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A survivor travels ahead (Kirkwood Mayor Swoboda)

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  • A survivor travels ahead (Kirkwood Mayor Swoboda)

    KIRKWOOD — Sue Swoboda calls their beloved trips whiplash tours.

    As young as age 2, her son, Michael Swoboda Jr., was studying maps. As soon as he could drive, the two-day excursions with his father began.

    Michael drove down lesser-known roads — never taking the same route back — while his dad, Mike Swoboda, snoozed until they reached their destinations. Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The fieldhouse at Kansas State, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last speech on a college campus.



    On Feb. 7, Mike, 69, bought tickets for a trip to cap them all. The two would go to Ireland in the spring. It was Sue’s idea. Michael, 34, would be graduating with a master’s degree in graphic design from Notre Dame. Mike would be ending years of public service, the last eight as Kirkwood’s mayor.

    The father and son talked excitedly over the phone about the trip several times that day. But by evening, Ireland had become an impossibility, and another journey — a hellish one that no one could have predicted — had begun.

    ***

    A gunman barged into Kirkwood’s City Council meeting. By the time the last shot was fired, five public servants and their killer were dead.

    Michael drove from South Bend, Ind., through the snow, to the hospital.

    When Michael saw his father, he was shocked. The mayor’s white hair was crusty. His head seemed twice its normal size. His eyes were slits.

    He had been shot twice in the head — once through his left cheekbone, once through the back of his head. He was in a coma, and Sue didn’t think her husband of nearly 42 years was going to live. Michael wouldn’t consider that possibility.

    "They said he might die," he said, "but something switched on that the only attitude to take was a positive one."

    He kissed his father on his forehead, his shoulder, his chest, then his forehead again. The sheen on his dad’s skin tasted of blood and sweat and medicine.

    Michael and his family and one of their closest friends, former deputy mayor Tom Noonan, kept vigil at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center. Together, they worried and grieved and hoped.

    "I came to think of it as temporary brothers and sisters in need of good news and a shower," Michael said.

    They found solace and humor in a coffee machine in the intensive-care unit waiting room. They would talk and plan as it spat out a thick brew the men labeled "dirty good."

    "At the end of every cup, you get some free soil," Noonan quipped.

    One day, Noonan brought his 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, directly from her gymnastics class. They moved furniture in the waiting room so she could perform flips and other feats. Michael and Noonan applauded her and offered scores. Laughter helped.

    One day, they found unexpected humor in the mayor’s room. He had come out of his coma, and though a tracheal tube limited his ability to talk, he motioned Michael and Noonan toward him. His blue eyes were wide open, urgent.

    "You guys gotta get me out of here," he said.

    ***

    Feb. 27 was glorious. The mayor took his first steps since the shooting. He tried liquid food. He remembered how to pronounce his own name. And it was his last day in the hospital. It was time to move to a rehabilitation center.

    "He had graduated from the hospital," Michael said, "and because there was no certificate to prove it, I thought that I would give him his own procession."

    He dressed his father in a "more elegant hospital gown," put him in his wheelchair and wheeled him down a series of corridors, back to the ICU. When the medical staff saw him, some seemed stunned, some tried to hide tears.

    "He was alert, smiling and sitting up straight — nothing like the man they knew weeks before," Michael said.

    They shook his hand and wished him well. Over and over, the mayor told them they were invited to the house for a party.

    "He wanted to make sure they knew he was grateful," Michael said.

    On the way back to his room, Michael told his father he was his valedictorian.

    ***

    Michael brought pots, dirt and seeds to his father’s room at St. John’s Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital. He planted sunflowers, zinnias and tomatoes in hopes of having his dad care for them.

    Wanting to build on Mike’s work in rehab, Noonan brought a bag of surprises — a roll of tape, toy soldiers and a glass train. He and Michael would ask the mayor what they were, what they did, how they felt.

