Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa
Another holiday season has come and gone, and with it, its joy and stresses . . . which prompted me to put together this post-holidays column in the hope that you will keep it in mind when November and December roll around again later this year.
Christmas is always a difficult time for me. The holidays are when I miss my mother the most. Going Christmas shopping is painful, knowing she, who loved Christmas so much, isn’t here. Do you have any advice? How can I get through this depressing period?
I know it’s difficult while the world outside is ringing with promised joy and cheer. So, how about creating a new tradition — one that will bring you new meaning and even laughter, instead of grief?
Before my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we had a tradition between us — created by me, of course. I did this to add fun to our holiday. Every Christmas, I would return from shopping with a new sweater or skirt. This was our conversation every year:
Me: Look, isn’t this nice?! You want to buy this for me for Christmas?
Okasan: Sure. What? You can’t buy your own? Sure, I’ll pay for it. How much?
No matter what the price, she would always say, “Only that much?” As she handed me the cash, our conversation would continue:
Okasan: You not shame to take money from your poor mother? You make more money than me.
Me: No, no shame.
And I pocketed the money each time, amidst our chuckles. I know she enjoyed this as much as I did. She’s been gone 12 years now, but she’s still buying me a present every year.
“Hey, Okasan,” runs through my mind as I shop. “How about buying this for me?”
Two years ago, she bought me an iPad. I’m still waiting to collect from her.
So, Jean . . . Try and use your imagination to create a new tradition that will bring you a smile, or something of deeper meaning.
I know a caregiver who gets a new ornament for her tree every year, just like her mother used to do every Christmas. One caregiver adds a new plant to her yard, as her mother loved her garden.
I love candles, so when a feeling of sadness comes over me, I light some candles. The aura of the candlelight brings me peace and a deeper sense of poignancy. We often feel sadness because we are no longer able to do something for our loved ones who are no longer here. How about using your memories to do something fun or lighthearted for yourself?
This is my second year as a caregiver and I’m dreading Christmas. We always went to my mother’s house for Christmas, but she now lives with me. Just the thought of doing Christmas here makes me tired. Last year was just too much for me. As the eldest of my siblings, I feel like I need to do Christmas for the family. Should I continue our family tradition?
Sometimes, family traditions need to be redefined or redesigned, especially in the caregiving world.
I once told a caregiver who felt just like you did to ask her younger sister to host Thanksgiving at her house and, in addition, to take care of their mother for the day. “Do this,” I advised, “and go to a movie with your husband.”
“That was the best Thanksgiving ever,” she told me later. “My sister happily did Thanksgiving with my mother and the clan, and all turned out good for all of us. I’m going to the movies again next year.”
We often don’t ask for help and continue to carry on tradition, even when it turns into a burden. It won’t be easy to break away from years of tradition, but let’s pause and see what needs to be done to help make the holidays less of a burden.
One year, my mother spent Christmas with my brother Paul while I attended the Christmas Day Sheraton Hawai‘i Bowl. I had to shoo away the little voice that kept creeping into my head throughout the game: “I should be with my mother. I shouldn’t be having so much freedom and fun.”
But it was a Christmas I never forgot. It was such joy to not have to be in the kitchen and to have someone else care for my mother.
Another thought that helped me reduce holiday stress throughout the years was to tell myself that every holiday was just another ordinary day. So, if I didn’t have the energy or interest, I let the holidays come and go without us. When my mother entered a nursing facility, I brought Christmas into her room and to the entire floor with décor. I had the energy since she was being cared for in a home.
See if you can redesign your family traditions to accommodate your new life as a caregiver. Begin by asking for help and by letting family members know that what used to work before your mother got ill no longer works. And non-caregivers, take note of family traditions in the world of caregiving.
Keep in mind that we don’t “gotta” do anything. Take care, and I hope this works.
Let’s talk a bit about gift giving during the holidays.
I think we need to look at gift exchanges with an open mind. Caregivers often find it difficult to shop, and finances may be an issue due to medical expenses. If gift giving is a tradition to be preserved, caregivers may need help from friends and family.
Here’s how you can help: Offer to shop their Christmas list for them, or to decorate their homes. Offer to prepare their Christmas dinner. Offer to put away their Christmas decorations after Dec. 25th. Or, send them to a movie.
Here’s another thought: Suggest that the family give gifts with omoiyari in mind. In other words, give the gift of kindness. A few holiday stories come to mind.
