Photographs by Ackerman+Gruber
Nora doesn’t read the comments anymore.
OK, she peeks now and then. When you call the Internet your “hometown,” it’s hard not to wonder what the locals are saying about you. But Nora McInerny Purmort learned early in her writing career—which began in 2012 with a blog detailing her husband’s battle with terminal brain cancer, and ratchets up next month with the release of her memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)—that it doesn’t matter how many people think she is “basically the greatest writer of all time” (actual comment—from KARE 11 reporter Jana Shortal—on her Facebook page). Or if 99 commenters out of 100 unabashedly adore her (they do). It’s the other 1 percent she remembers. The lone voices reinforcing everything she used to believe, and still does sometimes, about herself: That she isn’t good enough, or that she should be a better mother. And some things she’s never believed, but nag at her anyway: That her husband got cancer at age 32 because it was his time to die.
In the architecture of online media, comment sections are the septic tanks. The places where the light of human civility shines dimmest. Avoiding them is a survival tactic. But comments made on Nora’s stories are different. For one thing, she hasn’t been a public figure for very long. After her then-boyfriend, Aaron Purmort, was diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma in 2011, she started her blog, My Husband’s Tumor, to keep friends and family up to speed (the couple were married shortly after his diagnosis). It chronicled his illness, the ups and downs of his treatment, the unending parade of doctors and nurses and hospital beds, the retreat and return of his cancer, and his eventual, inevitable surrender to it. More importantly, it told the story of their relationship, from the day they met, to the night of their wedding, to the birth of their son, to the loss of their second child and Nora’s father, who also succumbed to cancer. And finally to the loss of Aaron himself. As she described the blog in an early post, “This is not a cancer story, it’s a love story. With some cancer.”
Through it all, Nora bloomed as a writer, recording every heart-wrenching moment in poignant detail as a community of readers and co-bereavers grew with each post. By the time Aaron passed away in November 2014, more than 200,000 readers were following along. The obituary Nora and Aaron wrote together—which claimed that Aaron was in fact Spider-Man and listed his cause of death as “radioactive spider bite”—ran in the Star Tribune and was reprinted around the world, drawing thousands more readers. Those readers stuck with Nora the following year, as she navigated single-motherhood; formed an online support group for other grieving wives called the Hot Young Widows Club; founded Still Kickin, a non-profit organization that raises money for people affected by similar life-walloping tragedies; quit her marketing day job; and landed a book deal. Below every update posted, every article published, every photo Instagrammed, the comments piled up like pillars of support hoisting her words ever higher. They are, almost exclusively, positive and loving. They are raw and gushing. They are everything that her writing is. (Though her stuff is funnier.) And, still, she doesn’t read them.
“Because if they’re bad, I tend to get real—,” she searches for the word, and then does a couple shadowbox jabs, cold-clocking her would-be online tormentors. “I’m like Kanye that way. I really need to just stay away from the keyboard sometimes.”
Writers tend to feed off of peer approval, so a trip through Nora’s adoring comments ought to feel like a stroll through the Garden of Earthly Delights. But there’s a snake in every metaphorical garden, and for Nora, the final straw came last fall at a local brewery during a Still Kickin fundraiser. It was November, nearing the first anniversary of Aaron’s death, and she was understandably not feeling great. So when a drunk patron approached her and told her to smile, she took to Twitter: “Fuck you if you tell a woman to smile.” Most of her followers supported the sentiment. Then a small army of anonymous trolls swarmed. Rape threats were tweeted. Nora responded with an essay expounding on her “fuck you” thesis. It went viral, as most of her writing—most of her life, really—tends to do. Hundreds of readers approved her message. A couple didn’t. One woman called her a “miserable creature.” So she responded.
As Nora wrote in that essay, “The world and the Internet can be wonderful and terrible, and sometimes it’s easier to just pretend the garbage people don’t exist in either place, but they do.” So she broke the circle, and now she doesn’t read the comments. Hakuna matata.
Which leads one to wonder: Does she know about all the other great comments she’s missing? Because my goodness, people love Nora McInerny Purmort.
Nora looks great for someone who’s been through hell.
