The day before Nora McInerny Purmort’s first book came out, she described her jittery excitement as “the feeling that you almost poop your pants, but you find a bathroom in time.”
Leave it to McInerny Purmort to come up with the least glamorous, most relatable way of welcoming people into her world.
Through her gripping blog, My Husband’s Tumor, she chronicled her husband’s losing battle with cancer with the same kind of blunt but candid language that strikes a humorous chord beneath the uncertainty and anguish. The obituary that she and Aaron Purmort wrote together before his November 2014 death was as delightful as it was devastating, and its quirky irreverence resonated in news outlets worldwide.
In her new memoir, “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too),” McInerny Purmort channels the pain of grief into a series of breezy essays that tickle and touch the heart, as they recount an unimaginably dark time in her life. Within a span of a few weeks in 2014, McInerny Purmort miscarried her second child, lost her father, and then her husband, to cancer.
Two months after Aaron’s death, she had a book deal.
“It’s all the really raw part of grief. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write,” says McInerny Purmort, a towering blonde with a deep voice and a smile that seems to take up half her face. “I didn’t want to write a book that was me sitting in my house with my third husband and 10 children in my mid-50s, and it turns out everything’s fine.”
Told out of chronological order, the book depicts her relationship with Aaron, from their first date to his diagnosis, their marriage and the birth of their son Ralph, and Aaron’s untimely death. It also tracks the life of a 33-year-old woman who grew up in Minneapolis, sought independence in New York City, and returned home to find the love of her life, only to lose him too soon.
Among tales of adolescent dating, trial-and-error explorations of her early 20s and the grown-up bewilderment of marriage and parenting, McInerny Purmort sprinkles in comic scenarios she’s cooked up. To-do lists, like “What to do when the person you love gets brain cancer (or any cancer): Cry. Punch a pillow. Punch a wall. Gently. You don’t need a cancer patient and a person with a broken hand; that’s just foolish …” Or a letter to future inductees into the unofficial group she founded, the “Hot Young Widows Club.”
If it sounds cheeky, that’s because it is. Even as Aaron neared the end of his life, the couple found ways to laugh through the pain. While he was in hospice care, the pair penned his obituary together.
“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, and thank him for his many years of service protecting our city.”
For all its creative license, “that was as true as an obituary can get,” she said. “It was true to who he was.”
Life after loss
“It’s Okay to Laugh” doesn’t repackage the blog that McInerny Purmort maintained during Aaron’s illness, though she did use it to recall certain events from that time.
“You don’t have any time while going through something to reflect, ‘Wow, this is challenging,’ You just do it,” she said. “Having those blog posts is a way of quickly accessing those parts of my brain that had bubble-wrapped those memories for me, kept them safe. It brings it back fast.”
She started the blog as a way to keep family members and friends updated on Aaron’s health, mainly so she wouldn’t have to send dozens of identical texts and e-mails. She first got an inkling that she was developing a following when a woman from North Carolina wrote to her. Over time, more strangers reached out to share their stories or to say that they’d found comfort in McInerny Purmort’s saga.
“Loss and suffering and illness are so isolating, because you don’t feel seen. It just gets very lonely,” she said. “So I get stories from people around the world who have lost somebody or are sick themselves. I treasure these stories. They’re hard to read and really bruising for me. But it’s also an honor. This person is reaching out to a complete stranger on the internet because their best bet for feeling seen and heard is me — someone they don’t even know.”
After Aaron’s death, Nora left her job in marketing and committed to writing full time. She’s since had essays published in Cosmopolitan, Elle, the Huffington Post, the Star Tribune and other media.
With her book, she hopes to impart that even in the immediate, chaotic, grief-blurred aftermath of loss, there is something essentially human that keeps us going.
“My story is not special and these things happen every day and always happen to someone else, until they happen to you,” she said. “I want people to read this book about someone who got brain cancer at 32 and died at 35, and his 31-year-old widow, and know something bad is going to happen to you and you’re still going to be a full person with a full life, and go to movies and spend too much on a Beyoncé ticket. It’s this whole spectrum of experiences, and to close your eyes to part of it means to miss the depth of what life is.”
Her story doesn’t ask for pity, something she calls “the most useless emotion we have.”
Instead, it is a bittersweet celebration of the fleeting joys of life. In McInerny Purmort’s suburban Minneapolis-area home, where she lives with 3-year-old, cherub-cheeked Ralph, a wall is covered with drawings and paintings meaningful to her and to her late husband, including a sketch of Aaron as Spider-Man on his wedding day. A lettered sign like the kind that usually spells out “Happy Birthday” hangs above it all. It says, “Yay for love.”