Frances H. Kakugawa

Caregiver for her mother:
Matsue Kakugawa

   i tiptoe softly
   in the silence of the house
   how loud her absence

A few days before her death, my mother told Rev. Bruce Nakamura, a Buddhist minister, "Please don't let me be forgotten."

The physical task of caring for her ended with her death, but all other aspects of caregiving and her life go on. They may appear unexpectedly during any hour of the day and night. A thought, an image, a feeling, a dream.

The sound of her voice... it comes like intermittent raindrops and I pause to let them fall across my face. Since her death, my memories turn her into a sage as I recall the lessons I learned from her, words of wisdom I now find myself quoting.

The words "my mother" often precede my sentences. I can almost hear her chuckling over this metaphorical statue I have created in her honor because during my youth, I believed there was nothing she could teach me.

I arrived at a peaceful place, a place not easily found. It took a machete of reflections to help clear a path through the jungle of guilt, remorse, and sadness.

My first poem takes me back to a time and place often viewed as a Do Not Enter zone during caregiving. How can any good daughter wish caregiving to end when it means the death of a loved one? But these unspoken moments came more than once, and when stated in poetic form, it somehow seems permissible to express them without guilt or horror.

            Unspoken Mornings

   Will lightning strike me down
   Before my first thoughts find life?
        How many mornings have I slipped
        Groggily into her room, standing, watching,
        A mother over a crib.
        Her body curled in fetal position,
        Her face toward the wall.
        Still as curtains on a windless day.
        "Is she breathing? Is she alive?
        Is she finally gone, freeing me once again?"
        I continue my sentinel watch.

        "Yes, there is a light stir
        Under her sheet."
        During that split second
        When morning was all stillness
        A sense of relief washed over me
        Like cool ocean waves on hot summer days,
        Then shameless disappointment
        When morning stirred
        Into another day.

I had visualized her last moment, her funeral arrangements, all rationally stored in my head, but nothing prepared me for her death. I still want a replay of that scene so I can do it right, with my hand in hers, because it didn't happen that way.

I was not even there, because she drew her last breath after I had left her room. Soon afterward, I was moving like a robot, in a trance, attending to the logistics of death: calls to ministers, funeral parlor, family, and friends.

It also felt brutally final to see or say the words "died" and "death." It seemed gentler to use "passing" or another euphemism, and yet, whatever words I used, I discovered through time that death is not final, for the life that it held is still a process inside of me. Perhaps that life has more staying power than that one second of death. I face both of the "d" words in this poem.

          What is Death?

   When does a loved one truly die?
   I look at her obituary
   And it doesn't seem real
   To see the word "died"
   Next to her name.
   Do obituaries tell the truth?
   I look at the list of names
   Under "In Memoriam"
   In Mosaic Moon,
   I stop at the date of her death,
   I read her name, Matsue Kakugawa
   And I wonder, is she really gone?
   I take a mental journey through
   All the spaces she had filled
   And question "What is death?"
   Shouldn't my mind, too,
   Be purged of all its memories and images,
   My heart of all emotional ties?
   Shouldn't death also occur
   In these parts of me
   That still feel her presence?
   What is death?

Sometimes we need to sink ourselves totally into our solitude to get in touch with ourselves and to allow silence to resonate in those places where denial or sorrow have become permanent residents. This silence took me to the center, where I could give it a name without being distracted by meaningless chatter. The following four poems speak of this silence where healing began, beginning with Sunday afternoons, which seem to hold more hours than any other day.

            Sundays at 5 P.M.

   It is that time,
   Whether clocked at Pacific, Eastern
   Or Greenwich Mean,
   For that relentless ache
   To slowly overtake Sunday afternoons,
   An ache that has no name,
   Just an ache of emptiness,
   Unfulfilled dreams and
   Unlived moments yet to come.

   It is also that time for healing...
   A time to smooth jagged edges
   Of shattered crystals crunching
   Under naked feet.
   A time to tweeze each splinter of pain
   From broken skin
   Of the young and the aged.
   It is a time for forgiving…
   A time to unlatch doors
   Of the caged,
   So each can soar to its destination
   With messages of peace.

   It is a time for solitude,
   La Boheme, the blues.
   It is, above everything else,
   A hell of a time
   For being a woman
   Who was not born
   For Sunday afternoons.

This poem was written on the sale of my mother's house. The house where I was born into the hands of a midwife so many years ago. It speaks of not being able to go home ever again. The death of both parents no longer gives us a place to return home to on holidays and special occasions.

This physical change brings new family designs. Who will replace a parent's home for the holidays? Will this disintegrate the family that was so important to our parents? Did we bury our family traditions, folklore, and myths along with our parents?

         Going Home with Thomas Wolfe

   my tap root
         no longer
               embraces me…

   my tap root
         is slowly fading away ...
               like photos in old albums…

         that tap root
               will no longer be…


"Song of the Wind" was written after I had returned to my mother's house. It had been burned to the ground by the fire department after the new owner had donated it for training recruits. Even without physical evidence, are we not still part of our ancestral roots? The tug of war continues, with my wanting someone to say, "Death does not end."

   Song of the Wind
   The warrior returns home.
   At her feet, ashes, black ashes.
   And Silence. Cold Silence.
   Where are the voices
   Of my ancestors?
   Their songs, their stories?

   The warrior's cries
   Are swallowed by Silence.
   A sparrow flies over her head.
   Be still and listen.
   A sudden gust of wind
   Lifts a fistful of ashes,
   Swirls and swirls them
   Around her head,
   Then over the tangerine trees,
   Into the skies.
   Where are the voices
   Of my ancestors?
   Songs of my mother,
   Tales of my grandmother?

   A second gust of wind
   Lifts another fistful of ashes.
   Be still and listen.

Some things, like Alzheimer's disease and dying, can't be fixed, nor can we control them. But we can try to make some sense of them without any answers if we listen to the silence.


   late summer nights,
   over smooth river stones
   she strolls barefooted.
   her breasts capture
   the moon glow as it travels
   down to her feet.

   hush, be still.
   listen to the sound
   of silence.

Soon after my mother's death, I tried to fill the space she had left with activities. One day I began exploring this space I was trying so hard to refill. In exploring that space through poetry, I came to an enlightened discovery. It's alright to grieve. It's all right to preserve and live with that empty space, for it brings in a flowing river, streaming without obstruction. Go to that space, dwell in it until that space is slowly melded into yours as one.

         Empty Spaces

   Why are we taught since childhood days
   To always fill in the spaces?
   Before our fingers are able to curl
   Around a crayon,
   We are given coloring books
   To fill in the spaces.
   From early childhood we are taught,
   Not to stray beyond the lines...
   To always fill in the spaces.
   All of my life I have lived
   With crayons in one hand,
   Filling in spaces,
   Spaces left by departed lovers, family, friends,
   Leaving me crayons smashed against walls
   Creating more grief than art.
   Today, another space created by her flight.
   But this space I will not fill
   With any color, stroke or art.
   This space bears her name.
   To this place I will return time and again,
   To be immersed in love, grief, sadness, memories.
   This place where all feelings dwell…
   No longer a battlefield
   Between crayons and me.
   This place I will honor and love
   For as long as it holds her name.