For years, Dan and Mary Peterson were inseparable. Then at age 80, Mary went to hospital for a heart condition, and she died there after 35 days. Taken by surprise, 82-year-old Dan fell into a deep depression. For six months he didn’t know what to do with himself. Day after day, he spent time staring out at the squirrels in his garden and remembering his wife’s favourite flower: white roses.
The day before her 4th birthday, Norah was picked from preschool by her mother, Tara Wood. The little girl cautioned her mother to mind an elderly person walking across the parking lot at a glacier’s pace. She went on to explain that she has a soft spot for mature folks:
“I like old peoples the best ‘cos they walk slow like I walk slow and they has soft skin like I has soft skin. They all gonna die soon so I’m gonna love ’em all up before they is died.”
The next day, after preschool, she asked her mother to stop at the grocery store to buy cupcakes for her and her six siblings to enjoy after dinner. So Tara brought Norah and her younger daughter Marigold to the grocery store. She put the two children in a big grocery cart shaped like a car. At one moment, Norah suddenly stood up in the cart, bouncing up and down, and started waving furiously at an elderly man, “stone-faced, and furrow-browed,” according to Tara: Dan. She yelled excitedly at him:
“Hi old person! It’s my birfday today!”
He stopped and turned to her. His expression softened as he replied:
“Well hello little lady! And how old are you today?”
Norah has explained later “I thought he needed a friend, because he was sad.” The girl then demanded a hug.
“A hug? Absolutely!” Dan said.
They chatted for a few minutes, he wished her “happy birthday,” then both carts went their separate ways. But soon Norah stopped her mother:
“Can I take a picture with the old man for my birfday?”
Tara found Dan and said:
“Excuse me, sir? This is Norah, and she’d like to know if you’d take a photo with her for her birthday?”
His expression rapidly morphed from confused to stunned to delighted. He took a step back, steadied himself on his shopping cart, and placed his free hand on his chest.
“A photo? With me?” he asked.
“Yes, suh, for my birfday!” Norah pleaded.
Tara pulled out her iPhone and they posed together. “She placed her soft hand on top of his soft hand. He wordlessly stared at her with twinkling eyes as she kept his hand in hers and studied his skinny veins and weathered knuckles. She kissed the top of his hand and then placed it on her cheek. He beamed.”
After a few minutes, Tara thanked Dan for his time. His eyes filled with tears and he said:
“No, thank YOU. This has been the best day I’ve had in a long time. You’ve made me so happy, Miss Norah.”
They hugged again and then they walked away. Norah watched Dan until he was out of view.
Tara posted on Facebook the story with a picture of Dan and Norah. Then a woman explained in a message that she knew the man in the photo, that his wife had passed away in March, and he had been lonely since his beloved had gone. It was the first time she’d seen him smile since his wife died. “She wanted to let me know that she was certain his heart was touched by my little girl. That he needed it and it likely would never forget it.”
Tara asked for his phone number and called him a few days later. Dan invited Norah and her mom over for a visit. When they arrived, Dan looked 10 years younger. He’d gotten a haircut, shaved and dressed up for his special visitor. Tara watched as Norah ran up to Dan like she’d known him all her life, talking and climbing over him like a monkey. Dan was delighted.
“And of course every time I turned around she’d come back over and hug me again,” he says.
Norah’s reasoning was simple: “I just promised that I loved him.”
Inside Dan’s cozy and tidy house there were reminders of Mary still proudly displayed everywhere. He had set out a child’s table, blank paper, and crayons out for Norah. He asked if she’d draw some pictures for him to display on his refrigerator. She happily agreed and went right to work. Dan was patient and kind with the talkative, constantly moving little girl. He wiped ketchup off of her cheek and let her finish his chicken nuggets. They spent nearly 3 hours together.
As they left his house after lunch, they passed the large rosebush near his porch. It had a single blossom: an enormous red rose. He pulled out a pocket knife, he cut it then spent ten minutes cutting every thorn off of the stem before handing it to his new friend who’d brought healing to his grieving heart. Norah leaned over to smell it.
“It was precious to me,” Dan says. “The only thing I had to give back. So I cut it and gave it to her.”
Norah still has the rose, now dried up, in a Ziploc bag she keeps under her pillow.
Now, Tara and Norah visit Dan every week with Norah’s younger sister, Marigold. Even if it is only for fifteen minutes, even if only for a quick hug and to drop off a cheese danish (his favourite). Tara says:
“Norah just blows in like a whirling dervish and plunders through his cabinets, and he slaps his knee and laughs and laughs and laughs. They giggle and tell each other secrets.”
The little girl and the elderly man are more than just friends now. Tara says Dan is part of the family, and will begin joining them for holidays. She invited him to spend Thanksgiving with them.
Norah asks about Mr. Dan every day. She worries about him. She wonders if he’s lonely, or cold, or has cheese for his sandwiches. She wants him to be okay. She wants him to feel loved. One night she fell asleep holding a picture of them. Dan thinks about Norah, too. He told Tara that following his wife’s death, he hadn’t had a single uninterrupted night’s sleep. But since meeting Norah, he now sleeps soundly every night. Norah has given him a new purpose.
“Norah has healed me,” he said.
Dan still watches the squirrels through his window, but now, the squirrels bring him joy.
To both Dan and Tara, this love is a kind of miracle, it is not like the love between grandparents and grandchildren. Indeed, Dan does have grandchildren of his own, but they’re grown and gone, and Norah does have grandparents, but her mother said this is a completely different kind of bond that almost defies explanation.
“Seventy-eight years separate, these two people in age. Somehow, their hearts and souls seem to recognize each other from long ago.”
To Dan, it is equally miraculous but far less mysterious. He believes Norah is, quite literally, an angel.
CBS This Morning – Grocery encounter leads to unlikely friendship between 4-year-old and “old person”
In my article “Components of Love,” I discussed the types of love and their possible combinations, following the ancient Greek terminology. Usually people would consider the relation between an old person and a small child as Storge, the natural love that grows between members of a family, especially between parents and children, or grandparents and grandchildren. Indeed, in the bond between Dan and Norah, the absence of a sexual or romantic component would mark it as such. However, several aspects of it do not fit that type of love, in particular its intensity (Norah has grandparents, but it is completely different with Dan), its sudden occurrence that looks like ‘love at first sight,’ and the feeling of magic that surrounds it; such features correspond rather to Eros. Their love could thus be considered as a combination of Storge and Eros. Now, J. A. Lee studied in his book Lovestyles a form of love that approaches the ideal of the selfless spiritual love called Agape; according to him, it arises from a blend of Storge and Eros. He called it storgic Eros and characterised it as ‘dutiful love,’ since he noticed that in this type of relation one feels a commitment to love the other person, and indeed, Norah had said “I just promised that I loved him.” This reinforces my interpretation of this love as a blend of the two types.
Tara Wood, “That time my daughter talked to a stranger,” TODAY Parenting Team, October 19, 2016
“How a man’s chance encounter with a little girl gave him new purpose in life,” CBS News, November 18, 2016.
Erika Lantz, “When The Sun Came Out,” wbur, March 28, 2017.
Amy Paige, “4-Year-Old At Grocery Store Calls Lonely Widower ‘Old’ And Mom Is Floored By His Response,” LittleThings.
Mel Johnson, “Little Girl Befriends Lonely Widower At Grocery Store She Called ‘Old’,” GodUpdates, November 1, 2016.
Previously published on Agapeta, 2019/02/10.