Norm Appel was terrified to have children while drinking and taking pills. He discovered why.
I didn’t want children when Wendy and I married. I was afraid I wouldn’t be a good father, and for good reason: Though I kept it secret, I was drinking a lot at the time and taking lots of pharmaceuticals—mixing everything. How could I have another child in the family when I was still a child myself? It wasn’t that I didn’t love children; it’s just that I was terrified I would do something wrong if we had one. So it was five and a half years into our marriage before David was born. Twenty-two months later we had another boy, Michael.
David was a charming kid—handsome and bright—and he could get anyone to do just about anything. But there was something different about him. During those moments when I held David, it was as if he wasn’t really with me, as if his mind was somewhere else. A doctor once diagnosed him with dyslexia and hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin. We ended that relationship right away; we didn’t want David on drugs.
My honest working career lasted from 1959 until 1976. I was an early investor in the cable TV industry, among other ventures. In 1977, Wendy and I divorced, and I retired from the business world completely. I was forty at the time; David was eight and Michael was six. I had joint custody of my sons—one week on and one week off. The first week that I had the kids, I took them to Disney World. The following week, when Wendy had custody, I danced at Studio 54 for two days straight, except for a two-hour break.
I eventually got into acting and modeling and would spend a lot of time hanging out at the old Travis Restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston, holding court and taking calls on the pay phone from my agent. I lived at the Copley Plaza hotel and then moved into a two-bedroom apartment at the Prudential Tower.
When they were with me, David and Michael stayed in the bedroom next to mine. The boys knew I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, so whenever I left my apartment, I would dead-bolt my bedroom door and lock my bedroom closet to keep them from finding my pills. But by the time he was ten, David knew where I kept the drugs and how to get to them. In his bedroom, he removed the heating grille and found a way through the ductwork into my room. Once in my bedroom, he would pick the lock on the closet. I figured this out after a friend of mine, who was staying at the apartment, saw David in the ductwork. She saw him as she was stepping out of the shower.
David began living on his own when he was sixteen, in an apartment in Boston not far from mine. Soon after moving into that apartment, he overdosed on drugs. We took him to the hospital, where they pumped his stomach. At about this same time I finally had enough of my own drinking and drugging and stopped. But I couldn’t do anything to help David.
Twenty years later, I’ve become friendly with the woman who lived in the apartment across the hall from David’s during those years. She has told me how her mother wanted to adopt him. She remembers David as the sweetest, most lovable kid. But she also told me how he would break into my apartment, get my keys, and take my car to pick up Michael at school. She, too, knew he was wild.
David had a wonderful artistic sensibility. He pursued photography and went to Hawaii to work on his craft. He returned to Boston two years later, landing at my apartment and talking about a show he hoped to have presented in Provincetown through a connection he had made with Diane Arbus’s daughter. I never knew if he was telling the truth about the show, but within forty-eight hours he was driving me crazy, bringing people home at all hours of the night to that bedroom where he had climbed through the ductwork. Wendy had bought a tiny, two-bedroom shack on Plum Island, about an hour away on the North Shore of Massachusetts, so I told David to go there and stay for a while.
A couple of days later, I was shopping at the mall next to my apartment when I bumped into Wendy. She was on her way to lunch with a friend. We said hello to each other and went our separate ways. Then my cell phone rang, and it was Michael, my younger son. He had gone up to Plum Island to see David and found him in bed, not moving.
I found Wendy at the restaurant, and we drove to the shack. When we arrived, police cars were parked outside. We would learn that David had died of an overdose of prescription drugs. He didn’t leave a note. I went into the shack and opened the door to the bedroom where David was. But I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t bear seeing him dead. So I closed my eyes and shut the door.
David used to tell me that Michael was the one with the drug problem, but I didn’t think there was a chance of that. Then I came home one afternoon not long after David had died and found Michael on the walkway in front of my apartment building. He was hanging over the railing, unconscious. I tried to wake him. I tried to get him to walk. He looked horrific. I took him to the hospital, and the doctors told me he was in bad shape, that he’d been doing a lot of heroin for a long time.
Two days later, in the middle of the night, Michael left the hospital, walked out the front door in his johnny, and headed down the street toward his mom’s apartment, which was nearby. She wasn’t home, and the doorman wouldn’t let him in. So he walked back to the hospital, broke into a medicine cabinet, found something he liked, and shot it into his arm.
When I reached the hospital, a doctor was placing defibrillator paddles on Michael’s chest. I watched as the doctor jolted him with electricity, but Michael didn’t respond. “How the fuck is this happening to me?” I said to no one in particular. This was why I didn’t want to have kids.
The doctor put the paddles on him a second time, and Michael’s heart began beating. The doctor told me he didn’t know if Michael would make it through the night. He said I could stay if I wanted to, but that if Michael did live, he wouldn’t know where he was for days. I went home, and when I returned in the morning I found out Michael was still alive.
Michael amazes me. Over the last decade he has rebuilt his life around helping other people, devoting himself to saving drug addicts through interventions. Wendy seldom returned to the shack on Plum Island after David’s death, but Michael and I visited it regularly. Both of us wanted to keep the property in the family, so Wendy gifted it to Michael. I helped him design a new house that has since replaced the shack. It’s on the beach—three bedrooms and as much floor space as my apartment. It’s simple but gorgeous.
Years ago, when David was on his way back from Hawaii, he had stopped in Los Angeles for a day and met some friends. He was having lunch at an outdoor café in Beverly Hills when a stranger came over to his table and asked David if he could draw him. David apparently said yes and gave the artist Wendy’s home address. David died two weeks later, and then two weeks after that an envelope arrived in Wendy’s mailbox. It was a lovely black-and-white line drawing of David, signed and sent from California by an artist who turned out to be one of the head animators at Walt Disney Studios. Michael and I had that image tattooed on our backs, and we hung the original drawing at the entrance to the house on Plum Island. We spread some of David’s ashes on the beach in front of the house and keep the rest in an urn by the fireplace.
I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas on Plum Island this year. Michael visited the night before Thanksgiving. It was just the two of us. We ate dinner, and then we sat on the little second-floor balcony, smoking cigars, looking out over the beach, and watching the ocean.
Norm Appel graduated from the Wharton School of Finance in 1958 and then embarked on a Wall Street career that lasted from 1959 until his retirement in 1976. At that point he became a full-time parent for 50 percent of his time and a model and sometime actor for the other 50 percent. After his oldest son, David, passed away in 1993, he returned to a more active role in some of his manufacturing investments. He completely retired from business in 2004 and now spends his time modeling and going on auditions.
“Plum Island” is excerpted from The Good Men Project Book. Buy the book here.
photo: jamiesrabbits / flickr