Single words are delicious morsels of information. They are rich with history and meaning. Despite differences of perspective or language, a word can communicate across vast spaces of time and culture. We know a lot about things because of the words that make up the intricate embroidery of their descriptions. There is plenty to be known outside of language, of course, but if we experience or learn something non-verbally, chances are the first thing we do is put that experience into words so we can turn right around and tell someone else about it. And how we do just that! It is no accident that humans are the only creatures associated with the verb to blather.
It is always important not to confuse the word with the thing it represents. A word doesn’t ultimately define that to which it is attached, and so names of things are conveniences, not truths. Still, words are very important. Not only for how they sound, but also for how they let us sound off. Equally important is how words make us feel, above and beyond what they might actually mean.
So, several words have come under my scrutiny lately. They have been coming up a lot in my life, and they are making me feel things which I want to tell someone about. Please indulge me as I blather.
The words are give, take, and care. As words and as verbs, give and care have a lot in common. They both imply things like altruism, empathy, and sympathy. Whichever order you put them in, give care or care give, they sound nice. To take seems like the odd man out here, almost connoting the opposite of the other two. However, when you combine give and take, you get the benevolent idea of parity, of sharing. When you combine care and take, you get an action that is kindly in an especially deliberate way. When you switch the order to take care, you get a blessing.
Because of my father’s dementia, I am now officially what the health care industry calls a caregiver. It’s a good enough word; it means good things. I don’t like it for me, though. I prefer caretaker. I know that makes me sound more like a janitor or gardener, but I do all that for my father anyway, so it’s not an incorrect description. Both titles mean the same thing in this context, so this sounds nitpicky, I know. Probably no one else cares about this little taxonomical issue except me. Lord knows my father doesn’t care. But I do, and if I am going to be burdened with a title on top of everything else, I want it to be right.
Care-giving sounds a little impersonal to me. Like an obligation. Like one can be somehow detached from the care itself. It doesn’t have to be part of you, and won’t be part of you once it is given. We give things away. That’s what we say when we want to detach ourselves from our cares – we give them away, toss them, release them. We give things up for good. Or we give them a whirl. We give a shit. Something gives us the creeps. The concept of giving can seem so superficial. Want to give? Just write a check. We give up.
Care-taking sounds like complete absorption to me. When you take care, it’s personal. There is no space between you and your care. It is a choice, not an obligation, to take care. You take part in the caring. You take a stand. You take your place. You can take a hike. When you take action, you do it on purpose and you mean something by it. If you take ill, it’s serious. Ditto if you take a fall. If you are taken by something, it has all of your attention. If you take a pill, you ingest it into your being. If you take an object, you take on responsibility for it. If you take a chance, your whole life can hang in the balance. A second take can change everything. I’d rather take someone by the hand than just give them a hand. Taking is active, involved, personal. Take a number, and when it’s your turn, you are taken care of.
When I picture a caregiver, I picture someone in a white uniform and thick squeaky shoes. Someone who smells medicine-y. Someone with an education certificate and a reasonable car. Someone who was interviewed and hired. Someone who was given a job.
When I picture a caretaker, I see someone in practical work clothes with a little grime under their fingernails. Someone with a set of important keys. Someone who smells of physical labor, either rigorous or plodding. Someone who can fix things. Someone who evolved into the job through hard work and determination. Someone who takes on challenges.
I’ll concede that caregiver implies an animate recipient of the care being given, like my father, while caretaker connotes care directed towards an inanimate object, like his house. I think this is just a trick. Caregiver is a professional term only recently applied to nonprofessionals like me, but caretaker has always represented folks who just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter who or whatever was on the receiving end.
One cannot define the care giver-taker-doer-provider by way of the recipient, anyway. As in my father’s case, the animate recipient is just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg that you crash into when you take on this job. The real treacheries are inanimate and deeply submerged; a lifetime of assumptions (and thus many misconceptions) you have to rodeo and deal with, a minefield of not-very-good choices you have to finesse, and the awkwardness of being stuck in a small lifeboat with someone you thought you knew but who now turns out to be a total stranger. You become hopelessly entangled in what you thought was a lifeline you were tossing, but which, as often as not, morphs into an anchor chain instead. Ultimately, the most critical thing the caretaker cares for is not the point person, the parent or whomever, that everyone is focused on. The real job is to expose and care for all the murky submerged stuff that has buoyed that person up their whole life. In other words, to best care for the person, you identify and care for all that which constitutes them; their history and their relationship to it, not yours, thank you very much. You care for, take care of, that which they care about, the depth and breadth of who they are in their world, however they experience it. You take care of them, for them. It’s hard work, but on a good day, you might be tempted to call it a blessing.
I know it’s only semantics, but to me, this is not a job about giving. It is all about taking. Taking care, of course, but also taking it on the chin; taking your medicine, the bull by the horns, the last train to Clarksville – or whatever it takes.