    They quizzed Mike on the names of the first three presidents, on shapes and on months. Michael made his dad a color-coded chart to keep track of visitors; blue for family, green for friends.

    The mayor’s attempts at writing were mostly limited to scribbling, though more than once he’d taken a pen and moved it across the page with great flourish, as if signing a proclamation. But on March 1, he wrote words and a message.

    With Michael and Noonan in the room, he composed a note on yellow paper, in red, upper-case letters. "ALL," he wrote, referring to his son and friend, "I LOVE YOU."

    Michael and Noonan high-fived each other.

    "It was like dude night," said Michael who now carries the folded, dated memento in his wallet.

    The mayor left the rehab hospital for home March 26.

    During their last trip together, to Kansas in January, Michael snapped a photo of his father at the National Tallgrass Prairie Reserve.

    It was the last photo he took of his father before the shootings. It caught a dear moment like so many others his father has had on their excursions.

    "He gets in these blissed-out, mesmerized states," Michael said. At sites rich in history and emotion, he tears up, so Michael points to a tree or up a stairwell and teasingly tells his dad to go have his cry.

    Friday evening, as Sue and the Swoboda men sat at the family’s dining room table, Michael quizzed his dad on their travels, to trigger words and memories and to relive them himself.

    "Do you remember where that is, Dad?" Michael asked, pointing to a photo.

    "Yeah," Mike answered. "It’s real close to Columbia."

    "Whose birthplace did you see that day, Dad?"

    "Truman."

    "Did you tear up?"

    "Ohhh ..."

    "How about New Harmony, Indiana, Dad?"

    "The Wabash River," Mike responded. "It was three days after Christmas."

    "How ‘bout you tell me if you cried or not at Lincoln’s birthplace?" Michael asked.

    "I cried. Leave me alone. I cried."

    "Dad," Michael went on, "who re-enacted the Battle of Shiloh at sunrise one very cold winter morning?"

    "You and I did," his dad answered.

    The two took turns telling stories about the journeys they had shared, like the time at Notre Dame when the mayor, in a dark turtleneck, was twice mistaken for a priest.

    "One man said, ‘Good morning, Father,’" Mike recalled. "I said, ‘You have a nice day, my son.’"

    But he didn’t dare keep up the ruse when two nuns thought the same. "I said, ‘Hey sisters, I am not of the Catholic church. My son has been accepted here. But bless you anyway.’ And they laughed and they giggled all the way to where they went."

    Michael told of a trip they took to Chicago with his ex-girlfriend and her son, Funizwe, a 9-year-old Michael’s parents think of as their grandson. While in a museum, the mayor wound up a small toy car and sent it scurrying across the floor.

    "Funi thought you were God," Michael said.

    "I remember that," his dad said, smiling. "We had a ball."

    Last week, Michael wondered aloud whether there would be any more trips.

    Friday night, the mayor assured his family there would.

    "This summer," he said with conviction. "Funi is going to catch a trout. He is going to catch a trout."

    Michael smiled at the notion of them taking another fishing trip, and at his dad’s eagerness to resume their travels.

    It’s not so much the places they see, Michael explained, a map spread on his lap. "The special part of the trips for me are the parts in between."

    Michael suggested a second trip, to Oklahoma to see the skyscraper Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Bartlesville. And Woody Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. And Lubbock, Texas, where the mayor once lived and had a girlfriend whom his wife, Sue, likes to tease him about. "Let’s go to Oklahoma then," the mayor agreed. "Between Christmas and New Year’s."

    Michael leaned over the map and plotted a course.

    http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/new...8?OpenDocument

    Glad to hear of his progress. I was sure he wasn't going to make it.

  • #2
    That is indeed good news.
    Turning the other cheek is better than burying the other body.

    Official Sport Lounge Sponsor of Rhode Island - Quincy Jones - Yadier Molina who knows no fear.
    God is stronger and the problem knows it.

    2017 BOTB bracket

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