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Sunday, 27 March 2022

A good man died on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Stephen Lee Swanda (born 9.10.60) passed away at home after nearly three years of kidney failure and its complications. In addition to me (Jodie Lynn Zdrok), he leaves behind a son, Adam and his partner, Haylee; a daughter, Kate, her husband, Paul, and a grandson, Logan; and three cats who loved him almost as much as I did.

This is a tribute, not an obituary, because I want to share who he was through my lens. So let me tell you about Steve. It’s a hard thing to do, to distill a man’s life to 1400 words knowing much will be left unsaid. But we’ll start here: A refined and reserved man who opened up to very few, he had a kind heart and a beautiful mind. He was brilliantly creative yet analytical, mild-mannered and emotionally intelligent. Life handed him quite a few lemons, and most of the time, he made ginger tea with lemon out of them.

Steve was born in Lincoln, NE (“I’m just a farm boy from Nebraska,” he’d say), and his family moved to Minnesota when he was a teen. From there he found his way to Connecticut, where he met and married Pauline (Badeau) and raised Adam and Kate. He always spoke of Pauline as a smart, kind soul who was a loving wife and mother. He cared for her when she passed away from scleroderma in 2002. He said he also wanted to be known as “someone who raised two good kids and enjoyed coaching their teams.”

In addition to coaching, he gave back to his community by being a volunteer fireman. Years later, when he moved to West Springfield, MA he joined The Rotary Club, where he served as Vice President and President.

He graduated from Hennepin Community College, and his career included business development in the technology and security industries, network consulting, sales engineering, and a brief stint as a technology instructor. Most recently, Steve was in a business development role for Nortek Security/Nice.

Steve had a dry sense of humor with deadpan delivery. Although he’d jokingly refer to himself as a “clumsy athlete” and a “sometimes off-key singer,” he was in fact more than capable on both fronts. He played baseball, basketball, wrestling, and football in his younger days and liked riding his bike on trails later in life. Steve loved Boston sports teams but especially the Patriots, and he was a proud season ticketholder in old Gillette. He was also a NASCAR fan (go Chase Elliott!) and enjoyed a stock car driving experience several years ago. Steve was also an avid fisherman over the decades, from fly fishing in Montana to freshwater and ocean fishing in North Carolina and Florida with my father in recent years.

He absolutely loved music, particularly classic rock and jazz. Our nightly ritual was to listen to music during dinner, and he especially loved having dinner outside on the patio in warmer months. He played the guitar and picked up a dulcimer-style instrument in Asheville in 2020 (we sang “You Are My Sunshine” over and over again that weekend, because it was the easiest song to learn). Taking in live music, whether it was a concert in the park, our favorite jazz club, or a restaurant hosting a band, was one of his favorite recreational activities. He bought me a piano for Christmas 2021, and I know I’ll think of him every time I play it. What a wonderful way to take care of me.

If Steve cooked or baked for you, you were in luck. His teenage stint as a short-order cook made him a breakfast master, and he also excelled at comfort foods and grilling (my parents coined one particular grilled veggie dish “Steve’s vegetables”). He loved to bake breads and made the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever had. During his final hospital stay, he was being treated for malnutrition, among other things, because his body rejected food. But that didn’t keep him from watching the Food Network, The Cooking Channel, or assembling one last bucket list of foods to indulge in (and he did).

In late 2020 he began a new hobby, model making. It brought together his passion for cars with his affinity for working with his hands. He became very proficient and liked the challenge of detail work and trying new techniques. And while we’re on the topic, his favorite owned car was a black ’96 Mustang convertible, and his dream car was a ‘69 Jaguar XKE.

Steve was my muse. I dedicated SPECTACLE to him (for always encouraging me to “roar and soar”) and to my parents. I bounced ideas off him constantly. We even wrote a 10-minute play together, DISEMBARK, and we had the joy of seeing it performed at The MacDuffie School several years ago. He was wonderfully imaginative and used to say he’d come up with the ideas and I’d add my poetry to them. All I know is I will miss turning to him to share and co-create.

