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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 20, 2008

PEGGY CHUN | 1946-2008
For Isle artist Peggy Chun, life was a party to the end

Photo gallery: Peggy Chun

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Paintbrush in mouth, Peggy Chun smiles at granddaughter Indiana Chun. Later, when all that was left was the movement in her eyes, she learned to paint using a computer system that read her eye commands.


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When it came time for Peggy Chun to say goodbye, true to form, there was a big party.

On Sunday, cars were parked all along the streets and up on the sidewalks in Chun's Nu'uanu neighborhood. There was abundant food and wine and a bounce house for the kids.

The front lawn was packed with people crowded under tents, steamy under the Nu'uanu rain. The guests laughed hard and cried hard and laughed again. People just passing by would never guess it was a send-off for a woman about to die. As has been said countless times around that house, it was "so Peggy."

Chun was in the middle of the yard, in the middle of the action, in a hospital bed with leopard print pillows. The electrical cord powering her ventilator ran between two of the beer coolers. The party, like all Peggy Chun parties, went late into the night and many people ended up just sleeping over. One by one, through the afternoon and evening, people leaned into Peggy and whispered into her ear. She heard all those "I love yous."

Yesterday, as were her wishes, Chun was taken off the ventilator that had breathed for her for the past five years. She died in her home last night surrounded by family. She was 62.

When Chun was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 2002, she knew what lay ahead for her. She had seen it too many times. Though most cases of ALS are not genetic, Chun's clearly is. ALS had taken her mother, grandfather and her twin sister.

Though she understood the course of the disease the progressive paralysis that would start in her hands and feet, progress inward and eventually lock her into a body she couldn't move but could still feel Chun focused on how to live rather than how to die.

A big decision was whether to go on a ventilator. People with ALS get to the point where they can't breathe on their own. Not everyone with ALS wants to prolong their life this way and thus prolong their illness. Chun was up for more. "Oh, there's so much to do!" she said.


On this epic journey, Chun was accompanied by a faithful cadre of family and friends who took her to art shows and stage plays, helped her finish hugely ambitious art projects and closed her eyes for her when she lost the ability to do even that. She needed someone at her side 24 hours a day to keep living at home. Her caregivers felt it was a privilege to take care of someone so inspiring.

Years before Chun felt the first tingle of ALS in her foot, she had become one of Hawai'i's best-loved artists. Her watercolors of sleepy plantation houses and sun-dappled red ti leaves have become symbols of the sweet, simple Island life. Her collection of whimsical paintings cows snorkeling and cats snoozing have graced greeting cards and calendars and office walls. She has also done loving portraits of religious leaders Mother Marianne Cope and Father Damien, the last of which was a huge wall mural she directed students at Holy Trinity to construct to her specifications, tile by tiny painted tile.

Chun's daughter-in-law, Kimi Morton Chun, became both business manager for Chun's artwork and coordinator for her medical care. To keep everyone abreast of Peggy's condition, Kimi wrote an eloquent and forthright blog over the past several years. She posted photos of all the parties and events Peggy went to and shared detailed instructions on things like what to do when the power goes out in Nu'uanu, as it did several times. The blog included Peggy's healthcare directives and detailed messages she spelled out letter by letter with her eyes, using a spell board.

In June of this year, when it was becoming undeniable that Chun was losing her ability to communicate even with just eye movement, her family called a meeting with Peggy's circle of caregivers and friends.

"We are so appreciative of the fact that Peggy has been spending the past year or so planning in more and more detail what her 'rest-of-life' wishes are while she can still communicate them. This gives all of us comfort and relief," Kimi wrote on the blog. "I don't fear what the future will bring, I know that together we can handle it all ... with grace and humor and with Peggy guiding us as she always has. And with Peggy as our guide, you know we're in for a fun ride!"


Peggy Chun was born Mary Margaret Richard on June 4, 1946, in Lawton, Okla. She moved to Hawai'i in 1969. She first became known for creating handcrafted Hawaiian-themed Christmas ornaments, but was moved to pick up a paintbrush after her twin sister, Bobbie, an artist, died in 1987.

A year after her own diagnosis, Chun lost the use of her painting hand, so she trained her left hand to paint. When that hand also got weak, she started painting by holding the brush in her teeth. As her condition declined, caregivers had to hold on to her hair to move her head so she could keep working with the brush in her mouth. Later, when all that was left was the movement in her eyes, she learned to paint using a computer system that read her eye commands. After awhile, even that didn't work, but she kept finding ways to create, including enlisting the help of Holy Trinity students to paint thousands of tiny squares to be used in a mosaic.

