In an alternate reality, maybe Mark Rosen would still be lonely. Maybe he would still be fixed in his grief. Maybe he would be plumbing the dark night of the soul, just him in his downtown Minneapolis apartment and his runaway thoughts.

In that parallel universe, Mark Rosen did not do the thing that would forever change him: He did not share photos of his cat on Twitter.

One has to wonder: If he hadn't posted pictures of Willow, would Rosen have ever found love again?

In the fall of 2021, at the urging of his daughter, the retired TV sports anchor adopted a kitten from the humane society to cope with devastating loss. His wife, Denise, died of brain cancer a month earlier. Posting pictures of his pet on social media, as one does, was therapeutic. The mere act helped Rosen smile.

A fellow cat lover named Karin Nelsen proceeded to "like" a few of those photos. (And there were a lot of photos.) Like so many Minnesotans, she had been following Rosen's story of caring for Denise and grieving her death. Nelsen left encouraging comments, one of thousands of wishes from near-strangers rooting for his heart to make a full recovery.

Months later — and yes, this does sound as sweet as a rom-com — they met for coffee. Then dinner.

Mark Rosen and Karin Nelsen are now happily married.

The likable 72-year-old broadcaster was a fixture in Minnesotans' living rooms for the 50 years he worked at WCCO, and he hasn't been afraid to let them in on the curveballs of his life. Just as he shared the pain of losing Denise, he's been open about discovering joy and love again, now with Karin (pronounced CAR-in). His journey has involved a lot of therapy, a village of supporters and a series of incremental steps to fight grief and loneliness, including that first cat photo.

About 99% of the public is beyond thrilled for him, if the content of his DMs is any indication. But there are always a few comments from callous randoms questioning how he could have moved on so quickly.

"People have their own impression, like, 'Well, I would have done ...' " says Rosen, his voice trailing off. "You're not me. I'm not you. You don't know my circumstances. You don't know what I've been through."

Rosen is very much like his plainspoken, down-to-earth on-air persona (he still appears regularly on KFAN, as well as Fox 9 during the Vikings season). You can recognize his booming voice a half-mile away, as well as his 6-foot-6 stature. Even when reflecting on his good fortune — measured in enduring friendships, doting family members and interviews with sports legends — he seems in grateful disbelief. That's Rosey.

He and Nelsen recount their beginnings from their living room sofa in a pristine 30th-floor condo overlooking the Mississippi River. And to hear Rosen tell it, his wooing of Nelsen was not calculated, but it did involve some investigation. Months after they interacted on Twitter, a light bulb went off in his head: Karin! He knew she was the chief legal officer for the Minnesota Vikings and that they had met once or twice professionally.

Rosen fired off a text to the team's then-head of P.R., asking if Nelsen was single. The response was all of one word: "Yes."

Rosen, the journalist, took it from there.

A face of grief and caregiving

To his point, we don't intimately know what Rosen has been through. Glioblastoma, the same aggressive brain cancer that killed John McCain and Ted Kennedy, is what Denise stubbornly fought. Family members became certain something was amiss when she couldn't add a server's tip to a restaurant bill.

In July 2018, when the doctor told the couple that Denise had stage 4 glioblastoma, Rosen's knees buckled.

"Everything changed that day," he says. "I remember going to bed. I looked around my apartment and went, 'What am I going to do?' Everything switched. My career didn't mean anything to me anymore."

"He looked lost," recalls Rosen's daughter, Chloe. "I don't think it was something we fully comprehended. We didn't have a plan of attack. We didn't know how to navigate the news."

Rosen sped up his retirement date from WCCO and became Denise's primary caregiver, along with Chloe. He pored over reams of articles about glioblastoma and found the best doctors in town to treat her. The couple squeezed in time together, seeing plays in New York, visiting their son, Nick, in California, and flying to Key West, right before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Well-wishers would utter their hopes for Denise to recover. Rosen didn't have the energy to inform them that she never would. There was no cure. Most people with glioblastoma die within 12 to 18 months. The family's top priority was prolonging Denise's quality of life. She eventually lost the ability to walk, then talk.

But one of the toughest things to see in Denise, so feisty and inquisitive by nature, was how the disease numbed her personality.

"Horrifying," he says, choking up.

Nelsen looks into his eyes, which are pooling with tears, and places her hand on his cheek. She leaves her place beside him on the sofa to grab him a tissue.

"She just wasn't the same person anymore," Rosen says of Denise.

What people don't understand about their family's grief, Chloe told me, is that it started the day of diagnosis. They experienced a "mini-death" when Denise was told she had glioblastoma, again when she could no longer walk, again when she lost her verbal skills, and again in hospice, when the look in her eyes suggested she had no idea who her daughter was.

"Mark was incredible, absolutely incredible," says his former sister-in-law, Wendy Williams Blackshaw, who considered Denise her best friend. "I learned a lot from watching him, like unconditional love in times of utter despair."

Rosen worked through the trauma with the help of his therapist, trying to stay strong for Denise. When she died in August 2021, three years after the diagnosis, he had all the support anyone could ask for. But the sneaky M.O. of loneliness is that it creeps up at night when everyone else has gone home.

"It's still you and your thoughts, and you're all alone," he says. "It doesn't matter how many people are there for you. It's still you, alone, dealing with this."

