CAMBRIDGE -- When mourners arrived to pay their last respects to Gwendoline Hendrickson at Ackley & Ross Funeral Home on Saturday, they were confused by a note posted at the entrance.
“Surprise — It’s a double header — Gwen and Norman Hendrickson — Feb. 16, 2013,” it read.
It was a surprise, indeed. Up until about a half-hour before, even the Hendrickson family hadn’t anticipated saying goodbye to anyone but their 89-year-old matriarch who had died eight days earlier on Feb. 8.
Suddenly they were grieving the death of 94-year-old patriarch, Norman, too.
In a twist of fate that daughter Norma Howland admitted could not have been more fitting, Norman died on the way to his wife’s service.
“After we had a little time to process the shock and horror, we felt we couldn’t have written a more perfect script. My sister said the only thing he didn’t do was fall into the casket,” Howland said. “It was just a chain of events that was unbelievable.”
Howland said while she and her sister were growing up, her parents had jokingly promised to never leave one spouse behind. When her mother died less than two weeks ago, Howland overheard her father in a private moment say aloud, “We have had a good long life together. I love you. I’ll miss you and watch for me.”
He kept his promise.
Ackley & Ross owner Elizabeth Nichols-Ross said Norman was arriving at the funeral home last Saturday in a limousine driven by retired State Trooper Richard Painter when the elderly man stopped breathing.
Funeral director Jim Gariepy, who is also the Washington County coroner, and Nichols-Ross were at the funeral home and quickly helped move the elderly man to the sidewalk. Gariepy checked his pulse, called the rescue squad and began CPR while Nichols-Ross and one of the sons-in-law raced across town to retrieve Norman’s do-not-resuscitate orders from his refrigerator door.
Once the DNR orders were in hand, the rescue squad ceased attempts to revive Norman and he passed. Nichols-Ross credited Gariepy, as a coroner, with helping to expedite the process.
Nichols-Ross said daughter Merrilyne Hendrickson then requested that her father’s body be put into a casket and placed in the viewing room with her mother, who had been cremated and whose ashes were in an urn. She posted the “surprise” note on the front door, which greeted attendees who arrived soon after for her mother’s funeral.
Norman probably would have appreciated the witticism. Nichols-Ross said the longtime Cambridge resident was well known for never wasting money and always having a joke to tell.
She decided to lighten the mood by including on Norman’s prayer card her own one-liner: “Have you heard the one about the guy who’s in the limo on the way to his wife’s funeral and got the bright idea that if he died before he got there he might be able to get a buy-one-get-one-free deal?”
“Basically, he did because we wheeled him in, he had his calling hours at the same time as his wife. I couldn’t charge again,” Nichols-Ross said with a laugh. “If it had happened with somebody else like this it would have been sad, but with Norm it wasn’t. It was just so much like Norm.”
Nichols-Ross said Norman’s humor sustained him through some family tragedies, including the death of his grandson in a car accident and the loss of his son who died in 2008 of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
Norman and Gwen were married for almost 66 years. He was the assistant postmaster in Cambridge for 34 years and she was a teacher’s assistant in the Early Childhood Perception Curriculum at Cambridge Central School, according to the couple’s obituaries.
Gwen had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for several years. Their daughters said they had always promised their parents they would remain in their home until their deaths. With round-the-clock nursing care, they did.
After Gwen died, Howland thinks her father lost his will to live.
“He just stopped breathing. Not a second of pain, agony. That was it. My feeling is that they were holding out for each other,” she said.