Annette and Brian Swanson have a unique perspective of the recent string of events surrounding missing people. It's a perspective none of us have, or ever want to have.
They are the parents of Brandon Swanson, the then-19 year-old Marshall man who vanished into the night five years ago.
Vanished. That's a complex word. But when you consider the exhausting, comprehensive search process for Brandon spanned 120 days and just as many square miles and included hundreds of volunteers and dozens of dog handlers, vanished might best define what happened.
It's a word we've heard all too much in recent weeks, one that sends chills down your spine. People aren't supposed to just vanish.
We heard it in coverage of the three missing women in Minnesota whose stories have grabbed headlines this month. And, of course, we heard it when news broke about the three women from Cleveland, who disappeared some 10 years ago, only to reappear earlier this month, about three miles from where they disappeared. Hearing that word leads us to doubt and wonder, speculate and question. And in missing people cases, sometimes those questions never get answered.
Annette Swanson followed the story in Cleveland and those of the three missing women in the Twin Cities to a point but didn't obsess about it.
"You know, I see that they have been found, and my initial feelings are, good, I'm glad they found them. I'm happy for the family, they got what they needed. They can move forward in the process of grief and finding answers as to what brought this about. That's really all the thought I put into it - I'm happy for the families, they can move on. Then I just need to let it go."
"It's interesting in the sense that the three in Cleveland were found - it's just, you don't want to think about we think about Brandon, but we don't want to think that he's missing," Brian Swanson said. "We try to kind of keep that out of our thoughts."
There's no hard evidence to suggest Brandon was abducted like the women in Cleveland were, so the Swansons' story is different. Yet, what has played out in Cleveland does give the Swansons pause.
"It's so complex and it's so unusual, so to me there's some interest in that," Annette Swanson said. "Is the victimology changing, or has it changed? Statistics show that they don't keep their victims alive. There's so many hours and days that go by, and their chances of recovering a missing person alive plummet after some time. Are we missing something in how these perpetrators work? Is there another layer to this, something that we can learn from it to help these families?"
The Swansons' position to be able to relate with parents whose world has been interrupted by the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a child doesn't fill the hole that has been created in their life. But despite fearing the worst after waking up in the middle of a nightmare five years ago, Annette Swanson has come to learn that a parent's hope is eternal.
"The interesting thing, and there's no scientific backing to it, but you heard Gina DeJesus' father say he knew she was alive - in his heart he knew it, he felt it," Annette Swanson said. "And, you know, she was! And she's back home. When we lost contact with Brandon, sometime thereafter, I had a similar feeling, but the feeling was that he's not alive I don't know if it's a parent's gut intuition, or just that bond you have with your child. But there's always hope, even if you think there isn't. There always will be hope."
Brian Swanson said that paralyzing, instinctive feeling was one they both shared after Brandon's disappearance, even though neither wanted to admit it at the time.
"It's just, inside, something's gone," he said.
"You brace yourself for the worst," Annette Swanson said. "There was just some sort of a sudden, bottom-dropping-out emptiness that you feel."
A half decade removed from Brandon vanishing, the Swansons continue to cling to hope that someday they will be reunited with their son, or at the very least get some of their questions answered. In the meantime, the couple continues on the journey to normalcy. But until they get some kind of closure, that's a journey without a destination.
"Even if or when we find Brandon and we get answers, we're forever changed," Annette Swanson said. "There is no going back to where we were before."
The Swansons are working on a different kind of normal today, and it's a work in progress. Some pieces of their lives have been picked up. In some ways, time has proven to be only a Band-Aid for their wounds, but they know they must march forward with it.
"The universe continues to move forward - you either move with it or you get lost in it," Annette Swanson said. "Those are basically your two choices."
Simple, routine things can be a struggle at times, Annette Swanson said. Preparing a meal can be a struggle. Cleaning the house, too. These are things the rest of us just do without a second thought, but the mind apparently doesn't always allow the body to take care of what needs to be done.
"Organizing just everyday things, sometimes they're like mountains, even now," she said. "It's not as bad, but it's still there."
In a sense, some level of normalcy has returned in their lives, in that days are no longer haunted by rumors or consumed by emotionally-draining searches and all the physical work they once put into them. This has allowed the Swansons to focus not just on their careers or those mundane tasks about the house, but their family as well - their daughter Jamine, grandson Eli and a future son-in-law.
"Those are the things that make life worth living and getting up every day for," Annette Swanson said. "For me, what keeps me going is my family. Truly, that's what keeps me going."
The Swansons still long for knowledge in this unsolved mystery surrounding their son, but they are committed to moving on as best they can.
"We want to get back closer to the normal we used to have," Brian Swanson said.
"I don't want to just maintain, I want to keep feeling better every day," Annette Swanson said. "I don't want to be 'here,' in this spot. I want to be better, I want to live better."