Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Honorable Mention
Hawai'i Kai woman finds poetry gives strength to caregivers

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

A published poet and caregiver to her mother, Frances H. Kakugawa uses her poetic gift to help other caregivers “discover our own humanity,” she said. She runs a monthly writing group for caregivers at the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Frances H. Kakugawa

Age: 64

Hometown: Kapoho, Hawaii; now lives in Hawaii Kai

Position: Retired schoolteacher; leader of monthly poetry and journal-keeping meetings with fellow caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s

Honor: The group’s poetry will be published in a nationally distributed book next year.

Quote: "Writing really reflects you as a person. The poems have gotten stronger, images have gotten stronger, as I’ve changed as a person."


When I’m sitting in the living room,
I’m suddenly filled with unexplainable joy,
Joy that begins from deep within
And slowly seeks its way toward every pore
Of my body that has become one
With sadness, hopelessness, fear and pure exhaustion.
How can this be,
This overwhelming surge of joy
That leaves room for nothing else
When my mother
Is sitting here in the same room,
Silently studying her hands,
Occasionally turning, turning
Her opal ring on her ring finger?
How can I be filled with such pure joy
When the presence of my mother
Reminds me of why we are both here?
What is this mysterious purification
Of my soul?
What can it be
But the presence of God,
Whispering, "I am here."
I weep tears of joy
For the two of us.

- Frances H. Kakugawa

The spiral journal that accompanies Frances H. Kakugawa everywhere spells out what writing poetry has taught her: "The miracle of love."

Those words are inked into the journal’s cover, a hodge-podge of pressed flowers and fancy paper from which emanates a romantic feel. But there’s nothing romantic, really, about what she writes about.

When her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago, Kakugawa became her primary caregiver. Cleaning up after her incontinent mother, bathing and feeding someone who only withers away every day, have been themes of Kakugawa’s poignant poetry.

In March, she offered a poetry and journal workshop for caregivers at the Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter, to teach others how to find the divine in their often tedious and mundane work.

About a dozen caregivers continue to meet monthly, sharing their emotions and experiences through poems and journal entries. These poems, many written by novices, will be published in a nationally distributed book expected to go on sale later this year.

"I’m so thrilled for them," said the youthful-looking 64-year-old, beaming. "Many of them have never written poems before or even wrote in journals, but they come every month. Through poetry they really rise above the burden of care."

Writing in her heart

Kakugawa, who was born and raised on the Big Island, has always had the heart of a writer.

"When I first learned how to read in the first grade, I thought I would write a book with my name on it," she said, hiding her girlish giggle. "It left such an impression on me."

Without any formal lessons or instruction, Kakugawa has been writing poetry since she could write. She took it seriously in the 1970s, publishing four books of poetry, mostly distributed locally.

She has noticed how the themes and images of her poetry have changed over the years. From romantic and idealistic notions of love and peace, to vivid and often humorous poems about being a caregiver, Kakugawa’s collection is diverse.

"Each book is very different," she said. "They show my growth as a person. Writing really reflects you as a person. The poems have gotten stronger, images have gotten stronger, as I’ve changed as a person."

Aside from poems, she writes daily in her journal, stealing moments in Starbucks or in the lobby of Kuakini Medical Center’s Hale Pulama Mau, where her mother now resides, to write down her emotions or thoughts.

"I find that you discover more about yourself (through writing)," Kakugawa said, resting her hands against her cheeks, her nails perfectly painted in pink. "The question I ask myself is, What am I going to discover today?’ You find that we are capable of love, compassion, patience. It takes a lot to be a human being. We fall, many times."

Let the sharing begin

Each meeting of the writers begins with talk.

The members discuss what’s going on in their lives, where they are as writers, how they can improve as humans.

Then the sharing begins.

Most of the poems deal with the pains and frustrations of being a caregiver. But Kakugawa said that through writing, they can rise above all that, find the beauty in what they do and appreciate life.

It has become a sort of support group for these caregivers, who use journal writing and poetry as a way to express their innermost thoughts and feelings.

One 70-year-old woman, a caregiver for her husband, shared with the group how, during a distressing situation at home, she could hear Kakugawa’s voice encouraging her.

"They hear me saying, It’s OK, clean it up, you can write about it,’" she said with a laugh. "The minute you write about (the experience), you distance yourself from the situation, and the poem raises you to another level."

Her spirituality comes through in her writing, where she combines vivid imagery, heartfelt emotions and a hint of humor to illustrate how she transcends the burden of caregiving to find divinity.

In a poem she wrote in October, she writes about the day she found out her father was dying of cancer. It was during the fall of 1962, and she had been living in Michigan. Trying to escape her pain, she grabbed her camera and headed outdoors, snapping photo after photo of trees in autumn hues, tears streaming down her face.

Months after her father’s death, she developed the rolls of film and realized something: "... in the midst of sadness and impending loss of my father, I found beauty, beauty in the loss of life."

Looking for beauty

Kakugawa continually searches for beauty within her own life.

With no children of her own, she has "adopted" many of her former students after 20 years as an elementary school teacher. She writes and e-mails them, often serving as a mentor and friend.

Besides writing, she has taken up a lifelong dream of playing the flute and volunteers everyday at Hale Pulama Mau, visiting patients and helping other caregivers. At the end of every month, she hosts a poetry session in Hawaii Kai.

With all that she does, caregiving has dramatically changed her life and her perspective on life.

Finding peace

She spent this past Christmas with her mother at Hale Pulama Mau. She lay on the bed, her mother sat in a recliner. Christmas carols wafted from a nearby radio, tuned to KUMU.

"I felt so much peace," she said with a sigh. "I kept thinking, This is so nice, this is so nice.’ Holidays are hard for caregivers. I don’t think (my mom) is very much aware of anything, that her room was decorated; she never said a thing. But she had a peaceful smile on her face. It was so nice."

Do you know someone who has won an award, given of himself or herself, or accomplished other great things? The Ohana section profiles remarkable people every week. Write: Honorable Mention, Ohana Section, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail; or fax 535-8170.

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