Norman Epstein: Father. Doctor. Mentor. Social activist. Born March 10, 1958, in Sydney, N.S.; died March 4, 2021, in Thornhill, Ont., of a heart attack, aged 62.
A few days after my father’s funeral I walked into his office, looking for a piece of him. A room once filled with laughter, joy and fatherly wisdom was now a shrine to the man he was and I was hoping to find a memento.
His medical degree was framed and mounted, alongside a plaque commemorating 35 years of service to Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, where he saved lives in the ER throughout the pandemic. His work, however, extended far beyond the walls of that hospital.
Growing up in Nova Scotia, Norman learned early what it meant to look out for your neighbours. His father, Buddy Epstein, a dentist, cared for his community regardless of social status or economic standing. This influence continued until Norman’s death.
In 1985, he graduated medical school from the University of Ottawa and moved to Toronto to do his residency. He found his calling in emergency medicine, tending to patients in moments of vulnerability and fear. He was known for his good humour and for looking people in the eye and making them feel appreciated no matter their role: orderly, technician, nurse or fellow physician.
After an hour in his office, I came to realize Dad was a minimalist. Not in the sense of a clean room – there were papers everywhere – but in the sense that he had no valuable possessions. He saw no need for them.
Searching through his desk drawers, I only found pens without caps and caps without pens. I remembered how he often forgot where he put his glasses – nine times out of 10 they were on his forehead. Then I noticed the chair I was sitting on had a compartment underneath its cushion. Here I found a scrapbook. I flipped through it and found a letter of appreciation from the White House for his work in Darfur, Sudan. There were newspaper op-eds he wrote, medical journal articles he published and letters from Canadian senators thanking him for his devotion to humanitarianism. His countless efforts to make the world a better place were evident in a scrapbook I didn’t even know existed. Tears filled my eyes. The greatest memento of my father was not an expensive trinket but something that tells the story of a life devoted to helping others.
Through the clutter on his desk, I noticed that a photo of our family stood out clearly. Although he put the world on his shoulder he made sure his family was on top.
My father met my mom, Iris Keysari, through an online registry (back in 1995 before dating apps). It only took one phone call to realize he found his match – even if she was 500 kilometres away in Montreal. Eventually, they moved in together in Toronto and married in 1997. As Norman was still grieving the recent loss of his own father, he wanted to start his family soon. I was born in 1998 and my sister, Chantelle, followed in 2002.
As a child, no matter how focused Dad was on his work, when I walked into his study he would stop and I knew I had his full attention. He often worked into the night, and the family knew he’d fallen asleep in front of the TV when roaring snores shook the whole house. But when the TV was turned off, he was startled awake and cried out: “I was watching that!”
Now the quietness of the house makes me miss those late-night snores and the company it would bring when I study late at night.
Norman’s legacy is not just what he accomplished but the kindness he showed others, and how that kindness will continue to be paid forward. As I begin medical school, I will carry my father’s scrapbook with me as a reminder of the man he was, and the man I’d like to become.
Maor Epstein is Norman’s son.
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