; whenever the girls missed her, Norma told them: “I’m doing this for us.” For graduation, Peter gave her a ceramic apple “to keep the doctor away.” Decorative apples, given as gifts from patients, would later adorn her office and home.
When she set up her family practice in 1984, she’d “found her niche,” says Peter. Within a year, she had to stop accepting new patients, though in reality, says Rachel, she “never said no to anybody.” Norma would go to great lengths to get them the care they needed—in the case of obese patients too embarrassed to enter the clinic, that meant treating them in the parking lot. She began each day with a visit to Burlington’s Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital, and made house calls to patients undergoing palliative care. When the end came, says Rachel, she “cried with the families.”
By 2003, Norma was thinking about retirement. In the mid-’80s, she had married Bruce Cowperthwaite (who was her patient until he told her he’d rather be her boyfriend), and they were looking forward to “starting a new chapter,” says Rebecca. But in January, he had a heart attack and died. Again, Norma threw herself into work and family. Rebecca and her husband, Mike, moved in with her, and Rachel later joined them. Soon, Norma had another distraction: grandson Max, born in 2005.
Finally, after 25 years of working full-time, Norma decided she would slow down. On Sept. 1, she was going to join a practice that offered four-day weeks, and six weeks of paid holiday. But on the morning of Aug. 14, she called out to her daughters, and told them “something was happening” to her, says Rebecca. When the ambulance arrived, she was still lucid enough to inquire about her blood pressure. By the time they got to Joseph Brant, however, there was nothing doctors could do. Norma had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. She was 68.