Man diagnosed with cancer finds solace in corn garden grown on Ridge Boulevard

July 15, 2021 Jaime DeJesus
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Despite tragedy, or even because of it, corn grows in a Brooklyn front yard garden.

A little over a year ago, 58-year-old Bay Ridge native Mark Svennevik was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

Through a series of heartwarming circumstances, he and his family have actually found solace in an ancient and basic human endeavor:  growing corn.

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Svennevik was a Manhattan resident when he was diagnosed. When he received the bad news, he and his family  moved back to the home near 81st Street and Colonial Road where he grew up and where his 91-year-old mother resides.

The Svennevik family have grown corn in the front of their Bay Ridge yard.

Mark and his immediate family renovated the house and moved in with his mother. He brought his two children, the mother of his children, and his sister Donna. They created a strong, multigenerational family unit under one roof. 

Donna described the diagnosis of her brother, who worked in finance, as the most devastating thing that happened in her life. 

“There was nothing but sadness, grief, rage,” she said. 

One of the things she did to cope with her feelings was to start digging in the garden at the front of their childhood home. 

“I was digging up roots and bushes,” she said. “When I did that, we had all this available dirt to grow things in, and my brother and I sat on the stoop and were thinking what can we grow or do.”

They found inspiration in Mark’s 11-year-old son Thomas, whose love of corn since infancy was part of family lore, as related to friends and other relatives.

“Thomas loves corn, and we have a picture of him even as a baby eating corn,” Donna said. “For my brother, Mark,” added Donna, “it was clear in this difficult time that what might make Thomas happy would make him happy … his children are everything to him.”

 So, when Donna and her brother pondered what to do in the yard, the answer was simple: “Let’s grow corn.”  They purchased seeds and jumped right into urban farming.

Donna’s therapist also happens to be a corn farmer from Minneapolis, and she gave them tips on how to grow it. 

“My brother and I have been sitting on the stoop, watching the corn grow, tending to do it, growing it,” she said. “It’s our favorite pastime. People walk by and look at it and it’s a conversation starter. Our neighbors are amazed. They marvel at how tall it is.”

Mark Svennevik watering his garden, which has become a therapeutic activity for him and his family.

Currently, the corn stalks have grown to 6 feet tall and are ready to be harvested.

“My brother said he’s already worried about what happens after the harvest,” she said, “We so much  enjoyed taking care of the garden and watching it grow.” 

When they picked and ate the corn as a family “in the midst of this agony,” Donna said the experience was a treasured “cycle of life” experience. 

“It was wonderful to have the project, right outside our front door, to take our minds off of our fears about Mark’s health,” she said. 

In addition, Donna was able to get former legendary game show host of Jeopardy, the late Alex Trebek, to call her brother before Trebek died. 

“Mark was a fan of Trebek and knew he, also, was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He said he would like to talk to him,” Donna said. “As his sister, I adore him. Anything he wants, I try to do. 

Mark Svennevik with his son and daughter, Thomas and Anneliese.

She wrote a letter to Trebek and soon after receiving it, the legendary Jeopardy host called Mark, which meant a lot to him.

“It was terribly sad for all of us when Trebek died,” she said.

Ever devoted to her brother, as he survives surrounded by the love of his Bay Ridge family, Donna also wrote a haiku for him:

Born in summer rain

Steaming heavy seas — big fish

Best brother ever

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