Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

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

I returned from my speaking engagements on the East Coast and found these insightful letters and emails waiting for me.

Dear Frances,

Your poem, “Tick Tock,” in the October issue, hit a nerve. When my father was in the nursing home, I asked him if my aunt and uncle had visited him. He didn’t answer. Then a woman in a wheelchair in the same room said to me,
“Honey, we don’t remember things like that.”


Sacramento, Calif.

Frances, your poem, “Tick Tock,” so captures, so understands the difference between interrogation and relating. Isobel used to say, “Bring me things, not news.” Same idea. Hardest of all are the tests that decide if you are to be treated as a fully adult human or some subspecies with a defect. The mini-mental exam can be so cruel and misunderstanding . . .

When we test the competence of old people, we ask them things like:

Who is the President?

What day of the week is it?

When is your birthday?

What is your name?

Can you count from 7 backwards, beginning with 100?

Spell “world” backwards . . .

We haven’t a clue as to the clarity of thought or the years it takes to learn just how unimportant such things really are.


Sacramento, Calif.

Elva and Red, thank you for your input.

When my mother was given this test, I knew she wouldn’t do well because, when in her lifetime did she ever write the word “world,” let alone backwards? She was creative when she answered, “Hmm . . . I know the answer, but I forgot.” And, as my dyslexic writer-friend said, “I will never be able to count backwards.”

I discussed this difference between interrogation and conversation at the National RAPP (Relatives as Parents Program) conference when I was in New York. Too often, we do the same with our teens: How was school? How was your day? How was your game? And then we’re frustrated with their responses: “Good,” “Fine,” “OK” or grunts. We are asking for those responses. As with the elders, we ask for silence or the demeaning of their personhood with questions, questions, questions. Let’s talk story instead.

There is a new TV program titled “New Amsterdam.” The medical profession shows the most idealistic way to run a hospital and converse with patients. The doctors and their staff are humans first, and they constantly bend the rules. In one episode, instead of asking questions, the doctor talks story with the husband of the patient before delivering the fatal verdict. Their teamwork is what we desire in our medical profession. We may want to ask for similar services from our real-life doctors. I recommended the show to my primary doctor. I also hand her books because I know she’s too busy to explore what’s out there.

The following stories came from two readers. Once again, creating our own meaning into events can be inspiring and comforting and can even let us feel and believe that there are spiritual connections between those we have lost and ourselves. Didn’t I tell you that I still get myself a pricey Christmas gift from my mother every year?

Dear Frances,

I want to share something that happened today.

“Daddy, was that you?”

I was standing in line at Longs Drugs store, waiting to pay for a small bottle of water. In my rush, I had forgotten my hydro flask of water for my Zumba workout at home. So here I was, rushing to buy a bottle of water for my class.

The elder Filipino man in front of me saw my bottle of water and with his hand waved away my money and put my water along with his purchases. I objected, but he insisted. The cashier didn’t say a thing as she put my water bottle into his bag. He then handed me my bottle of water.

I waited for him outside the store to thank him again.

He told me, “Money is nothing,” and he pointed to the sky. Like you can’t take it with you. He then told me how he recently went to Ösaka, Japan, and couldn’t speak the language, but was giving massages.

OK, maybe that wasn’t you, Dad, but this skinny, elderly gentleman reminded me so much of you.

I stopped and gave thanks for this divine intervention.

Love and miss you so much.



Dear Frances,

After my dad passed away in 2007, this bird would come in the morning and perch on the ledge outside my bedroom window and flap his wings and peck at the window. I can’t remember how long the bird did this, but eventually, it never came back.

Recently, a bird would come and do the same thing outside my bedroom window. The morning after my mom died, this bird came again, but no flapping of wings, just a small peck at the window, then it flew away, never to be seen. I think the bird was a messenger letting me know that Mom was with Dad again and all was well.

I think about why it is so difficult to tell when a person is dying. Mom was in the hospital when she died, but the doctors never said anything about dying until a day before she died. In fact, two days before she died, they said she was improving, but I think I knew. The balls and heels of her feet were turning red (the start of bed sores) and I remembered my dad’s hospice nurse explaining that means the body is breaking down.

I think about us sitting in silence in a garden in the sun, listening to the birds and feeling and hearing the wind. I no longer can call her just to talk, to ask her how to make certain dishes that she liked, to ask for advice or to hear her stories of her youth. We always said “Love you” to each other whenever I left her and then she would always say to me, “Thank you.”

Love you, Mom.



Dear Frances,

I wrote this poem after my mom’s last Christmas.


We suspected it might be, but maybe not.

Maybe papal dispensation, miracle medication,

temporary reprieve, even simple serendipity . . .

something, anything, would intervene to delay

the inevitable: our last Christmas with Mom.

What if our suspicions proved true and this was it,

the last Christmas we’d spend together as a

We knew it had to happen, and soon: this year,

next year, soon . . . We would be ready just in case.

We would make this Christmas memorable.

We waited for Mom in the entrance hall,

anticipating her smile, unprepared for what

followed: we were strangers, and she was

afraid of us. She backed away and clung

to an aide, fear all over her face.

Deflated as a punctured plastic Santa,

we left without her. The numbing truth

that our last Christmas with Mom had

already taken place, that this would be our

first without her, suddenly penetrated.

If only we’d known last year,

we would have polished the silver,

washed the crystal, ironed the napkins,

served her ham and scalloped potatoes

instead of that new fusion cuisine

from Gourmet Magazine, made the house

sparkle with lights and tinsel and strings

of beads on an old-fashioned tree, played

carols and Nat King Cole on the stereo

instead of Twisted Christmas . . .

If only there were a way to know last

times before they happen. Or would

prescience be too heavy a burden, heavier

than today’s heartache and regret that

hindsight is all we get?


Elk Grove, Calif.

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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