She gets that a lot because it’s true. As she opens the door to her home, her visitor, having spent the previous 48 hours binge-reading four years of blog posts about her husband dying, is struck by her welcoming smile and quick laugh. When she writes about the love-hate relationship she has had with her self-image, she often comments on her looks using words like “awkward” or “gangly.” She doth protest too much. Nora is six feet tall and often described as “statuesque.” It’s a silly word, especially when applied to someone as lively as Nora. Her face is elastic and expressive. Her eyes are big and bright and curious. When she laughs—and she laughs a lot—her whole body laughs. She charms you.
Nora is the first to admit that, yes, she’s doing fine. “Fine-ish,” she corrects herself, emphasizing the last syllable with a strained half-smile. She meditates daily. She sees a therapist weekly. She runs, she works out, she practices yoga. After chewing through two different nighttime retainers, she was prescribed a low-dose anti-anxiety medication, and now she’s sleeping better. And she’s writing again. She leads a thoroughly documented digital life, spanning Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, and by all accounts, that life now seems, actually, pretty . . . good. You know. Considering.
Considering: She lost her unborn child in October 2014. And only a week later, she lost her father. And then six weeks after that, she lost Aaron, the love of her life. Three generations of loss, compressed into two heartbreaking months. Job himself had more time to catch his breath. Considering all that? Yeah, it’s hard to sit next to the fireplace in her living room on a February afternoon just before Valentine’s Day, while her 3-year-old son, Ralph, crawls around in Spider-Man undies, eating cookies and playing LEGOs, and not arrive at the conclusion that she’s doing pretty darn well.
That conclusion’s starting to bug her.
“I’m not crying all day anymore,” she touches her silver pendant that reads “a&n.” Aaron and Nora. “But people seem to think I jumped straight to the acceptance phase, and that’s not how it works.”
Her visitor doesn’t admit that he had just been thinking exactly that. He’ll feel particularly foolish a few days later, when she publishes an essay on The Huffington Post in which she admits to being firmly ensconced in the “anger” phase, and bemoans her role in propagating the myth that grief is something that can be gotten through on the strength of will alone.
“Look how great I’m doing!” she writes. “JK I’m dead inside.”
For now, fine-ish will have to do. Fine-ish is great. You know. Considering.
Nora is sitting in her living room, surrounded by reminders of Aaron. There’s the Still Kickin sweatshirt she’s wearing: It’s a replica of Aaron’s favorite green T-shirt, the one he was wearing the day he had the seizure that first revealed his tumor. Those two words became his motto during the last years of his life, and will likely remain hers for many to come. (Sales of the shirts fund the Still Kickin charity Nora runs in her spare time.) There’s the prayer card from Aaron’s funeral on her fridge, bearing another of his mantras: “It’s going to be OK.” There’s Ralph and the Spider-Man undies. There’s the art on the walls: drawings of Aaron, posters designed by him. There’s everything in the house but the house itself. That’s new.
Nora moved out of the Northeast Minneapolis home where they’d lived, and where Aaron had died, in August. She decided to move after visiting a medium, a former co-worker who told her she had a message from Aaron. “It’s not like she could talk to him,” she explains. “She’s more like an answering machine for dead people.” If Nora was skeptical, she became convinced after the medium called her “Norn”—the shortened version of Aaron’s nickname for her, Nornia. Aaron’s message: That old house had served its purpose. It was time to move out and on, period.
As fate would have it, the first place Nora looked at, a suburban two-story, the tallest house on a block full of ramblers, had Aaron’s prayer card displayed on the fridge. Turns out the seller was an old classmate. Taking it as a sign, she moved in, and now she’s trying the “move on” part. Except now she’s tearing up in her new living room as she retells the story of how she met Aaron: From their first online flirtations to their first meeting, at an art gallery housed in her uncle’s former photography studio. She was 27, recently re-planted in Minneapolis following several years in New York City where she bounced between jobs and boyfriends in a manner that makes her relate all too well to the first few seasons of the HBO show Girls. Aaron was a charming art director who had worked at the same ad agency as her mom, and one of the few people in the room taller than her. He asked if she wanted a beer, and delivered her a Coors Light with a knees-first dance-floor slide. And now, remembering that, she’s laughing again through the tears. “You gotta kiss a lot of DJs before you meet your prince.”
Maybe it’s because she’s Irish Catholic and descended from the people who invented the Irish wake, but laughing while crying is a common theme for Nora. It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) is an apt title for her memoir, because that’s exactly how she tells her story.