"After all," she was known to say, "you don't paint with your hands, you paint with your heart."

Chun's heart was always full and free and generous. She was always up for a costume party, always making a joke but never at anyone's expense. She held annual "Women's Parties" for all her female friends. Unable to bring herself to exclude anyone, men were always welcome at the women's parties as long as they wore a pareau or something.

She was a woman who was always making new friends, and who gave loyal and focused attention to old friends. When she got sick, the band of buddies who gathered around her became her party crew, just with added medical training. The group dubbed themselves "Peg's Legs" and grew from a handful of friends willing to help alongside paid home-care nurses, to a group of 100 people manning round-the-clock shifts for the past several years.

Because of the ventilator, Peg's Legs and her buoyant spirit, Peggy lived to see her son, Eric, marry her beloved daughter-in-law, Kimi. She lived to see the birth of Eric and Kimi's daughter, Indiana, 5, and their son, Sawyer, 2. And there was so much more, like chapters in an epic story. She and ex-husband Elroy Chun got remarried. Last year, she found and reunited with the baby girl she had given up for adoption 39 years ago. That daughter, Leslie, had a baby girl this year, Peggy's third grandchild. Peggy got to meet the baby, Hanalei, on Saturday.


As Chun's medical condition worsened, her body faded but her life force seemed to grow through sheer will. She received visitors from around the world. People came to read or sing to her. Schoolchildren crowded into her bedroom to perform songs. The Los Angeles Lakers read to her. She taught classes in painting. She wrote a book called "Watercolor Cat" with co-author Shelly Mecum and did a book signing of the best-seller. Her days were busy and her life was full.

Still, with all the positive thinking and upbeat attitude, she was realistic about what would happen, and she made her wishes known.

"Peggy does not want to live and continue life support once she is locked in and has no way of communicating and interacting with the world," Kimi wrote on the blog. "She explained that she has experienced moments of feeling this and described it as 'being buried alive waiting to die.'

"She also stated that 'The thought of being locked in is terrifying. I think about it constantly.' "

The agreed-upon definition of "locked in" for Peggy was "not having any eye movement whatsoever and therefore having no way of interacting with her world or communicating her pain, discomforts, fears and anxiety."

During the summer, "locked in" was starting to get very close.

As Peggy's eye movement became more sporadic and difficult to decipher and her end-of-life plan was put into motion, her closest caregivers came up with a "bucket list" of things Peggy had said she always wanted to do. Someone remembered that Peggy said she missed camping and campfires, so a bunch of friends stayed over one night and re-created that for her, stories and s'mores and all.

Someone remembered Peggy said she always wanted to ride the Superferry, so they gamely gathered up a group two weeks ago and went to Maui with Peggy on a portable ventilator. Almost everybody got seasick except for Peggy.

The barf-bag laden trip was documented on video and hilarious pictures were posted on the blog under the heading "Puking for Peggy."


Also on the bucket list was a tub bath, something Peggy hadn't had in years since getting a trach tube. On Monday, a group of friends put a brightly colored inflatable kiddie pool in the living room, filled it with warm water with a hose attached to the kitchen sink and lifted Peggy in using a hoist. They were all sure she loved it.

Some were trying to figure out how to get her a ride in a motorcycle side car trying to gauge whether her motorized wheelchair could go fast enough to be tethered to a Harley. Even in the midst of sorrow and impending loss, there was that twinkle of irreverent fun in everyone's eyes. It was "so Peggy."

Over the last month, friends and family were called to visit Peggy. Kimi set up an online calendar so people could book their time. Peggy's sunny room in her Nu'uanu home was often overflowing with people there to see her, to hold her hand, stroke her hair and whisper in her ear.

Sunday's aloha party was dubbed an "early Thanksgiving."

Peggy's family thanked all the friends who had helped in big and small ways in the last years; and people thanked Peggy for reminding them what was important and true in life: friends, family, love and fun.

In May of this year, Kimi Chun delivered the commencement address to the eighth-graders at Holy Trinity, the students who had worked on the mural of Father Damien with Peggy. She closed her speech with these words Peggy had laboriously dictated for the kids using the spellboard:

"Remember, student graduates, that THE ONLY SECURITY IS COURAGE! Think about these five wonderful words, anytime fear starts creeping in. I want you to go for life at its fullest! And enjoy it for the marvelous adventure that it is."

So Peggy.

Reach Lee Cataluna at lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.