Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa

Dear Readers,

I’m writing this in October, before I leave for my speaking engagements in Denver, because I know I won’t be able to meet my deadline after my trip. If I don’t do this now, it will mean an email all in capital letters from my “Boss Lady” (aka Karleen), asking: “WHERE IS DEAR FRANCES?”

For this column, I will share this drama queen’s account of her recent bout with pneumonia.

More than six weeks ago, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. My immediate thought was, “Oh no, pneumonia can be fatal to the elderly, and I’m now in that age group.” I spent the next three weeks in bed. Truth be told, the thought of writing my next “Dear Frances” column never entered my mind through my coughing spells and sleepless nights.

Fortunately, I had an excellent caregiver/nurse in Red. He brought all of my meals to me on a tray and kept me filled with liquids, although one night, I did tell him: “Can you fire the chef who made tonight’s soup — it was too salty.”

“I already fired him,” he replied.

Another night, the distance between the bedroom and the bathroom turned into miles to travel. In just an hour, I had four different accidents. My caregiver, who had taken care of his mother, knew exactly what to do. Lying in bed, I heard the sound of the washing machine come on. Caregivers know what it means to be doing laundry in the middle of the night. As I listened to the sound of the washer in the quiet night, I was reminded of that train whistle in the silence of the night, lonely and yet so poignantly poetic. I also thought it was too soon for me to be the reason that washer was running at midnight. I tried to capture that night and my defiant thoughts in the following poem.


Last night . . .

The sound of soiled sheets,

Nightgowns, towels, rugs, panties —

Whirling and spinning

Into the morning hours

Spin me back to my mother’s reign.

That long-ago sound

Of train whistles on insomniac nights —

The braying of that lone wolf —

The washer at 3 a.m.

Sounds without words.

Her crown, a diamond-lit drone

Hovers over my head,

Eager for its next reign.

It’s pneumonia! I shout,

Gasping for air. Go away!

D L R O W! *

Trump is your President! **

Apple, table, penny. Penny, table, apple! ***

The song of the washer

Soothes me in my third set of

Nighties. The droning sound, gone.

(Note: The italicized lines with asterisks are the answers to three of the questions asked by neurologists when they test for dementia: * Spell “world” backwards. ** Who is our president? *** Those three words are given at the beginning of the test; the patient is then asked to recall the three words throughout the test.)

My primary care physician went on vacation during the second week of my bout with pneumonia, so I saw another doctor. She told me that my lungs were clear and that she’d like to give me a flu shot. Being suspicious and cautious, I rejected her offer and consulted a pharmacist.

“No,” he said. “It’s too soon for a flu shot.”

My PCP returned a week later. “You can’t go on vacations when I‘m dying,” I told her. And no, my lungs were not clear — I still had pneumonia.

By then, healthy soup was flowing out of my ears, so I told Red I wanted Kapoho-style healing food: Vienna sausage, hot rice and eggs. He was stunned. “Nobody eats that stuff,” said the guy who grew up in the San Francisco area, where they were culturally deprived.

I got up and added shoyu (soy sauce) and sugar to a can of Vienna sausage, cooked them until the sauce got sticky and ate them with hot white rice and eggs! My healing began. Spam was next.

I also brought in the “Hiroshima sick-man cuisine”: rice in salt water boiled to the consistency of chagai (rice cooked in hot tea) with one umeboshi (pickled plum). Slurp. Ahhhhhh . . .

I posted my Vienna sausage and Spam story on my Facebook page and blog. Most of my Mainland readers confessed they had never eaten Vienna sausage. A few ventured out to get a can. The best responses came from two women in Hawai‘i: One said Vienna sausage and Spam are considered Hawaiian penicillin. The second woman confessed that the last time she had cooked Vienna sausage in shoyu and sugar was 40 years ago, when she cooked them for her brother in her University of Hawai‘i dorm.

Interestingly, a Japanese friend brought me umeboshi and anpan (mashed azuki bean pastry) and a haole friend brought soup and sourdough bread. No Spam or Vienna sausage.

Humor helped. Reading the Sacramento Bee newspaper, I often said, “Hey, I’m not in the obits; I’m still alive.” It was a good time to read novels; I read about four novels before my lungs were declared cleared after more than six weeks, but I am told the fatigue I still feel will take months to overcome.

Exercise. I worked myself back to the gym by first walking the mall. It turned out to be expensive exercise.

Postscript: Readers, I lied about my Boss Lady, Karleen Chinen. She is a kind, generous and knowledgeable editor, and she would never send me an email in capital letters. She does, however, ignore the “Can I have a raise?” notes that I insert into my columns every now and then. (From Karleen: I always reply: “You’ll get a raise when I get a raise.”)

Now on to more serious matters. In last month’s column, Linda and I were engaged in a conversation about her father, who was under hospice care in Florida, far away from where she lives in Elk Grove, Calif. We continued our conversation:

Dear Frances . . . I got a phone call this morning telling me my dad died last night. I’m OK, just very sad, but also relieved knowing that he is finally at peace. . . . Love, Linda

Dear Linda . . . We have candles lit for your dad at our family shrine of photos. . . . Love, Frances

Dear Frances . . . Thank you for the lighted candles, Frances. My dad’s name is George and he turned 96 in March. . . . A family shrine — what a lovely idea. I have family photos dating back to the mid-1800s; maybe I could create something similar. Keeping photos in a box or an album allows them to be easily forgotten, and I want to remember. . . . Love, Linda

Dear Linda . . . I spoke with your Dad today and wished him a peaceful journey. I read somewhere that when we lose someone, we honor that person by not thinking of what we have lost, but rather of the years we had together. Our family shrine: We have photos of our families and we often talk to them out loud. When we miss them, we light candles. And the first flowers from our garden go to the shrine. You now have something to do . . . create your family shrine. . . . Love, Frances

Dear Frances . . . I’ve put together a little shrine with photos of my mom and dad and candles. Next, I’ll add pictures of my grandparents and my dad’s sister (my aunt), who was very important to me. There are still a few zinnias left in the garden and I’ll pick some for them today. It’s nice to have a physical location where I can go and talk with them, be with them. I do feel that my dad is always with me. Mom, too. . . . Love, Linda

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.


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