IN TERMS OF CARING
By NANCY PATRICK
I often hear people use the terms “caregiver” and “caretaker” interchangeably. Since I have actually served in both positions, I like to distinguish between them. I also like the British term “carer” as it implies the emotion rather than the action of the one who cares.
“Caretaking” most often refers to the management of inanimate objects such as gardens, homes, and estates. For example, many cemeteries have caretakers appointed to supervise the area and make sure vandals do not disturb the peace of those who rest there. They mow the grounds, maintain the headstones, and make sure the area is clean.
Often an adult child will serve as the caretaker of his or her parents’ estate. The child may oversee finances, investments, and properties, protecting the parents’ assets. In my present case, I serve as the caretaker for my parents’ graves. They bought their plots in a rural cemetery located behind a home they had once lived in. Although a peaceful, isolated place, it does not provide perpetual care or require uniformity among headstones or other remembrances. Unfortunately, many of the graves lie completely unattended because other family members have died or moved away.
My dad showed a special fondness for this cemetery and his ownership of the two plots for him and my mother. He lined the area with inlaid bricks and planted a cactus just above the graves’ locations. He periodically visited the site to water the plants and keep the plotted area clean. When I went with him, he would tell me that he expected me to visit him there “someday.” At the time, “someday” seemed a long way off; however, the time did come, and I became the caretaker for my parents’ graves. My dad had selected the exact headstone he wanted so I would not make any mistakes when the time came.
My husband and I visit the graves every few months to clean weeds off, trim the cacti, and generally neaten the area. Whenever we go there, I feel especially close to my parents because I recall my dad’s admonitions for me to visit them. I can see their former home beyond the cemetery’s fence line, and that somehow gives me a sense of wholeness—the circle of life. I always like to think of how our presence and attendance would have pleased my parents, especially my dad.
I do sometimes think of the future when no one will remain to caretake their graves anymore. My husband and I have our plots in a perpetual care cemetery because we know none of our family will live close enough to tend our graves. It doesn’t exactly sadden me, but the thought that no one will visit us in that final resting place sobers me.
My husband and I recently went to an aunt’s funeral in Arkansas, the place of my birth and early childhood. While there, we decided to do a little research in the cemeteries to see if we could locate any of my family’s graves. Happily, we found the graves of my great-grandparents, whom I never knew, as well as the graves of paternal grandparents and paternal aunts and uncles.
One of the headstones deeply saddened me, though. My dad had an uncle, my grandmother’s younger brother, who went by the name Dock; however, his legal name was Euthel Bell. Uncle Dock had suffered brain damage as a young child and had lived his entire life with my grandparents, his caregivers. (Notice that I changed the word from caretaker to caregiver.)
Uncle Dock, born in 1914, suffered some type of childhood illness that caused the permanent brain damage, leaving him extremely slow—both physically and mentally; however, he somehow learned to read and write enough to read a newspaper. I don’t think he ever went to public school, but my grandmother, the oldest girl, took on the maternal role for him when she married at the age of fifteen because their own mother had died.
After my grandmother died, Uncle Dock came to Texas to live where his nephew could become his caretaker. My uncle arranged for Dock to live in a group home where others were his caregivers. While in Texas, Dock died, so my uncle arranged his funeral in the family plot in Arkansas. In that cemetery, I discovered Dock’s headstone minus a death date. For some reason, that missing date bothered me immensely; it just didn’t seem right for someone to die without the recognition of that significant date to memorialize his life.
After my aunt’s funeral, I consulted the funeral home owner to see what would be involved in getting the death date inscribed on that headstone. Since I had taken care of my own parents’ graves and headstones, I knew the process, so we contracted with the Arkansas home to have Dock’s death date inscribed. The funeral director eventually sent me a photograph to confirm the completion of the job. I felt a real sense of closure upon seeing that date. Now Euthel Dock Bell’s remains officially rest with his family. I felt as if I had made sure to fulfill my grandparents’ role as Dock’s caregivers by completing his headstone properly.
I know that cemetery etiquette may seem unimportant compared to present situations all around us; however, our attention to our ancestors may portend how our children and grandchildren will remember us in our final resting places. Perhaps we will all discover a connection between caregiving and caretaking. Just as I was my parents’ caregivers for a decade before their deaths, I became the caretaker of their estate, including their assets as well as their final wishes. Both roles are needed and honorable.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.