“Nora is pure feeling,” says Julia Cheiffetz, her editor at HarperCollins. Cheiffetz points out that the last few years have seen a surfeit of memoirs on dying, notably Being Mortal by the surgeon and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by the late neurosurgeon turned cancer patient Paul Kanithi. “But so many of them have been written by men. It’s refreshing to hear about mortality, which we so often put in a terrarium, from a younger woman.”
Nora’s story, with its deeply human refrains of love and loss, draws readers in, but it’s Nora who keeps them reading. Her prose is breezy and conversational, flitting from pop culture reference to joking aside before settling unexpectedly on some perfectly disarming turn of phrase. In one chapter, she describes Ralph learning to crawl while she and Aaron watched The Sopranos and ate tacos in his hospital bed, a funny little scene that she follows with this kicker: “Losing Aaron was like having our sun burn out, but Ralph and I learned to revolve around each other.” This is how she speaks, too. Her train of thought can veer wildly from topic to topic, from story to story, and suddenly she’ll take a breath and say, “You know, the things that kill you don’t have to crush you first.”
This instinctive ability to distill truth from chaos is what makes Nora a natural writer. She keeps stacks of journals in her basement, which she has filled religiously since she learned how to hold a pen. In sixth grade, she got a job writing a column in the Southwest Journal after writing a letter to the editor complaining about the lack of attention paid to their 11-year-old readers. In high school and college, and through most of her 20s, she says her self-confidence was “decimated,” and she credits Aaron with helping her find it again. After she finished It’s Okay to Laugh, she quit writing again, and credits her anti-anxiety meds with helping her to pick it back up.
These days it’s coming easy. Her recent essay, “Why I Tell Everyone to Leave Minneapolis,” for “10,000 Takes” in the Star Tribune quickly broke online page-view records and has since been viewed more than 250,000 times. (The answer: “You can always come back.”) Nora says she wrote it in 10 minutes. No editing or rewriting—she simply sat down, tapped it out from beginning to end, sent it off, and hoped it was good.
The great TV host and comedian Steve Allen, when asked to define comedy, answered, with a now-famous formulation: “Tragedy plus time.” Nora and Aaron had more than their share of the former but precious little of the latter when they climbed into Aaron’s bed to co-write his obituary in late 2014. It was Aaron’s first night home in hospice care, and though they didn’t know it at the time, he would lose consciousness within the week. So they took a shortcut straight to comedy.
“Purmort, Aaron Joseph, age 35, died peacefully at home on November 25 after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime-fighting and a years long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer, who has plagued our society for far too long. Civilians will recognize him best as Spider-Man.”
It went on to extoll the musical accomplishments of Aaron’s high school band, the Asparagus Children, and listed among his surviving family his “first wife, Gwen Stefani.” Nora read it back to Aaron five times, laughing and crying harder than she could remember ever doing before. She didn’t think anyone outside of their closest friends and family—people who knew that Spider-Man was Aaron’s favorite comic, and that the Asparagus Children barely made it further than the garage, and that Aaron did indeed ask Gwen Stefani to prom in high school—would read it. She hit “save” and turned on a Buffy rerun.
When Aaron died two weeks later, the obituary ran in the local paper, and Nora posted a photo of it on her blog. The effect was immediate. Websites picked it up and newspapers around the world reprinted it. “Obituary Announces Death of Spider-Man” ran the headline in the London Daily Telegraph. Nora went on NPR to read it. What began as an inside joke became a memorial shared by millions.
Grief used to be a communal activity. In many cultures it still is, but in the 20th-century Western world, sociologists have noted, as our once-tribal communities became disconnected, the grieving process followed suit. “While the beginning of our lives is celebrated, discussed and chronicled, death and dying have become medicalized, sanitized and whispered about,” writes Debra J. Bassett in Who Wants to Live Forever? Living, Dying and Grieving in Our Digital Society. Mourning, in other words, became a private matter.
But then the Internet happened, and grief, like everything else, went online. Additionally, the hospice movement, just 30 years old, has torn back the hospital curtain for millions of Americans, helping them and their loved ones become more involved and engaged in the dying process. As a result, online memorials and blogs like My Husband’s Tumor have become more common. While these tributes remain deeply personal, they are anything but private. Grief, in Nora’s case in particular, has become communal again. The tribe has returned.