How it started

Six months after Denise died, he asked Nelsen out to coffee. They met in February 2022, the morning Minneapolis lifted its mask mandate. Nelsen figured the meeting was an opportunity to network, and Rosen viewed it as a tiny step outside of his shell. What surprised them both was how naturally their conversation volleyed. He was enamored of her curiosity and her independence.

Before they parted, he asked her to dinner.

Nelsen said yes, but this time, she was uncertain about the context. She later called her brother and asked him, "Do you think it's a date?"

"Karin," her brother responded without missing a beat, "that's a date."

At Nelsen's insistence, their first date was at one of her favorite restaurants, Spoon and Stable. Jessi Pollak, a nationally acclaimed bartender, sent an original cocktail to their table, knowing Nelsen's preferences in tastes and even the shape of the glass.

"I was scared and impressed," Rosen says, with a playful deadpan. "I've been at Spoon and Stable before, but she must be like Norm at 'Cheers.' "

Over three hours, the two discovered how many friends they had in common at the intersection of sports, media and business. He learned she had lived in Russia, Singapore and Switzerland through her jobs at Cargill, but grew up on a farm in the small southern Minnesota town of Westbrook (pop. 739).

Rosen couldn't remember the last time he'd been on a date. He and Denise married in 1977. But it felt easy to be on the intake, absorbing Nelsen's stories and appreciating how deeply she valued her family.

As they take stock of their relationship, they recognize the small but audacious acts that quickly built a runway for their future. Nelsen had married young, right out of her undergraduate years at Minnesota State University, Mankato. That marriage was short-lived. While she dated people in the years afterward, she hadn't been seeking to remarry. Her life was full.

"You were courageous. I never would have reached out to you, it's just not my style," Nelsen, who is 58, tells Rosen. "And I think I was courageous a bit, as well, to say, 'You know what? I'm willing to give this a shot.' "

Marrying a widower with two grown children, all who have suffered tremendous pain, isn't without complication. But Rosen's marriage to Denise isn't something to be diminished, Nelsen says. "It's an important part of his story, and it's shaped him to be who he is today."

That first summer of their courtship, she joined Rosen and family members on a rental pontoon boat as they cruised Lake Minnetonka. It was an adventure they used to have with Denise. Rosen decided to say a few words about her and broke down with emotion. The family tossed flowers into the water.

Nelsen held back and listened when appropriate, and comforted Rosen when he needed it. Seeing her delicately navigate what could have been tricky waters left a deep impression with Chloe. She interpreted it as a sign of respect — not only for her dad, but for her mom, too.

Moving forward

Through it all, Rosen found that speaking about his pain helped people, and their love and encouragement helped carry him. He had openly worn his broken heart during Denise's fight with cancer. Now he was displaying it again, and it fluttered for all to see.

On Memorial Day weekend of 2022, he announced his relationship with Nelsen on social media. "After nearly 4 years of grieving I asked myself about the kind of life I wanted. Karin Nelsen, the Executive VP and Chief Legal officer of the Vikings, is that woman," he wrote.

Nelsen knew Rosen had a massive following, but she wasn't prepared for the onslaught of pings. "My phone was practically on fire," she said.

As for the trolls who taunted Rosen for rediscovering love too soon in their eyes, Chloe got angry. Her dad was happy, and he deserved it. "F— 'em," she told Rosen. "It's no one's business."

Among the couples who celebrated the romance was Vikings coaching legend Bud Grant and his longtime companion, Pat Smith. But the announcement wasn't enough for Smith, who had befriended Nelsen over the years through the Vikings. Smith egged on Rosen to hurry up and pop the question. When she encountered him at Vikings games, Smith would silently point to her ring finger.

Smith's own experiences with finding love later in life might have fueled her impatience with Rosen. Smith said when she started dating Grant, not even a year had passed since his wife died.

"He was concerned about the timing," she says of Grant. "There was always a rule you had to wait one or two years after you lose a spouse before you jump back in. I think he thought at his age, maybe you don't want to wait too long, either."

Smith also worried about Rosen.

"Sometimes men go downhill quickly after they lose someone. You've got to find love again and do something," she says. "If you find someone you think is the person, don't wait. Jump in with both feet and go for it."

Grant passed away by the time Rosen and Nelsen exchanged vows last September. But Smith attended the wedding in northeast Minneapolis, and so did family and friends that included a constellation of local industry giants. Alan Page. Frank Vascellaro and Amelia Santaniello. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, who knew Nelsen through mutual friends in legal circles, was the officiant.

For anyone else coping with loss, Rosen says, "It's OK to cry yourself to sleep. But you've got to keep moving. You've got to take care of yourself."

And take chances, he adds. No need to dip your toe in the water. Just jump in the deep end.

What does moving forward look like? Rosen says he feels whole again. After five decades of working the nightly newscasts on WCCO, he's finally home for dinner. He grills pork chops for Nelsen. They make lasagna together. They watch the Vikings and the Wolves and even youth hockey.

And he still credits Willow the shelter cat for putting everything in motion. The day Rosen decided to adopt her, he recalls, she popped up her head from the cage, above all of her littermates.

"She's basically looking at me, saying, 'I choose you.' "

Fair enough. Willow chose Rosen.

But Rosen chose life.