Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good
karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa
I’m sure you will receive many responses to your last column.
My mom also died when I had left the room briefly to make a phone call, and I hadn’t realized how often that happens. It mitigates the feelings of guilt and reminds me that our loved ones are not our possessions and have their own journeys independent of us. The presence or absence of others may be irrelevant when a person’s journey is nearly ended. I’ve imagined (or questioned) what those final moments might be like in a poem, and in my imagination those moments didn’t include other people:
WHEN THE END IS NEAR
Is there pain or fear
when the end is near?
Have senses failed
and spirit flown?
Is mind aware
or just body there?
Can mind comprehend
In the final minutes
is there — resistance?
How will it feel
to have nothing left
but the breath?
One, then another —
three, maybe four,
then no more?
Elk Grove, Calif.
Those stories are wonderful.
I hear more stories about how a person waits for a son or daughter or some other loved one to appear before passing on, because when they slip away without you, what’s to tell? I won’t take anything away from those who were there for their loved one’s last breath . . . perhaps they did wait. But just like in your experience, when the nurse called and said I should come, I didn’t realize my mother would be gone in minutes, that this was finally the end. So I dawdled for some minutes, the stress keeping me away, then went to the bathroom to relieve what pressure I could, took another minute to converse briefly in the hall, then took a deep breath and pulled myself over a hump. Twenty minutes. She was gone. I could have (should have?) been there in ten. But did she really think of me in those last minutes, much more my father, who was at home, at least thirty minutes away, and having to drive, park and walk? Perhaps she did, but I’m not sure death is about anyone’s control over life, except for God. Life (and death) is a mystery, and mysterious. I hope it doesn’t come with the dying resisting, as when my overtired body is sometimes paralyzed at the last moment before sleep and I feel a horrifying need to fight and jerk my body awake, lest I not wake again. Rather, I hope it is simply releasing one’s spirit to God, as one releases a worry and a frown after realizing there is no need to hold on to a trifle.
I would be interested in what Reeve Lindbergh said about this in her book.
It was wonderful to read your last column. I have not been present for the deaths of any family members and was sad that my mother died in the hospital with no family present. Did she know she was at the end? Was she fearful? Did she want someone there? She did not slip away gently.
I hope that when my end comes I am as gracious as my friend Maggie (age 87), who died in March. We talked daily and I miss her greatly. She had to accept her declining ability to see and walk, yet she made an effort to accept the changes graciously. We often talked about how she felt about the changes and how she managed to accept them. She fought a battle with her mind over many of the changes. One day when I was visiting, she told me she had taken up humming. It prevented her from swearing. I got such a kick out of that. She was not one that swore often, but she sure felt like it with all the adjustments she was having to accept.
I will look for Reeve’s book at the library.
Dear Linda, Jason Kimura and Linda Nagata,
Your eloquence leaves me speechless. Thank you for giving us pause for reflection.
Four subscribers from Hawai‘i and Sacramento thanked me for last month’s column and suggested that we add “Dear Frances” to both editions of The Hawai‘i Herald. I appreciate your interest, so keep sending me your questions and comments.
I’m going to devote the rest of this column to the voices of our elders. Listen to what they are saying to us.
Here are excerpts from one of the poems in my book, “I Am Somebody: Bringing Dignity and Compassion to Alzheimer’s Caregiving.”
SPRING IN AUTUMN
Are they the last leaves of Autumn?
“You have a beautiful smile.”
His eyes, cloudless blue
Look into mine
Daring me to believe him.
I offer him my face.
“Does that come with a kiss?”
For one brief moment
He responds to a flirt.
I feel his kiss on my cheek.
We share a smile.
For that brief moment,
A smile between two strangers,
A man and a woman.
We prolong our smile
Till his caregiver
Comes for him.
Are they the last leaves of Autumn,
Aimlessly falling for that last bonfire?
She walks out of the bathroom
Just as I am walking my mother in.
Her blouse hanging over her slacks,
She looks at me.
“Is there another way I can wear this blouse?
I notice you always dress nicely.
Can you help me look like you?”
This is her first response to me
In all the months I’ve seen her.
Alzheimer’s had stolen from her, too.
I show her three ways to wear her blouse.
She prefers the first where I tied her blouse
In a knot at her waistband.
She walks back into the bathroom,
Slowly pirouettes before the mirror.
“Yes,” she says, “You are smart. I look better.”
I nod, one woman to another.
Are they the last leaves of Autumn?
Or is there still a river flowing
Somewhere deep within?
— Frances Kakugawa
Mrs. A spent the last years of her life living with four of her children in different cities and states. This is her story of one of her visits to her son’s house in our neighborhood.
“Hideko, don’t get old. Not easy to live with all my children. When I’m here, we eat dinner at 4 o’clock. At my daughter’s house, we eat after 8 o’clock. Ho, I’m so hungry all the time because I’m not used to eating so late. But I don’t say anything; I don’t want to make trouble. Too bad I cannot live here, I’m so used to living here. Cannot help, no?”
In Sacramento, I had coffee with Ricky. He lived in an apartment five blocks from his second-hand bookstore until he fell, hit his head and was reduced to using a cane.
His long-distance son gave him an ultimatum: Either sell the apartment or sell the bookshop. If you sell the apartment, you need to live in a retirement home. If you sell the bookshop, you can still stay in your apartment. There will be no walking for you.
The bookstore was his passion since he was a young man. He sold his apartment and moved into a retirement home. His son arranged to have him driven to his bookshop a few days a week.
“I miss my walk to the bookstore,” he confessed. “That was good exercise for me. So what if I fall? So I die. That’s fine with me. This is no way to live. I feel lonely and have no one to speak to at the retirement home. We have nothing in common. At least when I went to the shop every day, I had my regular customers.” Yesterday, he asked a friend of mine if he could live with her.
So readers, I leave you with these questions:
Are our elders incapable of being involved in making decisions that will change their lifestyle? Are we defining our parents by age rather than their individual personalities? Are we respecting their dignity? Are we using our own conveniences to decide what is best for our elders?
I rest my case . . .
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.