A photo of Toki Nesan and Tom Nisan when Tom was a senior and Toki was a junior at Punahou School during the 1952-53 school year. • Courtesy Photo
A photo of Toki Nesan and Tom Nisan when Tom was a senior and Toki was a junior at Punahou School during the 1952-53 school year. • Courtesy Photo

“Why do you always work so hard, Tom?” Toki asked.

“Because I want to make sure none of the Shimabukuros will be as poor as we were when we were kids.”


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, I forgot what I was looking for.”

“Ramen, Dad.”


15 minutes later, we’re back at Tom’s home. 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.”

Later, when I checked back with him: “How was the Ramen?”

“Great, but too late.”

Wednesday, Thursday, he requested Ramen for breakfast and lunch also. I also added some inarizushi, his all-time favorite food. He ate about six of them, but he was still fixated on Ramen.


Caretaker Muni came upstairs and told me that he wants “Roman,” “Reeman” or “Rahmen” or something like that for breakfast, and that he hasn’t eaten yet.

He’s breathing heavily, as he tries to walk upstairs to the kitchen. He’s become a Ramen junkie.

About midnight, I heard his plaintive, “Bob, Bob, Hello, Hello.”

I get up and ask, “What do you want?”

“Can you make me a hamburger?”

“Uh, … no. (Too much trouble for me) How about some Ramen?”

“Okay, that sounds good.”

And later, “That was the best ramen I’ve ever had.”

Torn between laughing and crying, I did neither and answered: “Well, thanks for the compliment, and for all that you’ve done for me,” which brought about a smile as he fell asleep.

At least I had a chance to tell him thanks. The next week and a half with Tom was much of the same, but he was already sliding away. I thought he would die before the end of August, but he continued on until October 8.


December 1988. My brother Sam handed me the phone, “Toki wants to talk to you.” Just as Tom Nisan 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. So I knew what she’s going to ask. It continued throughout our adult lives.

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

“Because that IS 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. The question 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 about 20 minutes after talking to Toki Nesan in person.

Auntie NESAN

Some time ago, my friend Lia Shigemura told me this short story: Obaban (grandmother) cried out, “I have five daughters and 23 grandchildren. Why am I being put here (a senior facility).”

Lia’s Auntie Nesan replied, “Because I’m 80 years old and it’s time I had a life of my own.”


Bob: Did your Auntie Nesan have a long life of her own?

Lia: Obaban died at 100 and was born in 1891. Auntie Nesan died at 95 (born in 1911—so 20 years apart). I think Auntie Nesan lived for many years after Obaban went to the low-income senior facility—and had a good life. My cousin, who had been living in Connecticut for many years came home to help care for my auntie. And then when my auntie could no longer navigate the stairs she moved in with my two cousins. My auntie wanted to make sure she wasn’t too much of a burden on any one family. And every weekend, my cousin would take Auntie Nesan to the library to borrow large-print books to read. She read up until she had a stroke.

Auntie Nesan had a tough life … defined by duty (eldest daughter, surrogate mom, then married an eldest son—chonan; then uncle died leaving her with three kids to raise alone; never remarried; entirely focused on others).


My cousin Irene has been her 102-year-old mother’s primary caregiver for three years now. Irene brought Fumiko Auntie to Maryland from Hawai‘i, after she decided that Auntie couldn’t live alone. Irene (and husband George), have had maybe a week or two off with help from friends and relatives (one of those weeks by Toki Nesan), and Auntie has continued to thrive. Her doctor is astounded by Auntie’s health as she has never even had a cold since she moved to Maryland.

In my perfect, visionary world, there would be universal income, and the NESAN of the world (I’m sure there are people like them in every culture) are paid a family living wage plus benefits and most of all, get time off so they get some relief.

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