Learning to be a caregiver

"I'll have a diet coke and the chicken sandwich with the veggies," I said to the waitress as I sidled up to the counter. I grabbed a book and began to read as I waited, trying to tune out the loud hum of the restaurant-goers. I've always loved coming to EJ's on my lunch break for both the atmosphere and the food. The large picture windows provide a clear view of the busy Little Rock street corner. The people walking by and the cars driving through the intersection reveal a city burgeoning with commerce and travelers. The food at EJ's is good too. Besides the usual burgers and fries, they've also got healthier menu options like wraps, veggies and the like. I try to eat healthy as much as I can since my wife is always on my case to eat healthier. To be completely honest, I don't blame her. My diet will never be confused with Jack Lalanne's, so I'm fortunate my wife is always looking out for both of us. She frequently reads healthy cookbooks, so she can buy low-fat foods and cook heart-healthy meals. As a result, we've both been committed to healthy lifestyles and the two of us even ran a half-marathon last year.At the EJ's counter, I tried to read my book over the sounds of the restaurant behind me when my phone began to ring. I normally don't answer on my lunch break unless it's the mayor (my boss) or my wife (my real boss). In this case, it was my wife, so I answered. I could barely hear her, so I pushed my seat back and stepped outside. "The doctor called. I have Hodgkin's lymphoma." Boom! Crash! If my life were a cartoon, a ton of bricks and a grand piano would have fallen on my head. How could this happen? We were so healthy! What does this mean? What do we do now? What do I do? I would spend the next five months trying to figure all this out, flailing about in my new role as caregiver to a beautiful, 36-year-old cancer patient. The idea of me as a caregiver is a bit laughable. To me, a clean room means I've piled my dirty clothes in a recliner rather than on the floor. A clean living room means I've moved the dirty dishes to the sink in the kitchen. When faced with no choice but to sink or swim, one quickly learns to dogpaddle. Learning to be a caregiver is a similar experience (but not as wet). As I began my journey as a caregiver, I learned that everything becomes much easier when you're surrounded by supportive people and structures. My own employer, the City of Little Rock, could not have been more supportive. I was glad to have an employer that wanted to make sure I never had to miss a single one of my wife's appointments, scans, exams or treatments. They have also been flexible on those days when I have needed to go home early on short notice or come in to the office late. In addition to allowing me to take off when necessary, the city's policies allowed for me to take any hours I'm away from work providing care for my wife to come out of my sick leave rather than my vacation leave. Not that Elizabeth and I have the time or money to summer in The Hamptons, but it's nice to know I'm able to preserve the vacation days to do it if I wanted.Being a caregiver is important, but it's not glamorous. Many people will recall that James Brady blocked a bullet meant for President Ronald Reagan in 1981, but even the most astute observers of American history would not recall the names of either injured man's nurses. Caregiving is humble work, focused outwardly rather than inwardly – a task more humbling in today's self-referential world of Facebook status updates, tweets and so on. A caregiver's work is not measured by his own accomplishments but by the success of the patient. Success isn't found in washing the dishes or taking out the trash but in creating an environment in which the patient doesn't have to worry about such mundane things. Through my role as caregiver, I've become a better person. I'm definitely a better housekeeper, but I'm also a better scheduler, a better friend and a better husband. With two chemo treatments to go (and radiation after that), my wife still has quite a road to travel, but it's a road we know will lead to better days ahead. I look forward to those days when I'll be able to sidle up to the bar at EJ's with all this a distant memory. Until then, I'll continue in my role as a caregiver, trying to dogpaddle as fast as I can. Griffin Coop is a native Arkansan who works in the Little Rock Mayor's Office. He holds degrees from Syracuse University and Boston University and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Administration at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Griffin enjoys college football, Southern literature and chasing the squirrels away from his bird feeder.