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Observations: Goodbye, Brenda, my friend

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There isn’t enough room for all of the nice things I could say. There aren’t enough words.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I woke up with a start, as I often do, and realized that I was holding my breath, not something I often do. I didn’t want this day to begin; I didn’t want this time to come at all. I was afraid — somehow I knew that on this day I would get the call telling me that a woman who has been a remarkable, prodigious part of my life, a woman who helped define my life, was gone.

Those first thoughts caused a sharp, electric sensation through my veins. And then I realized that I needed to sit in front of a blank page on a computer screen and try to write it out. I exhaled and worried that I was not up for that. I don’t possess the talent to sum up a life such as hers. To even try would mean feeling something, and feeling it powerfully as I did in those moments I would remember, but with the knowledge that those moments are now gone forever. The smiles, the laughter, the arguments and my flashes of anger, but mostly just love and respect, would all be felt acutely yet they would merely be ghosts. Right now, I’m not sure that I can endure that. Right now, there is a hole in my life and in my heart.
And then when the news did come, my heart seemed to stop.

Brenda Knowles, my boss, my friend, a woman that I loved like my own family, has passed away. Although the rational side of me knew this was coming, the emotional side refused to accept it. It came too quickly. She is too much a part of my life to lose.

Three years ago I was halfway across the Chesapeake Bay and was freaked out and freezing. It was November 22, my birthday, and I had just set out on my boat with a long way to go to get home. I also had a deadline for the newspaper bearing down on me, the first of a then-unknown number of many deadlines yet to come while I inched the boat down the East Coast home to Ruskin. I was almost insanely anxious about the boat, the long, cold journey ahead, and my job. Alone, shivering in the cockpit, I called Brenda.

“Don’t worry about the deadline. Don’t worry about the paper. Pull in somewhere, get warm and enjoy the day,” she said cheerily over the phone.

What kind of boss would do that? Especially these days? But that was Brenda. She cared deeply, and she had an incomparable heart. She cared enough to let her employee take off for something open-ended that was important only personally. She knew what it would mean to me. She also had enough confidence to believe that it would work for the paper. Few people in my life have ever demonstrated such confidence in me. She made me want to live up to it.

That night, tied up to a dock in a warm boat, I wrote about her in my column. A few days later I received an email from her, written in humor:

Mitch: Just checking to see if you are warm and toasty or frozen solid. Just because I printed your Observations today doesn’t mean you get out of writing my BIG obit when it is time. However, I will have to put my foot down when it comes to writing nice things about me for the newspaper otherwise there won’t be anything nice left to say for the obit. Stay safe and warm. BBK

There isn’t enough room for all of the nice things I could say. There aren’t enough words.

In August of 2001, I walked into the igloo-looking building on Shell Point Road in Ruskin, the then-home of The Observer News, and asked if I could speak with the editor. That is when I met Brenda. Nervously, I pulled out an old film camera with some decade-old lenses and a brand-new digital camera that I had just bought a week prior, and offered to take pictures for free. Brenda told me that I could take pictures if I wanted, but it couldn’t be free. The modest sum the paper paid seemed princely at the time. I left her office feeling as though she had opened the door to something amazing in my life, which is exactly what she had done.

The newsroom was a big part of Brenda's life.

When the paper was smaller, quieter, we spent hours talking after the press had run and the newspapers were out for delivery. No one would be in the office but us — and we would talk about everything going on in life, some of it, occasionally, even involved our jobs.

I made her cry. Some instances of that were okay. I would write a personal column that truly was personal and she would walk over and say, “You made me cry!” Brenda was no pushover when it came to the written word. She was a voracious reader — she read every single word in the newspapers she published and, when finished with that, would fire up her Kindle to read books over lunch. That she actually felt something in reading my meager words was a good sign, I thought.

But I also made her cry for the wrong reasons. When something would turn in my personal life, she took it personally, too. She felt that deeply and I felt as though I had made my own mother or sister cry. No one wants to do that. But in the end, that is part of life and ironically it is a part to be celebrated. When you love people, you sometimes get to hold hands while riding on life’s roller coaster. Sometimes you are laughing, sometimes your eyes are tightly closed in fear. But you always know someone is with you. That is a blessing. Brenda was a blessing.

She is among the strongest and bravest women I have ever known. A few years ago she went through treatment for cancer and almost no one knew about it. She would have an appointment for radiation treatment or chemo and then come into work. She didn’t complain, she didn’t let on how she must have felt. She just went on.

She was a woman of intelligence, wit and grace.

Running a “good news” newspaper wasn’t a business strategy for her, it was how she lived. She saw the good in people and in life. She was a woman of class, intelligence and optimism and a Floridian through and through — and that meant something inexplicably good. In many ways, the newspaper was a reflection of how she saw and approached life: as something that was truly, inherently good. I wish there were more people like her. She was right, life is good; but now it is less so without her.

She dearly loved her children and she had every reason to be immensely proud of them. They are all successful and happy, a strong testament to her success as a mom. They gave her grandchildren that became the joy of her life. All of the many photos are still up in her office. I can walk in and look at them and almost hear her say, “Did I tell you about…?” Even if she did, I wanted to hear it again. And now I only wish I could.

Last week, her illness turned to the point that she was largely bed-ridden but her mind and her remarkable wit were as sharp as ever. I brought a newspaper over to her, fresh off the press, and she tore through it, no doubt finding mistakes we made but saying nothing about them. Together we laughed about a morbid long-running inside joke we had regarding someone we were convinced would be writing both of our obits, and what they might say about us. She knew what was coming and she was approaching it with the same dignity and grace with which she approached everything in life.

And then on my last visit, she communicated awareness but not much more. Life was becoming a struggle that was too much for even one of the strongest women I have ever met. But her dignity, her grace, her wonderful heart were all still there. I had to fight back tears — selfish tears — wondering what I would do without her. It is hard to know what to wish for, you know? You don’t want to lose someone you love, but you don’t want them to suffer.

Years ago, when I left Florida to start my own newspaper, rarely a day went by when she didn’t carve time out of her busy schedule to talk. I was overwhelmed and she offered advice — she always had ideas — but mostly she provided reassurance. She innately knew that was something I desperately needed. She provided the calm in my many storms. Looking back, I can see that she had done that repeatedly since I met her.

Writers are a cranky lot and she took far more abuse than she deserved. The truth is, of course, that she didn’t deserve any at all. Writers see their work as art, mixed in with saving the world. But the reality is that without Brenda that would not have been possible. For writers it is an often selfish quest cloaked as a selfless mission. But Brenda knew the bigger picture, the bigger mission, that the world would be fine, let’s just try to make it a little better, bit by bit. And she did just that — not just for the newspaper but also for her cranky writers, whether or not we appreciated it.

I appreciate it deeply now.

She said she was my biggest fan. I don’t think I deserved that. She taught me a lot; she provided friendship, guidance, and her very heart, along with plenty of patience, when it was needed. I have learned from that but I’m not as strong or as brave as Brenda. She never gave up trying.

Writer Mitch Albom wrote about his parents in his book For One More Day. For me, it also works for Brenda:

But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die, you feel like instead of going in to every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.

Losing a friend and defender of so many years, I suddenly feel alone. I miss you, Brenda. I hope someday I’ll be worthy of seeing you again. Goodbye and Godspeed to you, my friend.

Memorial arrangements will be announced in next week’s edition.

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