No one should ever live through the grief Patricia and Mark Norton have endured for a year. It’s the kind of sadness that is so intense it evolves into despair, something Patricia describes with devastating accuracy.
“There is nothing in a day that can be better than your sorrow.”
Mark, her husband, adds: “You have moments when you’re happy about certain things, but you still just have this feeling, all the time like your heart was crushed.”
May 22 was high school graduation day in Joplin. Patricia remembers her son, Will, nicknamed “Willdabeast,” all dressed up, a sharp contrast to his usual, casual everyday outfits. He was a lover of film and faith, the child of a perfect family: parents who had met in Kindergarten, an older sister studying finance at the University of Arkansas, a dog, a church. Mark and Patricia were proud that morning, if a little sad. Their youngest bird was about to flee the nest, but to what great heights: Will had been accepted into the highly selective Dodge College of Film & Arts for film production at Chapman University in Orange, CA.
After the ceremony ended, the weather was looking a little grey, if not ominous, Mark recalls. So Patricia, her daughter and her niece took off ahead of Mark and Will. That was the last time Patricia would ever see her son. As the men drove along Rangeline Rd, the weather turned worse and worse; Will was worried about hail damaging his ride. As they switched onto Schifferdecker Rd, the sky had practically gone black. Then a chunk of concrete sailed past their windshield, and the wind seized them, and Mark remembers the car flipping, and rolling, and flipping, and rolling, and going out of and coming into consciousness. Will was nowhere to be seen.
Mark had to be cut out of his son’s Hummer with the Jaws of Life. He had been seriously injured, but he says that at the time, through the haze of his wounds, he wasn’t concerned with fighting for his life. There was just powerlessness, and deep, deep grief. Mark didn’t know his son was dead, hoped he wasn’t, but he knew: he had come to, and Will hadn’t been there.
“The feeling of hopelessness – I can’t explain that. I just kept thinking of him. Your life. Everything you’ve ever…it’s gone.”
Will had, in fact, been pulled out of the sunroof of his Hummer. Patricia says she sensed the moment her son was thrown from the vehicle. “It’s being a mom. I knew it. A piece of my heart just broke, and I just started screaming, Will. Will.”
It took several days for Patricia to locate Mark in the hospital – she thought he was dead too – and while there was obvious relief at their eventual reunion, neither husband nor wife was entirely themselves. She was on Xanax to calm her nerves, and Mark was on a cocktail of painkillers – he had suffered over a dozen broken bones, and the skin on his head had peeled back, impacted with asphalt. But what truly muted their happiness, what mutes it to this day, was the knowledge their son had died a mere hour after his high school graduation.
“Life is not going to be the same.” Mark says. “We have a wonderful marriage, and a lovely daughter, but that daily feeling of life is grand…it’s just gone.” Joplin is a place of hard memories, now; Will’s body was eventually found in a pond, and body of water the Nortons understandably refuse to drive past. But Patrciai says they will likely stay.
“Joplin is our home. Our church is here. And our friends are here.”
And if Will’s death leaves such grief, his life has inspired growth and hope. The behavioral health unit for children at Freeman Hospital has been dubbed Will’s Place. At Chapman University, the name Will Norton has been added to the Student Wall of Honor, a first for a student who never actually enrolled at the college.
Perhaps most moving is this: Will’s love of film has become a gateway for other students of the cinematic arts. Mark and Patricia are immeasurably proud that Chapman has dedicated one of their coveted Presidential Scholarship unto the university’s film school. That award is practically a full ride.
The new scholarship is named for Will Norton. For the kid they called Willdabeast.