When you hear something is an acquired taste, things like a fine, aged Scotch come to mind. Susan Schwerd of Valparaiso has a different analogy.
“Our family is an acquired taste,” she said, only half joking.
The raucous Schwerd family gatherings harken to Hollywood movie-like scenes of hilarity and fun, and deep emotional connections tied to the dark humor that comes with tragedy, too.
Catch Susan, her husband Bob, and their four children Christian, Melissa, Tevlyn, and Nick all in one place, and you’ll encounter scenes where everyone talks at the same time louder than each other. Jokes and laughter abound, and even in a formal setting, the family must take their traditional photo of their backsides that undoubtedly will end up on a mantel or fridge somewhere.
Their endurance as a family manifests itself in everything from a family crest that appears in tattoos and jewelry, to the fact that siblings have literally shared body parts to help keep each other alive – and they would do it again if needed. Here is their story.
Susan Coulehan grew up a self-described Region girl, born in Gary, Indiana. She attended Horace Mann for kindergarten and Holy Angel Catholic School for elementary education. In 1955 she moved to Miller, grew up there, and attended Andrean High School.
That’s when she met Bob Schwerd, originally from the Jersey shore.
“I went to a college with a friend and somehow Bob and I got introduced and mixed up together, and here we are almost 51 years later,” she said.
The two married in 1969 and eventually settled in Valparaiso. Bob is an attorney by trade, and Susan taught kindergarten and 2nd grade and pursued a fulfilling career in special education. And, of course, they parented four children, which took the Schwerd family tree from wispy to strong in a short amount of time. Picture the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, next to a rock-solid decades-old live Oak with roots that cut deep and hold strong, tethered to the earth to weather any storm. The latter is the Schwerd family, and they’d need those strong roots for the stormy journey ahead.
Christian, now 46, was the firstborn to Susan and Bob. Susan stopped teaching to care for her son, who was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease.
“Bob and I knew we just had to work together to make this family work. He worked several jobs when I stayed home, and then got into law practice, and still practices today in town,” she said.
Next came baby Melissa, now 45. She was healthy and happy, which was a blessing for Susan and Bob after being fearful of their oldest son’s condition.
Five years later, Tevlyn, now 40, was born – also healthy, and a bit of a spitfire.
When the youngest Nick was born a couple years later (he’s now 37), the family dynamic changed dramatically.
Nick had the same kidney condition as Christian, but more severe.
“Nick was fed with a feeding tube for 18 months. Christian, having the same disease, bonded with his brother and was very helpful with all the mechanics. That bond is still evident today,” Susan said.
In fact, Nick has a tattoo of his brother – a story that gets outlined later when his sisters told it amid giggles.
“I was born sick, and so was Nick. Those first couple years he was in the hospital a lot. I was in 3rd grade and I used to help feed him at night. I would use the juicer to make him healthy concoctions of fruits and vegetables to drink to make sure he was getting enough nutrition. From my standpoint, I got to help raise the kids. For a young age I had a lot of responsibility,” Christian said.
“My brother was my baseball coach, and the one I looked up to all the time,” Nick said. “I wanted to be like him.”
Melissa described those early years of Nick’s illness as difficult, but responsible for prepping the family for strong family bonds that would be needed later.
“Christian and I had a pretty significant parental role with Tev particularly because Nick was so sick while being treated in Chicago. Lots of times Christian and I were in charge, so we were close in age but took on that adult and parenting role,” Melissa said.
But then there was the sister bond, too, with Tevlyn.
“We shared a room, so we had that bond. But it wasn’t just the room. It was everything. We never had anything that was our own. Plus, I was always old enough to drive her to her lessons – ballet, or something that required transportation,” Melissa said.
“Nick was everyone’s baby. Everyone adored him. All of us were infatuated with him. He won our hearts, but he was such a sick kid for so long that we all formed our strengths and weaknesses around caring for him. Christian would hold him down while my dad fed him. It was difficult. It formed our family relationship as one of watching and guarding and protecting. Everyone was involved in Nick’s care,” she said.
As Nick got older and was able to be more independent, the typical sibling rivalry took hold.
“Tev and I – we battled,” Nick recalled. “We love each other to death but just like any siblings we are a couple years apart and, ya know – we fought. It was stuff like: Give me the remote. I was here first. I was born first. But once she was away at college, I was like – oh crap. She’s gone,” he said.
Just as things were starting to smooth out with Nick, and Christian’s disease also seemed under control, illness struck the family again.
Melissa, in her senior year of high school, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Cancer.
“She’s a very tough cookie. It changed the direction of her life,” said Susan of her eldest daughter. “Later she became a pediatric nurse in oncology for that reason.”
“When I was sick my nurses were just amazing,” Melissa said. “I came full circle.”
After getting her nursing degree, Melissa spent 13 weeks as a traveling nurse in Seattle. She met a man on a blind date, ended up marrying him, and now lives on the west coast with her husband and three children.
When Tevlyn graduated from Indiana University, she high tailed it to New York for a career in the fashion industry. Years of summer internships – including one at Disney (the family’s favorite escape destination) – prepped her well for the fast pace.
Susan was about to visit her for a fashion show in the Big Apple when more devastating news hit.
Susan had breast cancer.
