Confronting the thief
|Frances Kakugawa reads her book, "Wordsworth Dances the Waltz," to Gwen Lee's sixth-grade class at Niu Valley Middle School|
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Trying to capture a better view of the illustrations of a dragon chasing a flying bird, sixth-graders leaned forward as Frances Kakugawa read from her book "Wordsworth Dances the Waltz."
Her book tells of a poetic mouse whose grandmother has been stricken with Alzheimer's.
Kakugawa knew she had held the crowd spellbound: When her lilting voice modulated with the poem-with-a-story, some nodded in time. When she stopped in a dramatic pause, the Niu Valley Middle schoolchildren drew a collective breath.
" 'She's forgotten my name' ..." Kakugawa read quietly.
Through workshops and classes, Kakugawa is showing that while Alzheimer's slowly saps loved ones' memory, writers even as young as these can help preserve those precious stories themselves.
It's something Kakugawa knows well. For five years she was the primary caretaker of her elderly mother, who was diagnosed with the disease in her 80s and died at age 90. She told the children about how the window into her mother's mind would open, allowing a glimpse of her former self, but close just as quickly.
A former schoolteacher who taught both here and on the Mainland, Kakugawa used that time with her mother to write in her journal and compose poetry, in part to work through the rigors of caretaking, but also to capture the stories and keep her mother alive while her condition worsened.
At last week's Niu Valley class, Kakugawa discovered how much her message really hit home when she asked the class to write their own memories of a grandparent.
"To be a writer, you must not be afraid of the truth," she prefaced. She also urged them to follow the golden rule of English assignments: Be specific.
One young man wrote about the times his grandfather, who was losing his memory, used to take him to buy slushies, but doesn't anymore.
"Maybe you can take him," Kakugawa told the boy, who looked up at her, proud to be singled out and visibly considering her suggestion.
'LIKE A GIANT ERASER'
To illustrate Alzheimer's effects, Kakugawa, who now lives in Sacramento, drew on the board the school children's estimated lifeline, assuming they live to be 100.
She asked them to think of important memories in their lives.
One mentioned a trip to the ER when he was younger; another popped in with the time his family got a new puppy; yet another recalled a memorable birthday.
"Here you are, at about 11," she said, marking little lines like the centimeters on a ruler, in a smallish space.
She asked them what memories their grandparents and great-grandparents might have over their greater expanse of years. One girl said "marriage"; another, the birth of offspring; even war came up.
Down the lifeline Kakugawa followed with her marker, dotting lots more lines. The exercise showed the children the vast reservoir of memories their elders lay claim to.
Then she sounded the knell.
"Do you know what Alzheimer's does?" Kakugawa asked the children, reaching for the eraser.
One little girl made a quiet gasp. Kakugawa began wiping away the lines, from the far end toward the near.
"It works like a giant eraser," she said.
Kakugawa told them how her mother first lost her most recent memories. She lost the ability to speak. To use the bathroom. Even to eat.
"That's why Alzheimer's has been called a thief, a robber," Kakugawa said.
To preserve what she could, Kakugawa wrote down the stories from her mother's childhood in Japan. But eventually, Kakugawa's mother lost even the ones from childhood.
But, she told the children, no one can steal your memories, nor should we stop enjoying our loved ones while we have them near.
As part of her ongoing work, Kakugawa has created another book, this one geared for adults, "Mosaic Moon: Caregiving Through Poetry" (Watermark Publishing, $16.95). It chronicles not only her time caretaking, but includes other caretakers' perspectives, as well.
Kakugawa said when she does readings and book signings, she can tell that many seniors are buying her latest "Wordsworth" book for their children and grandchildren, in the hopes that one might become the receptacle for their stories.
These children were taking the same lesson to heart.
"Someday you can gather the memories your grandparents have," Kakugawa told them, "while they can still talk to you."