One year, my doctor asked if I would help him prepare Thanksgiving dinner for all of his homebound patients. A group of us gathered at his house, spent the day cooking and then delivered dinners to all his patients. It was a day of genuine thanks-giving — and one Thanksgiving that I didn’t mind being in the kitchen. All of the doctor’s patients had been told that their very own physician would be delivering their Thanksgiving dinner that day. Omoiyari.
One Christmas eve, quite by accident, my friend Red saw dozens of poinsettia plants being prepared for the trash bin at a local store. He brought home 79 potted plants and on Christmas Day, we delivered them to private nursing facilities. For many, these flowers were the only signs of Christmas in their rooms. Omoiyari.
On still another Christmas eve, we took an electric train set to a home for abused children. These children had been removed from their homes and were spending Christmas away from their families. The joy on their faces as the train went around and around the Christmas tree in the dining room made me feel that, even if only for a few minutes, those kids had forgotten why they were there.
Red’s mother, who was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, had accompanied us to the children’s home, so that was our Christmas. We stopped at a coffee shop for a fast dinner on our way home. It was way better than being in the kitchen! Omoiyari.
We can also practice omoiyari in the workplace by taking a few risks and prioritizing kindness over company rules. Here’s a true story to illustrate my point.
One day, I walked into a furniture store — I was window-shopping for a piece of furniture. One after the other, the salesmen swooped in on me, probably sensing money since I was dressed like a clotheshorse — leather coat, gloves, woolen scarf and a hat.
“Thank you, I’m just looking,” I repeated to each salesman as I walked toward the room display.
The door opened and another customer entered. A salesman was on the man in an instant. “May I help you?” he asked.
I was about to return to my shielded mode when I heard the man reply, “I just want a place to sit.”
He didn’t look like cash to me. He was unshaven with a sallow and gaunt look. His thin coat hung loosely on him and his socks bulged out of his shoes, soaked with mud.
I braced myself for the confrontation that I was sure would come and prepared myself to run defense for the man.
The salesman looked the man over and then gestured to a collection of pricey sofas.
“Be my guest,” he said, softly. Then, as an afterthought, added, “Just be careful not to get the furniture wet,” and walked away. He was not selling Christmas that day. Omoiyari.
I wrote up these stories and shared them with family, hoping that omoiyari will become part of the new tradition, especially for our children.
This hope for our children will not happen by accident, or by age, or by mere hope. At the post office recently, I heard a woman say that she gave her two young children advertisements for toys and electronic games and pairs of scissors and tape to cut and paste their wish list for Santa. She was proudly sharing how their lists covered a few sheets of paper.
I bit my tongue. Had I known her, I would’ve suggested that they add two acts of kindness for each item on their wish list. There are so many opportunities to preserve and teach the true meaning of giving — there’s no better time to do it than during the holidays.
Frances Kakugawa was her mother’s primary caregiver during her five-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. A native of Kapoho on Hawai‘i island, she now lives in Sacramento, Calif. Frances has melded her professional training as a writer and educator and her personal caregiving experiences to write several books on caring for people with memory-related illnesses. Frances is a sought-after speaker, both in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland, sharing strategies for caregiving, as well as coping with caregiving.
TO CHILDREN OF THE 21ST CENTURY
How do you keep your fingers so free of dirt?
How do you come in from play without
Mud on your feet, your clothes, your cheeks?
How do you not even sweat?
How do you live without giving eye contact
To the person sitting in front of you?
How do you spend time with your friend
Oh, Children of the 21st Century,
Why is there silence in a room filled
With family on this holiday?
How did you become so mute?
Do you know how rain feels
Soaking your shirt to your skin?
The smell of sea salt in your hair
After a dip in the sea?
Have you watched a little seed
Pushing its first breath
Out of soil you patted down
A few weeks ago?
Do you know the feel of your grandpa’s grip
Warm and strong in your hand?
The story behind that long scar that runs
The length of his arm?
Do you carry memories
Of your grandma’s smiles
Each time you said,
“Hi Grandma. Can I help you?”
Do you ever count clouds, lying
On soft green grass, laughing
Over silly stuff shared with a friend?
Do you ever cry over a child starving
In Africa or in your neighborhood?
Plant a tree when other trees are being cut
For freeways and shopping malls,
And fancy sports arenas?
Have you ever used the eraser
At the end of a pencil,
Writing a poem, a song, a story.
A thank you note?
Do you know the feel of crisp
New pages of a book, as they unfold
Moving plots, faster than your impatient
Fingers can follow your eyes?
Oh, Children of the 21st Century,
Forgive us, for what we have done.