One year ago today, I walked into Brad Swenson’s apartment and found him dead, still in bed, at the age of 57.
There was no indication he knew what was happening; he was lying on his back, his sleep apnea mask still on his face. If he had been in distress, he would have pushed that mask away, because he hated the darn thing. I’m glad he was unaware, because he would have thought dying really sucked after all the other crap he’d gone through.
I cleaned his apartment out after he died, and I found half a dozen advanced care directives, none of them filled out. He was one of the few people I know who I think would have wanted pretty much any means necessarily to be taken to prolong his life, as I think he would have wanted to live no matter what. Not because he was afraid of dying, but because he enjoyed living, and while he didn’t have a healthy body, he had his mind, and he used it.
Brad, who was most recently political editor and opinion page editor for the Bemidji Pioneer, worked there for most of his adult life. We are not related, by the way; one of my first assignments for the Pioneer was to cover a political forum for the 2004 election. Brad covered one forum, and I covered the other. Someone later cooed, “Isn’t it nice that Brad and his wife are working together?” We got a kick out of that.
Brad found out he had diabetes at the age of 30. More than a decade later, his failing kidneys forced him to undergo three days a week of dialysis, which he worked in around his schedule. He was an old-school journalist who worked long hours, insisted that things be done right, and always appreciated a free meal. He lived for his work. Journalism, and writing in general, formed much of his identity.
The rest, a lot of people know, but a lot of others don’t.
Here are some things that Brad Swenson enjoyed, in no particular order except for how they come into my head. It is by no means expected to be a complete list. I’m sure I forgot lots of things, and there are plenty I don’t know. But I know some, so here goes:
Star Trek. He was a huge Star Trek fan. His kitchen cupboards were topped by starships, he owned hundreds of Star Trek books, audio books and movies, and every year he bought the Hallmark Star Trek ornament. I found in his belongings a Star Trek script he wrote with a friend, who I’ve been working on locating to see if he wants it. I haven’t read it yet, come to think of it.
Itasca State Park. Brad loved going to Lake Bemidji State Park, but he had a special place in his heart for Itasca. He loved to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi, have a nice meal there, and take in the beauty of his surroundings. He collected plates and cups from the park, usually buying one item each year. He was super-happy last year to get the chance to go to the park, when a good Samaritan gave him and another guy in a wheelchair an outing to Itasca. I’m glad he got that trip.
Norwegian stuff. Brad enjoyed his Norwegian heritage. He got involved in the Sons of Norway a few years before he died, and somehow found himself doing the organization’s newsletter. He took the job seriously and enjoyed it very much, although issues with his arm and hand meant he was a true member of the hunt-and-peck club, so he eventually started using voice-to-text software.
As a good Norwegian, he loved going to the Syttende Mai celebration each year. Last year, the celebration fell at a time when he was just starting to be able to put more weight on his broken leg, so I was able to take him in my car and push him in a regular wheelchair (he used a motorized one most of the time, but it was not portable). He had a great time that night, listening to famed Norwegian pianist-accordian player Knut Erik Jensen, and having a delicious meal. He bought a CD from Jensen on the way out, as well as Arland Fiske’s latest book.
Books. Brad loved to read, and he loved to own books. He had dozens of books he never got the chance to read. Not surprisingly, many were about politics, government and history, as well as science fiction. He had books by local authors such as Fiske, Kent Nerburn and Annie Henry. I kept his autographed copy of Henry’s book; I agreed with him that she is one impressive woman with great stories and great passion.
I also have “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist” by Laurie Hertzel, who was a reporter in his native Duluth, at the Duluth News Tribune. I met her last year during the Bemidji Library Book Festival, and I wish I’d grabbed that book so I could have had it autographed for him.
