Life is short, and it ends in a heartbeat.
The entire world experienced that recently with the death of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, in a freak helicopter crash in California. A little closer to home, my world was shattered this week when my maternal grandmother, Bonnie Swader, died unexpectedly in her sleep.
Death is a hell of a thing to deal with, especially when it comes out of nowhere. It hits you like a sledgehammer, knocks all the wind out of your chest and leaves you shattered and hollow on the inside. You spend months or even years trying to get rid of that lump in your chest that swells up with every picture, every song, every smell that reminds you of that loved one and those times you spent with them, where things seemed so perfect in hindsight — even if they really weren’t at the time.
You wish more than anything that you could see them one more time, tell them goodbye, apologize for any trouble you may have caused them and thank them for all the things they did for you. Only to come to that inevitable conclusion — they’re gone forever. But that doesn’t mean they will be forgotten.
I’ve been through it before with my paternal grandfather, Henry Rouse — the man who taught me how to fish, but more importantly, taught me it’s not really the fish we’re after.
I’ve gone through the various stages of grief. I’ve both cried and laughed as I remembered him. So far this time, it’s mostly been tears, but I know the joy and laughter will shine through in the end.
So let me tell you a bit about the lady who helped raise me into the man I am today.
Bonnie Swader wasn’t a perfect person, and she never tried to be. She was honest, she was kind-hearted and she didn’t worry about what others thought of her. I admired that about her, even when sometimes she would say or do something in public that made me shake my head and laugh. She wasn’t afraid to live her life and be herself. I’m not sure I can always say the same thing. Can you?
I think it was because of that trait that she was well-known and well-liked by seemingly everyone she ran into. They knew she genuinely cared about them. There was no pretense with her — everything was out front and center.
Grandma was around the outdoors most of her life, thanks to her husband, Sonny, and her son, Galen. That passion later filtered through to myself, my cousins Hope, Faith, Kayla and Kyle, and now Kyle’s children, Kolton and Peyton.
She could shoot with the best of them at the gun club and spent many a night cooking up wild game and fish, especially when we’d camp out at Lake Perry. I spent a good portion of my childhood with her and my grandpa, and they took me all over to see fun and exciting things, like a drive-through animal preserve in Missouri or some theme parks in Texas. We even planned to go on a guided fishing trip in Oklahoma when I was but a wee lad, knee-high to a grasshopper as the elders like to say, but high winds unfortunately kept us off the water all three days. That was OK with me, though, as I was just happy to be staying with Grandma and Grandpa.
Now, with Grandma gone and Grandpa living alone and in need of round-the-clock care, I would give anything to go back to the security and joy I felt when I was just a boy sleeping in their bed because I was afraid of the storm.
To be sure, this current storm we’re facing as a family is by far the most frightening and confusing we’ve ever met. But part of growing old is being strong for those who need you most, even if you feel as helpless as a canoe in a riptide.
I know this isn’t my usual type of column, and I promise we’ll return to the hunting and fishing stuff next week, but I want to take this opportunity to remind us all that life is precious, and when it’s gone, that’s it.
To pluck a quote from rapper Eminem, of all people, “You don’t get another chance, life is no Nintendo game.” The irony is, Grandma loved to play Nintendo games with her grandkids. She was an absolute “Mario Party” fiend on the N64.
To sum up my jumbled emotions into one key statement I hope you all can take away: Use your timely wisely and spend it with your loved ones as much as you can. Make memories that will last far beyond your time together and take time daily to check in on them. Take them hunting or fishing, take them to a baseball game or a movie, play video or board games together. Whatever it is you like to do to spend time together, do it.
All of the other things — the political rancor, the stresses of work, the guy at the intersection who cut you off — aren’t worth wasting a single second of your valuable time or an ounce of your limited energy.