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In the face of tragedy, parents choose joy … and write about it

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Cameron Swanson in his 4-year-old photo. It was the last portrait his parents had taken of him, in December 2003. Cameron died in May 2004, after a brick wall collapsed on top of him near his family’s new farm house. Contributed Photo 2 / 3
The Swanson family of Cloquet includes dad Chris, mom Natalie, and Caleb, Emma, Grace, Gavin and dog Jack. 3 / 3

Chris and Natalie Swanson of Cloquet are many things to the people who know them: teacher, coach, daycare provider, high school sweethearts, joyful, loving parents, mother and father to a lost son and survivors of tragedy.

Being joyful was a conscious decision the couple made on May 19, 2004, after their 4-year-old son Cameron was killed in an accident at their home. Despite their devastation, Natalie and Chris decided to look on the joyful side of life and carry that joy with them through troubled times ahead.

“It was a short, but really good life for him,” Chris said about Cameron. “He was adventurous; he liked to have fun just like any other kid. Everything is new to them, and everything is a new adventure.”

Eleven years after Cameron’s death, Chris and Natalie, now both 38 years old, published their book “Choosing Joy, Our Walk Through Tragedy” as a way to help others know they aren’t dealing with hard situations alone. The book tells their story in great detail, and how they stuck together as a family and put their faith in God to help bring them through tragedy.

The book, published early in September, will be available at a book launch hosted by the couple from 6-8 p.m. Friday, Sept 25, at Good Hope Church located at 55 Armory Road, Cloquet.

The Swansons said their goal with this book isn’t to tell everyone what happened to them, it’s about showing others they aren’t in this alone.

“We believe in heaven and we believe in God being able to redeem us in all the junk that happens in our lives. That’s a big deal,” Chris said. “And hopefully through this (book) people will get a taste of that, get a sense of that. And our hope is just to be a help.”

“To pass on hope,” Natalie said, finishing Chris’s sentence.

“And also to let people know it’s OK to grieve and cry,” said Chris.

THE ACCIDENT

In early May 2004 Natalie and Chris moved from their lifelong hometown of Cloquet to an old dairy farm in Moose Lake. The couple, along with Cameron, their second son, Gavin, and infant daughter, Emma, moved to the property with Natalie’s parents after her father retired. The family decided to fix up the old farmstead featuring a barn, pole barn, milk house, old dog kennel and lots of open space.

Natalie wrote in their book: “Cameron was quick to scout the place out and enjoyed the freedom of running without caution. We were surrounded by rolling hills that would be hayed each summer … This was quite different from all the cars and busy streets we were accustomed to.”

While fixing up the yard and making the farm their own, Natalie and Chris decided to tear down the old dog kennel. A cement slab and rows of small brick walls provided an area where dogs would have freedom to run outside.

On Wednesday, May 19, 2004, Natalie and Chris were surrounded by family and helping hands to get their new property fixed up. Natalie, who was home at the time of the accident, recalls the day in “Choosing Joy” as a sunny day full of work and prosperity.

After giving Cameron, Caleb and their cousin Alex a ride behind the family ATV, she dropped them off on the concrete slab of the old dog kennel for a safe place to play while the adults worked.

“The place I put the boys to keep them safe became the most dangerous place on the property,” Natalie recalls in “Choosing Joy.”

While a family member worked to take down the remaining fence and brick walls along the dog kennel, the first wall became less stable and collapsed into another. Creating a domino effect, the walls toppled into each other and onto the boys playing at the other end.

Cameron was hit with most of the force from the falling walls, knocking him unconscious and giving him severe internal injuries. After being taken to Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake by ambulance, Cameron died from his injuries.

“It didn’t take long to figure out that the doctors didn’t have much hope,” said Chris, who was at work during the accident.

“They (the doctors) let us see him,” Chris said. “They had cleaned his face, wiped all the mud off, cleaned his arms … He looked peaceful, like he was sleeping. But I knew he was gone. I knew he had passed.”

CHOOSING JOY

The night of Cameron’s death Natalie and Chris returned home to a household of family and friends.

“There were lots of tears, a little laughter, people trying to console,” Chris said. “And at some point I was so exhausted, I just had to go to bed, and we sent everyone away.”

“It was a very emotional night,” Natalie added.

Chris cleaned up toys, paper and clothes from Cameron’s room, stating that he was half fearing his other children would wander into his room and get hurt on something.

“I felt this need to protect our family,” he said.

Natalie said they spent the rest of the night praying, crying and being there for each other.

“I remember someone telling us, days later or before, I can’t remember, about the problems parents face after a tragedy. They don’t really connect anymore, they stop communicating and grow apart. Bitterness can set in, just some bad things that will divide families,” Chris said. “The common, sad reality is that too often tragedies like this end in divorce, or substance abuse, and just devastates the entire family.

“So it stirred in me, we have to make a choice, we have to decide what is going to happen, and it needs to happen soon. Tonight,” Chris continued.

“This was all the same night, that night,” Natalie said.

The night Cameron died.

“If we go down that road...,” Chis said. “...It’s going to be destructive,” Natalie finished for him.

“You can be as mad as you want, and want to know why as badly as you want, but it’s not ever going to change. So you either sit in that spot forever or you try to move on,” Natalie added.

Not willing to let tragedy destroy their family, Chris and Natalie made the decision to remember the good in life and focus on the joy.

“We talked, we prayed, we cried, and we decided that despite how awful this experience was, we were going to consciously make a choice to be joyful as much as we could,” said Chris. “We’re still going to grieve, but we were going to remember his life, and his joy.”

“We still had a lot of tough times afterwards,” said Natalie. “It wasn’t like we made that decision that night at it was all OK.”

As the years passed, Natalie wrote down memories of their son, and the couple shared their story of loss with others. Natalie spoke with many mothers and church groups about their tragic day, and said there were countless times she was asked to repeat the story for someone else, or was told someone wished the story was written down.

After making the decision to officially write the book in December 2014, the couple hopes to share their journey through loss with others. The book, published by WestBow Press on Sept. 8. 2015, is available on Amazon, and through WestBow Press’ website.

Books will also be available for purchase at Friday’s book signing.

“I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to do this and actually have it go through and make a difference,” Chris said. “People from other states we don’t know have bought our book and been touched, and it’s strange but good to know we might be having an impact.”

“We’ve been talking about this for so long and now that it’s out there it’s kind of weird,” said Natalie, laughing. “When it went to print I had a pit in my stomach of nervousness and thought, ‘What did we just do?’”

The title, “Choosing Joy” comes from the decision they made the night of Cameron’s death.

Chris and Natalie said they hope it will have a positive impact on readers.

“I hope it touches their hearts,” Natalie said.

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