Josh Rouse: As we grow older, those who once guided us now need our help

Caregiving for grandfather gives new perspective for outdoorsman

Josh Rouse
Topeka Capital-Journal
From right, Gilbert "Sonny" Swader kneels next to his grandson, Josh Rouse, following a snow goose hunt in 2006. Sonny's other grandson, Kyle Swader, is pictured at the far left, next to his friend Anthony Bunting.

“Josh, it’s time to wake up...”

A wrinkled hand gently shakes my ankle as I lay huddled under the covers in a small bed at my grandparents’ house, my headphones still over my ears and a CD player playing the same CD on repeat for probably the fourth or fifth time in a row.

I look up and see the outline of my grandpa, Gilbert "Sonny" Swader, against the light from the hallway. He’s already got his coveralls on and looks ready to go.

It’s 4:30 a.m., and I'm your typical carefree middle school student.

I sit up in bed, trying to summon the energy to start putting on my hunting gear and make my way out into the cold, snowy world to chase down some snow geese.

Eventually, I get my socks pulled up over my feet, add a couple layers of clothes for warmth and squeeze my grandpa’s old camo coveralls over the thick sweatshirt and zip it up. They look like they were from his time in the Korean War.

Don’t forget the knee pads, as well. Those frozen corn fields are hard on the knees!

My grandma, Bonnie Swader, is in the kitchen when I finally stumble out of the bedroom, making us bologna sandwiches for the trip. She throws in a couple cans of Coke for me and Diet Rite for grandpa.

I pick up the red gun bag containing grandpa’s old over/under 12 gauge and a couple boxes of shells and head out to the Suburban. The red-and-white Chevy is already running when I get out there, so it’s nice and warm. Inside, grandpa’s got pillows and blankets ready, as well, so we can conk out again during the roughly two-hour drive.

My cousin and uncle pull up in their truck and we all pile into the Suburban. I put my headphones back on and listen to a CD one of my friends burned for me, and soon I’m back in dreamland. By the time "Ice Ice Baby" — what a classic! — comes over the headphones, I wake up just in time to see the Golden Arches of McDonalds light up, and we head in for a nice breakfast before hitting the road again.

“Get anything you want up to a quarter,” he jokes to me. I swear he’s told me that one a hundred times. I roll my eyes and go, "OK, grandpa."

We hit the road again and soon arrive at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge on the border of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska — since renamed Loess Bluffs — and see a huge mass of white and dark blue reflecting in the headlights on top of the half-frozen lake.

We drive around some more and, after the sun comes up, we start spotting white clouds of geese taking to the air in the distance.

Grandpa follows the familiar roads near White Cloud and, as we find the spot where the geese are sitting down, tries to remember if he’s ever asked that particular land owner for permission in his 70-plus years on this earth.

He can’t remember, so we go and get permission just to be sure. I swear he knows half the county.

After we make our jump and come out with a duffle bag full of dead birds, grandpa drives out in the field to us and rolls down the back window.

We load up, and we’re off again chasing another flock.

Grandpa, who didn’t shoot at a single bird, has got the biggest grin on his face of any of us.

*******

It’s January 2021.

I’m laying in that same, exact bed. Only this time, I have an old, furry dog named Rascal curled up by my legs.

The room, typically dark at night, is accentuated by the blue light of a screen. On the screen, the outline of a small figure sits bundled up beneath a mass of blankets, a bony hand reaching out for a cup of water near the bed. It finds the handle, but can’t quite muster the strength to lift the half-full plastic hospital jug and bring the straw back to its owner’s mouth.

“Help me...” a gaunt, scratchy voice cries out into the darkness.

I slowly come to, sitting up in bed trying to summon the energy to make another run to the living room where the hospital bed now sits.

The dogs whines in its sleep as its legs begin to kick. Looks like he’s having another nightmare.

I get up, eyes half crusted shut with sleep as I feel around for the wall to help guide me in the darkness. I walk by the sliding glass door and see a hazy mist over the plowed cornfield as fresh snow lightly glazes the patio.

“Help me...” the frail voice repeats.

I stumble into the living room, reaching for a light to help illuminate the path, strewn with chewed up dog toys.

I sit down in the nearby armchair and move the cup toward his mouth, the sight of my grandfather nearly unrecognizable in the darkness. His ribs poke out dramatically, his once full belly now retracting in to reveal a tremendous weight loss in just a matter of weeks. His top lip is turning black and swollen, likely infected as his immune system fails him. His eyes are dark and sunken, giving his thinning face an almost skeletal appearance.

He can't manage to get enough suction to get the water all the way up the straw, so I take it out of the cup with my finger over the top of it and drop some of the water onto his tongue.

On the wall to his left sits a framed newspaper clipping. My grandmother’s face looks down at me from the page.

It’s been a year since she died — Friday marked the anniversary. It's hard to believe we’ve been doing this for that long. My mom's been with him 100 hours a week and my uncle comes over after work most nights. We've got some help now with hospice, but it's still an awful lot. How did grandma do it on her own?

I look down at him, struggling to breathe, and a feeling of guilt fills me.

“He’s taken care of me for so long,” I think to myself. “It never occurred to me he'd need me to take care of him someday."

While we don't know how much time he has left, there's one thing I know for sure: I'm glad I'm able to do something to help pay him back for all of the great experiences he's given me.

Gilbert "Sonny" Swader holds his granddaughter, Faith Swader, while they cruise around Lake Perry on a boat during Fourth of July weekend in 2008.