Steve was an animal lover. His favorite dogs were his first dog, Pepper and his beloved dog, Travis, who was his family dog in Connecticut. Of our past cats, Stasiu Kitty saw him as competition, so Steve’s attempts at friendship were rebuffed, but he and Max were best buds. Minnie (17.5 years!) was his little chunky purr bundle, and he loved it when she walked along the back of the sofa to give him a head bump. He considered Paris Poe “the greatest cat who ever lived” (likely true) and is responsible for convincing me to keep Little Man, the gray kitten I found on a run, whom he then renamed Dorian Gray once it was official.

We didn’t get to travel everywhere we wanted to, not even close. But we made it to Paris, Turks and Caicos, Montreal, and the Bahamas. After moving from Northampton, MA to Raleigh, NC in 2018 we did some regional travel, including Charleston, the Outer Banks, Beaufort, and Asheville. We also took in the sunshine on many trips to Vero Beach, FL to visit my parents.

Living in Raleigh offered a whole new world: better weather, better jobs, a better apartment, and a fun, fast-growing area with plenty to see and do. We loved it here and felt like we were on top of the world with this new chapter.

Our path changed when Steve was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2019. Months later he began dialysis, and several months after that, he began a five-month journey that included six progressive amputations and a multitude of procedures. After he was discharged in April 2021 following bilateral amputations, we spent the next eleven months both enjoying the heck out of life (baseball games, concerts, the rodeo, Patriots game, Bruins game, WWE event, a trip to Beaufort, NC) and challenged by it. We remained on a roller coaster of health problems until several weeks ago, when Steve learned that the excruciatingly painful infection on his hands was calciphylaxis, a variation of the disease that took his legs. With no cure and a prognosis of infection and death or infection and hand amputations, he chose a third path: to end dialysis and pass away under hospice care at home, with me, his kids, and our cats carrying him through his final days.

There’s a lot I could say about the depth of love and connection in our relationship, but really, most of that is for us. I do want to share one aspect of our shared love language that, I think, says a lot about who we were to each other. We both had a sweet tooth, and whenever there were cookies or cake, one of us would inevitably leave it for the other. I can’t tell you how many times the last piece of cake was spoiled because neither of us wanted to take it. Eventually we announced it, but even then, we both wanted the other to have it. So we’d divide up that last piece of cake in two.

I’ll miss that, just like I’ll miss a thousand other things about Steve. And it will probably be a while before I can bring myself to eat that last piece of cake, even though it’s just me now.

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40 responses to “The Last Piece of Cake”

  1. Deborah says:

    This was so beautifully said. Thank you for sharing your story and thinking of you during this difficult time.

  2. Phil Sullivan & Alexis Johnson says:

    God bless you Steve, Lexi, myself and your Rotary friends here in Northampton will miss you and the great times we had. You were an inspiration to many of us in many ways. My best memories are when you visited us on Gleason Road with Jodie, great neighbors . Miss you my
    friend. 🙏🙏🇺🇸

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you so much, Phil and Lexi. We had some great times at your place and they were among our best memories as well from Northampton. So glad we met.

  3. Dina says:

    Jodie, What a beautiful tribute to Steve. I am heartbroken for you. I send you love and hugs.
    Dina

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you for reading, Dina. I’m so glad you got a chance to meet him a few times. He always liked you.

  4. rome says:

    Beautiful tribute, my friend. I hope that one day you’ll be able to enjoy that last piece of cake, knowing that he’d want you to indulge.

  5. Kevin McNamara says:

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss … my condolences to you and your family…. Jodie , I could listen to you forever…. The way you make the words flow is simply remarkable! I was so touched by your eloquent tribute of your history with Steve! Cherish your many wonderful memories Cuz… Love , Kevin

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you, Kevin, for the kind words and for reading. I’m glad I could put into words a bit about who he was and will remain in my heart.

  6. Bill Conti says:

    A beautiful tribute, Jodie. I didn’t know Stephen but after reading it I am aware that the bell really does toll for all who are left behind.. Your love for him was palpable in every word that you wrote…

  7. Rich&Jho says:

    Jho and I are so sorry that you lost a true soul mate. There are no words we can offer to lessen your grief but know that our thoughts are with you as well as our love.

    Cousin,
    Rich

  8. Kitsa says:

    ❤️

  9. Barbara Pemkala says:

    Jodie so very sorry for your loss. Steve sounds like a wonderful person, be grateful you had the best of him in your relationship. I know what you went through and it’s not easy for you, but I hope in time you will heal. He will always be in your heart. Love you, Auntie Barbara

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you so much, Auntie Barbara. I know you have traveled this unwelcome road. I appreciate your empathy and understanding.

