Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Dear Readers,

The month of May took many of my friends to the other side of life. And yet, a stubborn ray of sunshine found its way through the dark clouds to remind us that even in death, there can also be poetry, laughter, renewal and celebration of the human spirit . . . and a bowl of strawberry ice cream and cake. I thank these people for sharing their stories.

Mary Swisher shared this at our support group meeting last week. You met Mary through her husband Bob and her grandson Max, who were part of this column in the past.

From Mary:

When my husband lay dying, I stayed with him until midnight and slipped away for sleep while someone else watched over him. Then he slipped away two hours later without me by his side. Many people have told me that this is very common and we all ask why, seeking answers.


I didn’t know when you left me

it would be in early morning

a rosy cresent moon hung

cockeyed in the southeast sky.

I didn’t know when you left me

I would run crazed into the dark

to our apple tree, gathering

the sweet white blossoms

for your still warm hands to embrace.

I didn’t know when you left me

that I would rub lavender

into your stiffening limbs, your beard

that sat on your chin like a white sea urchin

your cold feet so useless now.

I didn’t know when you left me

that I would light every candle ablaze

around your parted breath.

I didn’t know

that I could not stop time

stop you from leaving

and taking your always — constant — fear

that I would leave you.

— By Mary Swisher

Sacramento, Calif.

Dear Mary:

You are not alone. I had this image of my mother’s last breath — that I would be there, holding her hand. When the head nurse told me her blood pressure was dropping, I didn’t know she meant she was dying. So I went home to take a shower and she took her last breath even before I reached home.

When my father died, I flew home from Michigan, and three days later, he took his last breath. I like to believe, they somehow took control of this moment.

And so we respect, even marvel, at their last decision and let go of those images we have created of a perfect death. It may have been perfect for them.

Here’s a poem I wrote of that last breath moment:


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

protecting me

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

the mother.

— From “I Am Somebody”

Dear Frances,

Do you think I’m weird? My husband said I was. Tomorrow is my mother’s funeral services and I have her ashes in our house. Her birthday was two days ago, so I said, “I’m taking Mom out to have her favorite strawberry ice cream and cake.”

My husband said, “Take her photo.”

“No.” I said. “If I take a photo, that would invite people to stop at our table and ask about Mom’s photo. They wouldn’t bother us if they saw an urn of ashes.” So, yes, I did exactly that and felt so good celebrating her birthday. And people respectfully left us alone.

Penny Manson

Sacramento, Calif.

Dear Penny,

I’m smiling. Yes, you’re weird in a wonderful way. I truly like what you did.

Now you have a happy story to add to your memories. We tend to think of death as something dark and forbidden, but as I age, I accept it as sunlight — a part of living.

Even after our loved one’s death, there is still time for creativity and humor to help lighten our load . . . and a bowl of strawberry ice cream.

I wrote the following as I prepared my mother for her wake service one cold January day in Hawai‘i.


“Black is for old people.

Brown is for old people.”

Her birthday has escalated to 80.

“I’m going to go backwards from now on,”

She tells her grandson, “I’ll be 79 next year.”

“When I’m old,” she tells me,

“I’m not going to those places

To crochet, play bingo, sew bottle caps to make hotplates.

That’s for old people.

“When I’m old, I’m going to live near a movie theater

So I can see movies instead of being with old people.”

At age 85, on my calendar, her voice echoes:

“I must be getting old.”

After Alzheimer’s muted her voice

I took her script and added to her wardrobe,

Lavender, light blue, green dusters, elasticized pull-up pants,

Loose blouses for easy access for stiffened arms.

Nothing in brown or black.

Black and Brown are for old people.

“Bring in a blouse for the final viewing of her body at the wake”

Sinks into the new reality.

A rush to the mall . . . the chilled January winds whipping through my hair . . .

She needs to be warm . . . She needs to be warm . . .

Black is for old people. Brown is for old people.

I move hangers in petite size for a lavender or a blue woolen coat . . .

Where in Hawaii will I find a lavender woolen coat?

Spent from my search, with hands on the clock racing away . . .

I settle for the only petite sized coat, in brown.

Okasan, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know brown is for old people.

But this will keep you warm on your final journey.

I add a tiara on her head,

Sprinkle vanda orchids over her folded hands.

I hear a chuckle.

                   — From “Dangerous Woman: Poetry for
                        the Ageless”

It was with great sadness that I learned of Dr. Margaret Oda’s passing from her daughter, Marjorie Oda-Burns. She found my opened letter and envelope on her mother’s desk and wrote to me in beautiful script, just as her mother always did. Marjorie and I believe it was her mother’s final gift of introducing us so we could continue this treasured friendship.

While writing this month’s column, a friend gave me a book, Reeve Lindbergh’s “No More Words: A Journal of My Mother Anne Morrow Lindbergh.” I told her that her timing was magical. A perfect ending to this column.

What a beautiful, beautiful book so honestly and introspectively written.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh lost her voice after numerous strokes. Her youngest daughter, Reeve, expresses many of our thoughts and doubts as we watch a loved one disappear. Or, do they really disappear even in their silence? Reeve gives new meaning to silence. She uses excerpts from her mother’s “Gift from the Sea” (remember this book?) and her poetry. She includes the kidnapping death of her oldest brother and the death of her own young child.

You will laugh, weep and say, “Yes! Yes! Thank you for expressing my secret thoughts and for giving me more insights.” You will applaud her mother.

Reeve was not present when her mother died and she provides meaningful explanation. It seems to be a common phenomenon. This book, I will keep. It’s as extraordinary as Fredrik Backman’s novella, “And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer,” which I had reviewed many columns ago.

I was also curious to see if Anne Morrow Lindbergh would be buried next to her husband Charles in Hana, Maui, where plumeria blossoms embrace his grave.


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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