By Stacey Dresner
COVENTRY – In the months after his son’s tragic death in a weather-related automobile accident on New Year’s Eve 2018, Sam Norman, understandably, went through almost unimaginable grief.
Now, Norman has turned that grief into Still Here, a book of poetry in which he shares his sadness, his anger, and his overpowering love for his first-born child, Ben.
Benjamin Norman was born in Manchester to Sam and his wife Teri on Oct. 4, 1998. The Norman family moved to Coventry in 2011. Ben was an active Boy Scout in Troop 25 of Manchester and became an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts of America. Ben, who graduated from Coventry High School in 2016, was the oldest of Sam and Teri’s three children – Rebecca is now at Eastern Connecticut State University, and Daniel is a sophomore at Coventry High School. The family are members of Beth Sholom-Beth Israel in Manchester.
A Petty Officer MMN3 in the United States Navy, Ben was just 20 at the time of his death. He died after his car crashed into a telephone pole on the rainy night of New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2018.
Besides his parents and siblings, he left behind both sets of grandparents, and his fiancée, Asia.
It was during the first three months following Ben’s death when Sam, awake in the middle of the night grieving and in despair, began writing down some of the thoughts running through his mind.
“When I started writing, it was out of necessity more than anything else,” says Sam, an English teacher at Bacon Academy in Colchester. “I wasn’t sleeping; I was just going out of my mind…images in my head were occurring and so I just started writing them down and posting them on Facebook. It was just really [saying] ‘Here I am.’”
He wrote the first poem, “Stained Glass” at 3 a.m. on Jan. 3, just three days after Ben’s death:
“The World is a shattered pane of stained glass, dull without the sun.
Shards scattered across the tiled floor defy repair
I hope that tomorrow a piece, a single piece
can be refitted into its frame
and allow a sliver of light to restore some of me.”
Sam’s poems also touch on memories of his son – like a day at the beach years before when Ben saved his sister who had been caught in an undertow; and Teri yelling, “Boots in the House!” when Ben returned home from the Navy just before his death.
He also writes about the the first snow after Ben’s death, Teri screaming at G-d on the last night they sat Shiva, and his own thoughts of suicide.
“In the past I had written maybe 10 poems – before Ben,” Sam says. “They were labors of love and I struggled with them. I didn’t know how to do it. But just about every single poem in this book just came…they just started pouring out of me, sometimes two or three a day.
“I couldn’t stop. I would be in the car and I would see an image, and I would just write something down, stanza after stanza. I have a lot of these poems on my phone because I would just type them on my phone anywhere that I was. If I was talking to someone I would say, ‘I’m sorry to be rude but I have to write something down.’ It was just like I had to get them out of my brain and by putting them on paper, it made those feelings real and it helped me in some ways just deal with what I was going through.”
Sam is now a member of Compassionate Friends, a national support group for people who have lost a child, a grandchild or a sibling. He, Teri and their kids also see a family therapist to help deal with their grief.
But Sam says that writing these poems has also been a form of therapy for him.
“This definitely has been my therapy. It has been my outlet,” he said.
After posting several of his poems on Facebook last year, a friend, John L. Stanizzi, a published poet, contacted him.
“He emailed and said I have been looking at some of these poems you have been posting on Facebook, and said, ‘We have to talk,’” Sam recalls. “So I sat down with him and he showed me some magazines that might be willing to take my poetry. I started sending them to magazines and they were getting published. He said, ‘Now you have to start thinking about a manuscript. Let’s put this together and see what we can do.’”
Sam and Stanizzi worked on the book together, editing the poems and deciding which should be included in a book. The result, Still Here, was published in the fall of 2019. A book launch at Working Spaces in Manchester drew a crowd of 100.
“I had never had anything published before,” Sam says. “I felt really weird about the book being for sale. So, I decided very early on that any money that comes in has got to go somewhere special.”
That somewhere special is the Benjamin Norman Scholarship of the Coventry Scholarship Foundation at Coventry High School, Ben’s alma mater. Every year, a Coventry graduate will receive a scholarship from the perpetual memorial scholarship under Ben’s name.
“This is how we are honoring him,” says Sam.
The book is now available on both Amazon.com and Barnesandnobleinc.com for $16. It can be found at the Barnes & Noble in Glastonbury. Sam has also participated in a few readings of the book and is willing to speak about it at synagogues and other venues, such as support groups for those who have lost a child.
“The way I justify this – because as you can imagine it is very hard – is that every time I sell a book I’m able to take the proceeds from it and someone will get a scholarship award. I’m absolutely willing to tell the story because of that,” he says.
Sam said his family has been very supportive of his poetry and the publishing of the book. Some who have read it have told him that it has helped them in their own grieving process.
As for Ben, he says, “He would be very proud of me. He was such a loving individual…this kid would say to us, ‘I love you’ all the time and he meant it. A lot of teenagers go through a phase when they don’t want to hold their parents’ hands or feel weird about showing affection,” Sam says. “He never did…the last text I got from him was, ‘I love you guys.’”
Main Photo: The Norman family. Bottom row, l to r: Sam, Rebecca and Teri; Top row, l to r: Daniel, Ben, grandmother Bonnie Norman.