Darin Roam spends most of his waking hours in a Selma cemetery, removing dirt from headstones with a paintbrush and meticulously clipping grass with kitchen scissors.
It’s a labor of love and grief that started after the death of his wife in 2014 and has expanded to about 30 gravestones. He does it to help people he’s met in the cemetery and church.
Among the stones is one for his father, the Rev. Charles Roam, who died of a heart attack two years ago at the church he led, Grace Free Will Baptist in Selma.
Potted roses, a wooden cross, solar lights and snowman figurines grace the headstones at Floral Memorial Park on a recent winter day. Roam places photos on them while he works so people can see their smiling faces.
“I’m comfortable out here and stuff,” the 48-year-old says of volunteering in the cemetery. “I can be closer out here with them.”
Roam is mentally disabled. His mother, Kathy Roam, isn’t sure her son fully understands what’s happened to his father and wife.
Of the time he spends at his wife April’s graveside, she says, “I think he doesn’t really understand that she’s not really there. She’s with God.”
Roam and April were inseparable for the 17 years they were married.
“And then when we lost her, he was kind of lost,” his mom says. “So he started hanging out there a lot. It just broke my heart to see him sitting out there alone.”
Roam started cleaning headstones because he didn’t like seeing the markers riddled with grass spewed from lawnmowers.
“He feels like he has a job and people depend on him,” his mom says. “He’s told me that he has a purpose. Everyone needs a purpose.”
Roam always wanted a job. He still dreams of being a firefighter. When firetrucks pass, he exclaims, “There goes my guys!”
“Like he’s part of the team,” his mom says.
Roam used to carry an emergency police and fire scanner everywhere. He would arrive at accident scenes eager to help, but was unable to.
In high school, he was hired at a fast food restaurant but never got the chance to work. He missed orientation because he didn’t tell his mom in time, who was his ride around town. He later worked as a laborer, but that only lasted a few days. He couldn’t work without constant direction after being instructed to dig trenches around some trees.
He feels useful out there and he feels like he’s helping. I don’t care who you are, you like to feel like you’re useful.
“He would just stand out there on the shovel,” his mom recalls. “He didn’t know what to do.”
Childhood was hard, too. Bullies put him in trash cans and laughed at him.
“He tried to buy friends. … He would take a pack of cookies and pass out all the cookies to all the kids in the neighborhood,” his mom recalls, “but when the cookies were gone, the friends were gone. That was hard for him. He didn’t know why he didn’t have any friends.”
Then one evening in his mid-20s, Roam met his dearest friend – his future wife – at a rollerskating rink in Clovis. She liked him just the way he was.
‘Two peas in a pod’
Roam’s mother worried when her son started dating April. She was used to people taking advantage of his kindness, but April was different.
The pair became constant companions who helped each other accomplish things they couldn’t have done alone. April was born with a physical disability – Roam with an intellectual one. He was a devoted and loving caregiver as his wife’s body deteriorated due to complications from being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. April made sure the bills got paid on time and expanded her husband’s circle of friends.
April died at age 46 from cardiac arrest and other health issues. She didn’t want to be on life support and Roam honored her wish.
“He was holding her hand when she died,” Kathy Roam says, “then he blamed himself. He thought he was the murderer himself. That’s what he said. He said he wasn’t a good husband because he let her die.”
A year ago, the couple’s 18-year-old black terrier, Snoopy, died, and the pain intensified. As Snoopy was dying, Roam told his mom, “If I lose Snoopy, I’ll lose everything.”
Roam describes April as a good person who was fun to be with. He says he misses how he could talk about his feelings with her.
“I liked being able to do stuff together,” Roam says. “We drank Mountain Dews 24 hours a day. We watched a lot of movies together. We watched Jim Carrey, ‘The Grinch’ – ‘Top Gun.’ ”
She was good for him and he was good for her. It worked. They grew together and took care of each other and were so close.
Friend Gene Wells says the couple were like “two peas in a pod.”
“Every minute they had together, they were together,” Wells says.
Now Roam spends most of his time at April’s graveside. A typical day is sleeping until noon, then heading to the cemetery.
“It was better off, spending more time out here than at home,” Roam says. “It was tearing me up. I just couldn’t take it.”
When asked if it’s become any easier since April passed away, Roam answers simply: “No.”
He goes to the cemetery every day because “it’s his way of still taking care of April and still being with her,” his mom says.
“It’s comforting to him and he’s actually doing good at the same time.”
The cemetery caretaker
But it’s not all positive, says Wells, whose parents are buried in the cemetery.
“It’s really a sweet thing that he’s doing and everything,” Wells says of Roam looking after his parents’ graves, “but we all wish he could get to where he’s not so obsessed with staying out there and is obsessed with death. … He gets to where he’s down and doesn’t really care if he lives or dies when he spends so much time there. He just needs to get some more interest in other things and it’s just not happening.”
Still, his work is appreciated. Brad Rainey, a groundskeeper at the Selma cemetery, calls Roam “very thoughtful.”
“It’s a help – it does help us,” Rainey says. “He’s here every day.”
Roam regularly does little things to show he cares. On Veterans Day, he placed a miniature American flag on the grave of James Schneider, a family friend, because Schneider served in the Air Force. His widow, Man-Li Schneider, says knowing the bighearted Roam is in the cemetery gives her “a peace.”
Friend Cathy Ashoori, whose mother is buried at the cemetery, says something similar.
“It means a lot to me that he would do that. … It’s still tough for me to go out there and visit the grave,” Ashoori says.
Friend Vickey Tripp says Roam shows her “what a true Christian is. … I should be more like that.”
Roam hopes his work in the cemetery inspires others to do the same.
“I want them to clean up their cemeteries – keep it nice,” he says, “to show their love and stuff.”