“I was just a fluke,” Susan said. “I was going through a medical exam, and they found something they wanted to investigate further. We ended up finding that I had a tumor in my muscle and it was kind of difficult to navigate. I was going to get treatment here in town, but here’s where Christian stepped in and said – mom, why aren’t you going to a major medical center? So I went to Chicago. I had a lumpectomy and it went past the sentinel note, so I also had chemo and radiation.”
But perhaps the best example of the Schwerd family supporting each other is when Tevlyn relinquished her fashion career in New York to come back to Indiana, and donate a kidney to Nick.
His condition had begun to deteriorate and when Nick reached a point of needing dialysis, Tevlyn stepped in, hard. Nick needed a kidney transplant, but the wheels were turning too slowly.
“I made it my full-time job to be his advocate. I earned the nicknames Bulldog and Squeaky Wheel. I held everyone accountable for his care,” she said.
Tevlyn knew the longer he was on dialysis, the harder it would have been for a kidney transplant to be successful. Susan and Bob were continuing to work to support the family. Christian couldn’t be tested as a possible donor because of his own kidney disease. Melissa couldn’t be tested because she was pregnant with her first child. Tevlyn was tested, and she was a match.
“I didn’t even think twice about it. I grew up thinking I might need to facilitate Melissa’s future pregnancies by donating eggs because of her illness, so it wasn’t even a question in my mind with Nick,” she said. (She ended up not having to assist Melissa).
Tevlyn wouldn’t take no, or “let’s just wait” from any doctor or healthcare professional. And as a result, it was only four months from the time of Nick’s first dialysis until the day she gave him a kidney – a timeframe that is atypical, to say the least.
“Sometimes it takes years,” she said. “I wouldn’t let that happen.”
After the transplant, Tevlyn and Nick bonded during recovery on the couch of their childhood home – the place that continued to be a haven for family and friends over the years.
At one follow-up appointment, the doctor joked that Nick would need to get a tattoo of Tevlyn now that she gave him a body part.
“He dropped his shorts and showed him the tattoo he already had of his older brother Christian on his hip, and asked the doctor if maybe he should get one of me under his arm, so that I had a beard,” Tevlyn laughed.
It was exactly the kind of humor that carries the Schwerd family through all of their tribulations.
Christian said he is now running on about 18 percent functionality of his kidneys and likely will need extensive care or a transplant in the future. He stopped a lucrative career as a trader in Chicago and now focuses on supporting the community with charity work. And get this: when it’s time, Melissa is his kidney match.
“I spent 15 years on the floor of the Chicago Merc as a commodities trader. It was very rewarding and I have been very fortunate, and I’m a firm believer in having mentors and want to thank the people who took me under their wing and mentored me to trade,” he said.
Christian also coached baseball – including his younger brother Nick as a child.
“We weren’t a very good team but I had a lot of fun with the team and we had a lot of fun learning the game together,” he said. “I’m just a positive person and I think you have to be in the right mindset to move forward in life. You have to break things down into small timeframes and go with the flow.”
When he sees someone in the community in need, he shares what he can. (Example: Christian bought Easter hams for dozens of families in Valparaiso when the pandemic hit this spring, and helped raise more than $20,000 for another charity recently).
Nick now lives in Florida, a move he said was necessary to give him a little distance from the Region and allow him to spread his wings. After a short stint in retail as a co-owner of the former Bargain Barn in Valparaiso with Tevlyn, Nick now works in business and is planning to get his teaching degree or certificate.
“When I was in elementary school I remember trying to help out with special needs students and in high school my senior year I helped out. I felt the connection,” he said. “It’s 100 percent my mom. I’ve always looked up to her and her influence on the kids. Every day she’d have stories, and even going into her classroom, she’d put on this big performance. They’d give her hugs, and she had a snack drawer and all the kids were always gravitating to mom.”
Tevlyn remains in Valparaiso and owns Coash Clothing Co., a mobile fashion boutique focused on helping women of all ages and body shapes look and feel good without having to spend a fortune. She and Melissa recently have been embellishing face masks with wildly creative designs – animal faces with whiskers, jewels, and other fun things. Her daughter, Anatevka, is the light of her life.
Melissa continues her nursing career in Seattle and visits Indiana as often as she can with her husband and three children, Griffin, Zara, and Lilly.
When each of the Schwerd children was asked the same question as Susan about their family being an acquired taste, here’s what they had to say:
Nick: I think we’re nuts
Tevlyn: I always say that the Schwerds are like a fine wine or stinky cheese. We never really fit the mold. We kind of all march to our own drums, but as different as we all are, you can definitely say we are cut from the same cloth.
Christian: We’re a very lucky family and I know that may sound crazy because we have cancer and sickness, but I’m lucky to be here. There are a lot of people who don’t even get this chance. As you can see – my mindset and positivity – you have to have that.
Melissa: One thing I can tell about our family – we can do anything. We’ve overcome so many things and it ties the knot tighter. That’s something that I want my kids to know: Your family is your life. They are there for you for thick and thin. Family is everything.
The Schwerd homestead remains the place where everyone wants to be, and where everyone gathers for celebration, support, recovery, fun, and just everyday living. Friends who visit are instant family. The home itself is a custom amalgamation of the family itself – Susan liked the neighbors and didn’t want to move, so as her family grew, they just added on to the house. No doubt, the home that Susan and Bob have built for their family is steadfast, but the bonds they share as family members are stronger than any brick or mortar on earth.