We think of Mother’s Day as a time set apart to recognize the uniqueness of a mother’s role in the family and to tangibly show appreciation for all she does. There are flowers, gifts, dinner out and a respite from the daily routine of making sure everyone else’s needs are met. It’s supposed to be a good thing.
But for mothers who have lost a child, Mother’s Day remains a time of remembrance and, often, of much pain. Thankfully, as in the case of the Swanson family, healing can come with time and with faith.
“It’s not a pain that ever leaves you,” says Kelly Swanson, the mother of Christopher Swanson who, at the age of 24, gave his life in service to his country as an army staff sergeant in Ramadi, Iraq, on July 22, 2006. “You don’t ever get over it, but you can work through it. My faith tells me I will see Chris again, and I have his father, his brother Kenneth, and his children, and a large group of soldiers who have become welcomed surrogate family members. I may not have Chris here with me, but I am still very blessed to be his mother.”
The Swanson family has resided in Rose Haven in deep Southern Anne Arundel County for more than 20 years. Kelly is about to retire from the Department of Justice and Chris’ father, Gary Swanson, recently retired as a detective in the D.C. police department. There is a gold star in their front window and in many rooms around the house, on the back of a trailer in the driveway, on the back of an SUV (along with Chris’ picture) and on the license plate of every vehicle belonging to the family. They are a Gold Star family, and they are close-knit.
“We rallied around what was soon to become our motto,” says Kelly. “A soldier only dies if they are forgotten. We were not going to let Chris be forgotten.”
“And we got busy giving back,” says Gary Swanson. “We started a survivor outreach foundation in Chris’ name to assist soldiers in healing from the stresses of combat. We provide a safe haven for them to stay and counseling for the entire family should they wish it. We award scholarships in Chris’ name to young people who demonstrate leadership values that were important to our son.”
But it wasn’t easy at first. Mama K, as the soldiers in Chris’ unit call Kelly now, first looked to see who needed her the most.
“I felt their pain,” she says. “And I kept asking myself, how will my husband make it without his son? How will Kenneth cope with the loss of his brother?”
“It was a punch in the gut,” Kenneth says about the day the family found out that Chris had died. “I was looking forward to him coming home and catching up like we usually did. We would head to the movie theater or go fishing or just hang out. And not only that, but the next time he was due home he was going to be best man in my wedding. It was devastating, but we pushed through to be present for each other from day one. It’s the little things that matter.”
Kenneth remembers the little things that Chris did throughout the years that helped him to look up to his big brother.
“He would write Mom little notes,” Kenneth says. “Simple things: I love you or You’re the best, mom. I know she really liked getting them, so I copied him. He was always showing me the way. Anytime he would learn something important — like a life lesson — he would share it with me. I got the talk about girls about five minutes after he got the talk about girls. That’s just the way he was: always thinking of others.”
Now, with Mother’s Day approaching, son Kenneth has arranged to take his mother to a concert. Not just any concert: It’s a music group that meant a lot to Chris. In fact, they recorded his favorite song, I Can Only Imagine. It’s a song by Mercy Me that asks what everyone wants to know when faced with the inevitability of death: What will life be like after life here?
“Chris loved that song,” Gary says. “One day I was sitting out by the water and looking up to heaven to talk with him. I told him, Your mom is having a rough day and needs to know you are thinking about her. About three o’clock in the morning the clock radio next to the bed turned on out of the blue — it wasn’t even set — and the chorus to I Can Only Imagine was playing. That clock radio was only used for the alarm. It was never set to a station. That was an unexpected blessing.”
Mother’s Day is quickly followed by Memorial Day. You can only imagine how this time of year affects a mother who has lost a soldier. Kelly sums it up.
“I can bear it when someone says, Happy Mother’s Day! In fact, I truly do have a happy Mother’s Day because I still have Kenneth and my grandchildren. But I never ever have a happy Memorial Day. It’s not the same.”
Gold Star Mother Kelly Swanson adds her presence to this year’s Stars and Stripes Festival, Chesapeake Beach’s annual three-day Memorial Day commemoration: Opening Ceremonies 10am Sat., May 25 at Veterans Memorial Park, Chesapeake Beach.