On The Other Foot
I spent a decent portion of my last few years with Pete as a caregiver. The term sounds a little clinical to me. It conjures an image of drudgery, but it never was as I cared for him–even when he wasn’t sick. It also sounds a little disconnected. I would have done almost anything for him because I loved him, not because he was having health struggles. Regardless of what it was called, I was his voice when he was too sick to ask questions. I was his scribe when he was too sick to take notes during doctor’s visits and hospital stays. I was his cane when he needed something to steady him when he walked, his chef when he couldn’t feed himself, and sometimes a full-on nurse doling out pills and changing bandages.
I’ve received a lot of acknowledgement for my abilities as a caregiver. I appreciate the recognition, but I can’t imagine having done it any other way–with the deepest love and concern for Pete.
We often forget it, but the role of patient isn’t easy either. I’m not referring to the fact of being sick–that just happens. I’m talking about the part that requires a normally very self-sufficient person to give up control of their body to doctors, nurses and caregivers. Let’s not forget that Pete was definitely not sickly for most of his life, but he was an amazing patient. He hated that he had to be one at all–he had been one since birth because of a congenitally bad heart–but he adjusted when times were rough, and he was confident enough to know when things were out of his hands.
We got used to those roles after a while. As needed–he was the patient, I was the caregiver. Then one day, everything reversed.
We were working in Aspen at the same John Denver Tribute concert event where we’d met many years earlier–he was a performer, I was the show’s co-producer. I made the dreaded mistake of “walking and texting” and missed the bottom step coming from the stage to the green room, fell and heard a sickening snap! I picked myself up and when I realized my leg wasn’t falling off, and that I could walk, I assumed that I must be okay.
That whole “the show must go on” phrase always seemed like a cliché, but actually it must go on. People have paid for their tickets and that’s that. So I didn’t mention my “misstep” to Pete until after the show and VIP party when we were finally in our hotel room. He was dutifully concerned, but I brushed it off as a sprain. Around 3 AM I realized it was more than that. My foot throbbed all night long, and when I awoke it was significantly swollen. In the morning I tried to sneak out of bed to drive myself to the local hospital, but Pete was quickly on to me and insisted he drive me there.
Our roles had been reversed, and we were both horrible in them. I was an awful patient because, as an introvert, I was totally embarrassed to be the center of attention, not to mention the fact that I felt like such a fool for falling in the first place. He relished handling all the check-in paperwork, but it wasn’t until I suited up in the hospital gown and was required to stretch out on the gurney in the ER that he really lit up with a huge grin. Pete was not meant for the caregiver role. Not that he wasn’t taking good care of me, but that he was too damn excited doing it. If I hadn’t been in so much pain, I would have laughed. He took my photo with his phone, loved asking the doctors endless questions, and signed autographs when the x-ray technician, who happened to be a huge fan, found out who he was.
I can still vividly remember the huge smile on his face. He was finally able to help me. After years of me performing healthcare tasks–from the mundane to the life-saving ones–it was his turn, and he enjoyed returning the favor. I have never seen someone so happy to not be stretched out with an IV in his arm.
Fair enough. He’d more than served his time in ambulances, life flights, and months in hospital beds. As we say here in the south, “Bless his (messed up) heart,” All I had to deal with was a broken foot.
This brief experience in the ER really made me ponder how difficult it must have been to be him–especially in the last few years of his life. Having to relinquish most of your power, having to trust, ask for help, and muster the energy to fight when you are at risk of death, worrying about your family–and especially your caregiver.