Irene Shima, far left. Irene was caretaker of her mom until she died at 102. Photo courtesy of Bob Shimabukuro.

Tom (Chonin) 

The scene in Arlington in August after I arrived at Tom Nisan’s house: Toki Nesan had given me instructions about how to help the home health care personnel without interfering with their protocols.

Tuesday morning –

“I’m going to the store, Tom. What do you want to eat?”

“I’d like some ramen.”

About an hour later, Zenwa texted me. We had separated in the store because he needed to get some stuff for himself. “Dad, where are you?”
“Oh, got lost. I forgot what I was looking for.”

“Ramen, Dad.”

“Oh yeah, thanks.”

15 minutes later, we’re back at Tom’s house. I prepared the ramen quickly, but I’m greeted with, “WHERE THE F*** HAVE YOU BEEN? IT’S WAY PAST ONE O’CLOCK. TAKES YOU THAT LONG TO MAKE RAMEN?”

“Sorry, Tom. It takes me a lot longer to do things now.”

Felt bad.

***

Toki NESAN

December 1988. My brother Sam handed me the phone, “Toki wants to talk to you.” Just as Tom (Chonin – Oldest Son) was expected to take care of the financial and external concerns of the family when Dad died, Toki Nesan was expected to help Mom take care of the younger members of the family; in our case, a family of seven kids, stretching over 14 years. Boss of the internal concerns. A second mom, so to speak. I knew what she’s going to ask.

“Why do I feel like Sam just wants to see me before he dies,” asked Toki.

“Because that’s the way he feels.”

“So, if I wait until Christmas to come, he’ll probably live until Christmas.”

“No, you should look at it as, he wants to see you before he dies, but if you can’t make it, that’s okay with him. He worries only about Bruce after he dies. The question for you really is, ‘how would you feel if you didn’t come and he did die before Christmas?”
Toki cancelled her Christmas reservation, came a week earlier than planned, and Sam died in Bruce’s arms about 20 minutes after talking to Toki in person.

***

Tom: Hey, Bob. How’s Mom?

Bob: “What did you say?”

“What…nothing.” I was disappointed. I had lost contact.

Later, Toki suggested to me, “you have to stay in their world.”

***

Staying in their world

Zen Uncle is having problems. Ghosts. In the room. Cousins Dianne and Charlotte are trying to calm him. “You’re just hallucinating,” they inform Uncle (their Dad). Uncle wasn’t buying any of that.

Manu, Uncle’s care worker, is not present at the time. She previously took care of Kiyoko Auntie, but when Auntie died, the family decided to hire her to care for Uncle who also needed help. She was well acquainted with the family.

When Manu arrives, she sizes up the situation quickly as Uncle informs her of the ghosts. She picks up a broom, and asks uncle, “where are the ghosts?’

She swats the ghosts where he points, and calls out, “Go ‘way, ghosts. Go way. No bother him.”

The ghosts go away, Uncle settles down. Uncle goes to sleep.

***

In my perfect, visionary world, there would be universal income, and the NESAN of the world (I’m sure that people like them are in every culture) and care workers are paid a family living wage plus benefits and most of all, get time off so they get some relief.
Actually, they should be paid more. They should be paid what these wannabes who dream-up-financial-schemes-for-one-percenters-to-steal-from-the-working-poor get paid.

***

It had been an emotional two to three weeks that had started with my birthday, a 50th anniversary of Social Security and an 80th anniversary Medicare Party. It had also turned into a “Black Lives Matters rally” that had reached Washington D.C. and the Virginia house in which I was staying. But much as I wanted to, I didn’t really have time to comment on the Facebook chatterbox that was going on. I was fighting my own personal battles.

Bob: I came here to give Toki a break, but I also wanted to thank you and her for everything you’ve done for me and our family, while I had the chance.

Tom: So, you think I’m going to kick off soon?

B: Well, partly, but I think I may kick off soon too.

T: How come?

B: The doctor said I had COPD.

He looked at me up and down, humphed and said, “You’ll live a lot longer than me, believe me.”

***

The night before I left, Tom wanted me to cook hamburger.

“How about ramen instead?”

“Okay, that sounds good.”

And a little later, “Ah, that was the best ramen I’ve ever had.” I had put a little hamburger in it.

“Thanks,” I answered feeling a lot better. But the way he was getting around, I didn’t think he’d last out the month.

***

Tom requested, “Lets sing. Something.” Tom and Toki used to sing together a lot. I remember them singing “Side by Side,” “You are my Sunshine,” ‘40s and ‘50s songs. But Toki doesn’t remember what they sang that night other than Hawai`i Pono`i and the Punahou alma mater: O`ahu, a.

Postscript: Toki, who had also spent a lot of her retired life caring for our younger sister Ann, now lives in a continuing care facility in the Residential Living complex. (The six levels are: Residential Living, Assisted Living, Memory Support, Health Services, Home Care, Palliative Care / Hospice). Her days as a caregiver are pretty much over, but she still gets to be with Ann’s five-year old grandson Ichiro, who she says is a lot of fun.

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