I wish a lot things about Brad, in terms of the experiences he missed out on. If I had known he had so little time left, I would have tried to make sure he got to do some of the things he really wanted to. But I guess I’d always thought in the back of my mind that if Brad died, he would go slowly, with some warning. He made it through his first ordeal of 2011, when he was taken to the hospital with astonishingly high blood sugar and a blood infection and whatever else, and barely pulled through. Then we moved him from his trailer to Northland Apartments, a senior citizens’ apartment building, where he was recovering with a walker. Ten days into that, he fell and broke his leg — on my birthday, June 6, the day before he was to return to work. Back to the hospital, then to rehab, then to the nursing home. Eventually, he made enough of a stink that they let him go home with his electric wheelchair, which he rode all over the place. Pioneer photographer Monte Draper captured a photo of Brad in that chair, bundled up against the cold and snow, looking determined to make it home.
He went to many places in Bemidji in that chair, and when he couldn’t, he took the bus. I occasionally walked with him to nearby Walmart and hung his grocery bags on the back handles of his chair. One trip I took photos of him with enough bags to fill the trunk of a car.
But back to the list …
Food. There was no questioning Brad’s love of food. He loved a good steak, with a good cocktail. That’s what he had the night before he died, which makes me happy. He also loved klub (potato dumplings), especially if it had a piece of ham tucked into the center, and lefse.
His weakness was sweets: mini doughnuts from the carnival, cookies from Raphael’s, Rice Krispie bars, candy, you name it. He could never tame his sweet tooth, which hurt him both in terms of weight and diabetes. He was sheepish and defiant about it at the same time.
Rotary. Brad was a proud member of the Sunrise Rotary Club and was very active in Rotary, both locally and in his travels to regional meetings. He loved every minute of his Rotary involvement and was very supportive of his club. He also enjoyed being a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and displayed several beautiful grouse prints he either bought or won through the organization.
Awards. Brad was an award-winning journalist, and he enjoyed it. It’s always fulfilling and pleasant to be honored for your work, and he was honored often. His proudest moment was winning the Premack Graven Award, which gives special recognition to a journalist for contribution to excellence in the journalism profession. It was the most prestigious of the three Premack awards he received from the University of Minnesota Journalism Center. He also received the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Herman Roe Editorial Writing Award and was named Ag Communicator of the Year by the Minnesota Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau award was presented in New Orleans in a trip that brought him great joy, along with a love for Community Coffee.
Politicians. Brad enjoyed dealing with politicians his entire adult life. People often encouraged him to write a book about his experiences, but he said he wouldn’t remember enough of the details. We said it would be enough to remember the people themselves — what he got from his interactions with Sen. Paul Wellstone, for example. He talked often about interviews he had and the stories (yes, often plural), columns and blog posts he could get out of them. He was a political expert, and former Sen. Frank Moe once told me that he would often turn to Brad for information, because he figured if anyone would remember, it would be him. Brad enjoyed his relationships with local politicians, and as a political reporter he was one of a dying breed in small-town newspapers.
TV. After Brad’s first broken leg, he eventually retired from the Pioneer. He broke the leg again during physical therapy, which was a frustrating setback for him as he was getting closer and closer to walking again. And there would be one more break, and one more stint in the hospital and nursing home, caused by an accident with his electric wheelchair when he fell asleep at the wheel.
Why, you might ask? I blame TV, somewhat facetiously. After his retirement, he had the chance to see all the TV shows he missed when he was working nights. He had favorites like the Mentalist, NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, etc., and would watch reruns late at night as well as his prime-time shows. He would fall asleep watching these shows, and would forget to put his sleep apnea mask on.
I can understand why you might not want to put the mask on when you weren’t ready to go to sleep, but it became a vicious circle, because he was so tired from the lack of good sleep, that he’d fall asleep relatively quickly. I had been noticing that he’d doze off during conversations at night during visits, which reminded me of the times before his sleep study when his head would bow at work and snoring would commence. Like others who have used a mask for sleep apnea, the difference was amazing once he started getting a good night’s sleep.
People. Brad was so interested in people. When I spoke at his funeral, I told the story of how I dragged my mom along to a visit with him one day at Nielson Place. She protested, saying she didn’t know him, but I said we’d only stay a few minutes and she could take a look at the nursing home, which is beautiful.