The reason is that grieving feels good. Not for those at its epicenter, perhaps, but for readers at a safe remove, aching for someone thousands of miles away whom they may have never met. To read It’s Okay to Laugh, and to read through the archives of My Husband’s Tumor, from the most recent posts back through to his first seizure, and to scan back through the photos of Aaron, to watch his hair return and his rail-thin body plump back up, is to undo what cancer did to him.
Death isn’t cheap, especially for a widow whose husband didn’t have life insurance.
Shortly before Aaron died, Nora’s sister Meghan launched a fundraising campaign for her and Ralph, with a goal $25,000 for medical bills. The YouCaring.com page went viral, generating more than $130,000.
Nora had always known her life was charmed. “Even though I miscarried a baby and my dad and husband died a few weeks later, I’m a privileged person,” she writes in her memoir. “Even grief is a privilege.” But fate had lent her a six-figure hand, and generosity on that scale can knock a person out. Unsure of how to respond, Nora began clicking through other YouCaring pages, giving whatever and whenever she could. “It just felt good,” she says. It was the first time she’d felt that way since Aaron died. That’s how she knew that giving back was the answer.
It was Aaron’s idea to recreate the “Still Kickin” shirt. But it was Nora who turned it into a movement. Every month, the charity picks a new “hero”—someone “going through some shit,” as Nora puts it, who could use the same sort of generosity so many people showed her and her son. Widows, survivors of abuse and sexual assault, and people with the same tumor that killed Aaron have all been heroes in the year since Nora began seriously dedicating her time to the effort. She sells T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other Still Kickin merchandise, and leads monthly ticketed workout sessions, with all proceeds going to that month’s hero. She writes each hero’s story on the charity’s website as tenderly as she told Aaron’s. She knows she has other work to do—there’s a book publicity tour to plan, after all—but it’s this work that she considers her most important. She has plans to take Still Kickin nationwide, to see people the world over wearing the same green T-shirt that the man she loved pulled off of some thrift store rack so many years ago. It’s a big job. If she’s tireless, it’s because Aaron would have been, too.
Sometimes Nora thinks about that 27-year-old girl in the art gallery, wondering about her next desk job, weary from dating, certain she’d never find love. Six years later, she’s a bereaved widow criss-crossing the country, raising money for people who need it more than she does, building a community for people who need to feel like they aren’t alone in their grief, like they are more than their tragedies. Sometimes she doesn’t recognize her new self.
“I never thought I’d come out of this as someone I liked,” she says.
It’s Saturday, which means yoga. Which means Nora is beat, and running late.
Her days are regimented, partly because she’s just that sort of person and partly because lately she’s had the urge to cram as much as she possibly can into each day. “There’s something about watching two people die with unrealized potential that forces you to try to realize your own,” she says. For this reason, she wakes up at 6:30 every morning, makes coffee, turns off the Internet, and writes for 25 minutes straight. Then she takes Ralph to daycare and combs through the hundred-or-so e-mails she gets daily. Then lunch and a workout. Still Kickin business takes up most of the afternoon before daycare pickup. If it’s Thursday, there are appointments: hair, nails, therapy.
She rushes into the café wearing yoga pants and another Still Kickin shirt. Her shoes are custom Nikes, with “Still” and “Kickin” on the tongues. She orders an omelet. “I have a gluten allergy,” she says, and adds with a laugh, “When the doctor told me, Aaron said it was going to be the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
She’s got a busy day ahead—she has to pack for a flight to L.A. to meet a new Still Kickin hero—a 1-year-old toddler recently diagnosed with her old nemesis, cancer—so she doesn’t have much time. Who does?
She grabs her phone, opens Facebook, and makes a confession: She’s been reading the comments. Well, one comment. It was posted under a photo of Nora from a recent boudoir photo shoot. “Basically it’s me naked,” she says, although the shot’s tasteful; SFW (safe for work) even. Below it, a troll had written, “What a beautiful transgender model. I admire his/her courage!”
Trolls gonna troll. But Nora is cracking up. “This is totally my dad’s humor! I swear, he didn’t die, he faked his death and moved to Ohio or something so he could write this to me.”
Then she breaks her rule and hits “reply.” Just this once.
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) will be available May 24, and Nora’s celebrating with a launch party at Bauhaus Brew Labs that night.