  10. David Kmetz says:

    Wow.. I had no idea of the breadth and depth of your relationship and Steve’s impressive life. Very well said and a fitting tribute Jo-jo. Beautifully done. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you, David. I wanted my family and friends who did not know Steve to get a sense of who he was quite apart from the last year and a half of illness. You’d have liked him!

  11. jUDY DALY says:

    Dear Jodie, so sorry that Steve has passed. I’m sure Our Lord Jesus is happy that such a good man is now going to be with him for eternal happiness. Our prayers are with you and your family. Bob & Judy Daly

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you for your heartfelt words and expression of faith. We had a wonderful visit from our parish priest as well as a spiritual coordinator from hospice that put us both in a spiritually good place. At last he is home.

  12. Vicki Givens says:

    Beautifully worded loving tribute to Steve! You are a beautiful, smart, talented, compassionate woman and his life was blessed with you as his muse and partner. Love you Jodie!

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      You are much too generous in your praise, Vicki. Thank you so much. I was very lucky to be so close to him.

  13. Julee Clement says:

    What a wonderful tribute Jody. I met you and Steve thru Rotary when you lived in Northampton. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your memories together and wish you peace in the days ahead.

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you, Julee. I remember you (and Hershey) well. Thank you for reading and for your wishes of peace.

  14. Danielle Hammelef says:

    Absolutely beautiful. You always have my love and prayers.

  15. Lorraine says:

    A truly beautiful tribute, Jodie. So much love. So much friendship. So much laughter. I feel it all. Thank you for sharing Steve with us.

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you so much for reading, Lorraine. I wanted to preserve his memory and share the Steve I knew. You are too good to me.

  16. Jen D’Entremont says:

    This was a beautiful tribute Jodie. My thoughts and prayers are with you during this so very difficult time. I’m thinking of you…

  17. Shannon says:

    I’m so, so sorry for your loss, Jodie. What a beautiful tribute to Steve.

  18. Tyffany Neiheiser says:

    That was absolutely beautiful and hurt my heart to know such a wonderful person has left this earth. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you so much for reading, Tyffany. I’m so glad I can “share” him with others this way.

  19. Kevin Stecyk says:

    I followed your tweet to read your tribute to your late husband Steve.

    I found it interesting viewing your photograph of Steve and reading your tribute. When I view your photograph, the chiaroscuro provides a sense of depth, both to his image and to his soul. And once again, I am forced to smile back at Steve with his infectious smile.

    From your picture and description, I know that Steve was warm and affable, a person who could easily make you feel welcomed and comfortable. I sense a kind heart and a sense of curiosity. The words genuine and authentic come to mind too.

    You are fortunate, Jodie, to have loved Steve, a truly wonderful, gentle, and kind man.

    Thank you for sharing your tribute.

    I am so sorry for your loss. I wish you peace and strength.

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      I got choked up reading this, Kevin, and am so impressed that my words and the photo I shared–he was wonderfully relaxed in the Turks & Caicos–conveyed to you such a striking, accurate image of who Steve was to me. It’s funny you should pick up on curiosity, as that was one of his greatest attributes and what made our conversations so enriching. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and support throughout.

      • Kevin Stecyk says:

        Thank you for your warm and touching reply, Jodie.

        I just wanted to acknowledge your reply.

        You have my deepest sympathy and unwavering support.

  20. george breen says:

    Jodie,

    I do remember meeting you both at your folks house man years ago but cannot remember the occasion. That was a very well thought out written expression and I hope that your love does not be a burden for your years ahead of you and you do find happiness in the near distant future because you certainly have a lot to share with someone like yourself.

    May God bless you and yours. Smile and be happy you had someone that you loved so much in your lifetime —- George Breen

    • Jodie Lynn Zdrok says:

      Thank you, George. How kind of you to read this tribute and offer such insightful words of solace. We were indeed blessed. Thank you again.

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Jodie Lynn Zdrok
About Me

Jodie Lynn Zdrok holds two MAs in European History and an MBA. In addition to being an author, she's a marketing professional, a freelancer, and an unapologetic Boston sports fan. She enjoys traveling, being a foodie, doing sprint triathlons, and enabling cats. Spectacle is her debut.

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