We ended up staying an hour and a half and had a great visit. “Brad is so *interesting*,” she said after that visit. And he was. He was really interesting, and could talk for hours. Part of that is because he was also really interested in the other people. He wanted to know what made people tick, how they got to their conclusions, what their experiences were. He didn’t necessarily gush over people, but he admired them just the same. I never heard him wish anything bad on anyone, and he said a lot of good things about a lot of people.
At his mother’s funeral several years ago, he thanked his Pioneer family. At his own funeral, his aunt Florence reiterated that we were family to him. And we were. He was an only child without relatives that were nearby, and he took a lot of joy in the work relationships he had.
In Brad’s last year, I spent a lot of time with him, visiting, watching TV, helping him clean his apartment, setting up his medications. I knew he enjoyed company, so sometimes I would take my laptop there and do some freelance writing while he watched TV. I figured that’s what I’d be doing at home anyway, so I may as well do it over there.
The day he died, my granddaughter and I had spent the afternoon swimming and then headed over to Brad’s for a visit in the early evening. Jada liked to visit Brad; she’d drag us into the craft room at the apartment building or get him to give her a treat from his fridge. Once, we played The Settlers of Catan with him.
He hadn’t answered his phone, so I was a little concerned, but he didn’t always carry it when he went around the building. And on Sundays, he often went for afternoon coffee downstairs. The manager let me in when he didn’t respond to being buzzed at the door.
I’ve never found anyone dead before. it wasn’t really traumatic at the time; I didn’t even know he was dead at first. I just knew I couldn’t wake him. I kept thinking, what if I’d gotten there sooner? But the paramedics later said he’d been gone for quite a while. One of the hardest things was calling people and telling them the bad news and feeling their pain and disbelief.
I should have written a blog post after that, but I didn’t. I was kind of numb over the whole thing and just set to cleaning up and packing stuff. I meant to write; I had all sorts of ideas in my head, but they just blurred in the aftermath. In fact, this is the first blog post I’ve written since a few weeks before Brad’s death. Until now, the top image on my blog has been my granddaughter delighting in an attraction at the Beltrami County Fair in 2012. It’s been a tough year. First Brad, then my ex had a stroke, then I had shingles, then my dad had a fall and landed in the hospital and nursing home, and then I ended up moving in with my parents to help them. And too many funerals for too many people I cared about. Even this month, I’ve gone to two funerals.
Anyway, the cleaning and packing was therapeutic for me; I like to help, and it was meaningful. I respect the sentimental value of things, both in what they mean to others and what they meant to the person. I kept some little things to remember him by, like a nesting doll and his Roger Moe bobblehead, and then there’s the tiny plastic Garfield and Ode (Brad was a Garfield fan) who still ride in a little cubbyhole in my car, just beneath and to the left of my steering wheel. I’m reminded of Brad when I see them. That’s what they’re there for.
The night before he died, Brad went out with our friend Betty and her husband and daughter to the Peppercorn, where Brad had steak and Long Island tea. He had a great time, and before he went to bed he talked to one of the apartment building managers, who said he was in good spirits. I’m glad he enjoyed his last night, and that he spent it with people he really cared about.
But it remains weird and sad that he’s gone. I was so used to going over there for coffee anytime I felt like it. He was always glad for the company, and the talks were always good. We laughed a lot, shared some grumbles, and I ate way too many Rice Krispie bars and drank way too much coffee.
Just before Christmas, my son, Nick, and Jada and I had Christmas dinner and opened gifts with Brad. I sneaked into his storage locker down the hall and dug out his tiny Christmas tree and decorations and set up the tree. He was so surprised! He said he hadn’t set it up for 20 years. We had a really nice time.
Shortly before he died, Brad did an interview for a story he never got the chance to write. It was going to be an in-depth freelance article for a client other than the Pioneer. He was excited to expand his freelance writing career; he was looking forward to continuing the work he loved. He knew he still had something to offer.
Someone told me after he died that she didn’t think he had a good life; she didn’t think he was happy.
She was wrong. Brad had a great life. It could have been so much better, and a lot of people would have thought that kind of life would suck, but every day, Brad maneuvered himself into his clothes and slid himself out of bed and into that wheelchair because he had a life that meant something to him and he wanted to make something out of it.
Can’t we all relate to that?
I miss you, friend.