Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you.
— Frances H. Kakugawa
Do you remember my friend Mabs? I told you about her in my March 4 column, “Mabs’ Journey.” Mabs continues to attend my Memoir Writing Group, even though her Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to take its toll.
By our last session, I had become a stranger to her. But that’s OK. This was our conversation:
Mabs: “I can’t remember things anymore.”
Me: “That’s okay, Mabs; we will remember for you.”
Mabs, with a slight smile: “You will? Thanks.”
Mabs shared her work, written in script. Because she can no longer return to her memories, she now offers advice in her writing. Last month, she wrote a paragraph on how to behave in the workplace. “Be on time. Do your work. Don’t take long breaks.”
Mabs: “Is this all right? I don’t know how much longer I can write.”
Me: “Mabs, even if you can’t write, continue to join us. You can listen to other people’s stories. Don’t worry about your writing. Tell me, how do you feel when you’re writing?”
Mabs: “I get all stressed when I can’t remember stuff, but when I write, all that stress goes away. So I’m glad I can still write.”
Me: “Mabs, just write words. That’s OK, too.”
One of the members emailed me later. She said she felt uplifted listening to our conversation; she felt like she was on another planet. So Mabs is teaching us the power of writing, even in her dementia state.
My mother died four days before Christmas. I am sad because she died alone. I knew time was getting shorter for her because she had stopped eating. On that one night, I was so tired I slept in my own bed. At 3 a.m. when I went to check on her, she was gone. I was planning to be with her when she died. I even planned on being in bed with her, holding her, and this didn’t happen. I have so much regret and feel I let her down.
And, Frances, how important is it to follow our cultural traditions? In our culture, we don’t keep cremated ashes in the house. I’m supposed to take her ashes back to Fiji, where she was born. But I am so tired and depressed — I can’t do this right now. At one time, I had her ashes in the garage, thinking it’s not in the house. Then I put her ashes in the closet. I’m losing my mind. I’m trying to put her clothes and belongings away and I keep crying, seeing her things. I’m even thinking of taking her ashes to the sea or to the river. What do you think? Am I being a bad daughter?
To your first concern . . . the best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray . . .
There are many things in life that are out of our control, Raj. I, too, had planned on being with my mother when she died, but it happened when I left
to take a shower, thinking I would be with her all
night at the nursing facility. She chose to leave dur-
ing my absence and I can’t help but feel that she waited until I was gone to spare me because she knew how anxious I felt in hospital situations and
with anything medical-related. Perhaps your mother, too, chose her own time and place. It was her time to leave, whether you were there or not. I hope you can find some peace in knowing that your mother is also at peace. You did so much caring for your mother — do not let this one moment when she chose to leave, become your truth of the years you spent together.
THE FINAL BREATH
at the very end
as it was
at the beginning
I was the child
she remained the mother
she took hold
of time and place
for her final exit
child of her womb
the final severance
of the umbilical cord
made easy and gentle
a final gift
from mother to child
the thief once again
failed in his efforts
to switch our roles
for three years she played along
but in her soul, she was always
— Frances H. Kakugawa
From: “I Am Somebody”
Now to cultural traditions . . .
When cultural traditions begin to turn into burdens, it may be time to let go. When that clock begins to dictate what needs to be done, it may be time to bury that clock. I heard recently that when we enter this world, we enter with our bodies. But when we leave, we do so spiritually. I like this thought.
There is no timeline for you to return your mother’s ashes to Fiji. I do like your idea of returning her to the sea. Creeks run into rivers, rivers into oceans, and oceans touch all islands.
There is also no timeline to clear your home of your mother’s belongings. You will know when that time is right for you.
A few years ago, a friend of mine in Hawai‘i was very anxious because she felt pressured to take her husband’s ashes back to Kansas, even though she was not ready to let him go. “There is no timeline,” I told her. “Take his ashes back when you’re ready.” This liberated her and she decided to keep his ashes at home until she died so her children could take both of them back to Kansas.
Sometimes we make rules that go counter to our own flow of life, and that creates problems. You will know when you’re ready.
My dear readers . . . I want to tell you about an innovative and possibly transformative program taking place in Holland. I hope universities, and nursing and care home staffs will pay special attention to this.
In Holland, nursing homes are working with college students in subject areas ranging from gerontology to literature and music. These students spend about 30 hours a month sharing their skills with the residents. They read poetry and/or sing to them; they converse with them and become loving companions. In exchange, they can board for free.
The results have been amazing — the residents are actively engaged and happy. They are no longer just sitting in chairs in a drugged state. It also provides the students with the opportunity to apply what they have learned in their classes on a deeper level, beyond textbooks and lectures, while receiving free housing.
I am especially excited about this phenomenon because it’s happening right here in my Sacramento community with two families who are in my support group. Each of them has opened up a room in their house for a college student from the gerontology department, offering free room and board in exchange for assisting with caregiving duties. The caregiving is limited mainly to companionship, although many pitch in and help with the dishes and simple housework. The students serve as companions while the caregivers attend our support group, which is about two hours long. The caregivers can also go grocery shopping or even to a movie or a yoga class because the student is there. The students are pleased with this arrangement because on-campus housing is expensive.
One caregiver requested a student who enjoys singing because her husband finds comfort in singing. The other caregiver’s wife is bedridden, so the student helps him feed her and also assists with other personal chores.
The students must adhere to one rule: Electronic devices are not to be used when the person being cared for is awake.
It makes so much sense and sounds creatively simple for nursing facilities to work with our colleges to make this happen, don’t you think? In my travels throughout the U.S., I hear legitimate reasons why nursing home staffs are unable to interact with their residents outside of performing their professional duties simply because they are understaffed.
Think of the humanity being strengthened among generations with this innovative way of providing care. This is not a one-way entertainment program whereby residents sit as audiences. Not at all. Rather, they interact and develop precious relationships. Our whole concept of nursing facilities will transform from being viewed as a last-resort home where elders waste away and die to a place where there is still life to be lived with joy with our younger generations. Above all, there is a mutually given and received gift that may have a greater impact on our younger generations — the gift of discovering their own humanity through our elders.
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. 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. She is a sought-after speaker, both in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland, sharing strategies for caregiving, as well as coping with the stresses of caregiving.