“Mom”

An excerpt from former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s upcoming autobiography, Ben, A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor.


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Editor’s note: Former Gov. Ben Cayetano is well remembered for his straightforward, if not blunt, personal style in office. A tough legislator and equally tough governor, he was never the type to wear his heart on his sleeve. Next month, Cayetano is releasing his autobiography, Ben, A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor ($19.95, published by Watermark Publishing, a sister company of HONOLULU Magazine.) For more information, go to www.bookshawaii.net or call 866-900-BOOK. In it, you’ll find plenty of chapters about Cayetano’s political experiences—what was said behind closed doors, who did what to whom and why—but we were drawn to this chapter. Not everyone gets to be governor, but everyone has a mom.

“She’s gone, Ben. Mom’s gone …” Ken

photo: courtesy of Benjamin J. Cayetano

Ken said, his voice trailing off. He was calling from our mother’s tiny apartment on Vineyard Street. She had died in her sleep. I was in my new Senate office at the State Capitol, a five-minute drive away.

When I arrived, Mom was still in bed. Ken was sitting next to her. She felt cold and hard to my touch, her eyelids slightly open. “At least she won’t suffer anymore,” Ken said, tears welling in his eyes. Pop, Mom’s elderly husband, was sitting on the sofa in the living room, staring out the door. Pop was already in his mid-70s—an age when most people come to grips with the inevitability of death. Having lived with Mom through the torment of her drug addiction, Pop had gone through some hard times himself. But he had been patient and taken care of her. He looked sad but not surprised.

On the nightstand next to the bed I found a big vial of pills—Seconal, or “reds” as they were called by drug dealers on the street. There were only three capsules left. I looked at the date of the prescription: December 9, 1978. This was the morning of December 11. In less than two days, she had taken 47 capsules. Ken and I looked at each other; without saying a word, I knew we were both thinking the same thing. My doctor told me later that people who suffer from drug addiction often become confused and forget how many capsules they’ve ingested. Mom’s official cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrest.”

Born Eleanor Infante, she was beautiful and smart but she suffered at the hands of a cruel father. Once, my Aunt Rachel told me, my grandfather hung my mother by her wrists from the ceiling. Mom was about 12 at the time. Only after Aunt Rachel, who was a couple years younger, started screaming and pulling on my grandfather’s arm did he let Mom down. “And then he told your mother to pack her things and get out of the house,” Aunt Rachel said. “I looked through the window and saw my sister crying, walking up the road and carrying her clothes in this small suitcase. I cried and cried.”

But Mom never said anything bad about grandpa. In fact, on more than one occasion, I heard her telephone him to ask how he was doing. Or she’d go over to his home and drop off some fruit or his favorite Filipino food. Ken and I didn’t learn about how grandpa had abused her until we were both in our 40s.

Ben Cayetano’s brother, Ken, with their mother, Eleanor, in 1964 as Ken was leaving for Air Force Basic Training. photo: courtesy of Benjamin J. Cayetano

Mom had bad luck with men. She was married five times. Her first husband died shortly after they married. Her second husband, Jerry, who was my biological father, divorced her for another woman while Mom was still pregnant with me. Before I was born, Mom married her third husband, Bonifacio Cayetano, who sired Ken a couple of years later. I doubt if she really loved Bonifacio; I think she married him to avoid the 1940s social stigma of an unmarried woman bearing a child. My surname is Cayetano because Bonifacio Cayetano is listed on my birth certificate as my father. (They divorced when I was about six and Ken four.) Her fourth husband, Rudy, divorced Mom when her drug addiction got so bad that he couldn’t take it anymore.

When Ken brought her home from Los Angeles in 1967, Mom’s drug addiction had devastated her emotionally and physically. She was not the same person. She had no place to live, so Aunt Rachel took her in. For nearly a year she lived with Aunt Rachel and Uncle Billy and my six cousins in a small three-bedroom house on Kahai Street in Kalihi.

“You know, Boy, your mother was so skinny, so weak and sickly, I was afraid she might die. Every day I’d cook for her, help her take a bath. I’d massage her feet and talk to her, tell her everything would get better.”

Things did get better and Mom moved to Damon Tract to live with my grandmother, Blasa, whom my grandfather had divorced to marry another woman. One day, Mom telephoned Aunt Rachel. “Mediong (Aunt Rachel’s Filipino nickname), I’m going to get married, but mostly for companionship,” Mom said almost apologetically. Grandma Blasa had encouraged the marriage.

Maximo Dacanay was Mom’s fifth husband. We called him “Pop” because he was about 25 years older than Mom, who was then in her mid-40s. He was a good man, soft-spoken and humble. Pop was intelligent and had been an engineer in the Philippines. He held a good job as an electronics technician at the Pearl Harbor shipyard. There weren’t many Filipino men who had those kinds of jobs back then. Until the early 1950s, approximately 70 percent of Hawai‘i’s Filipino population was single men. Max was part of that generation. It wasn’t that difficult for grandma to find a husband for Mom.

For a while, it seemed Mom was doing well. She gained weight and seemed to have her drug problem under control. She looked good again. She doted on her grandchildren—Brandon was her favorite. Sometimes I had the feeling she was trying to make up for not raising Ken and me.

But after a few years, things were getting steadily worse. Mom started complaining about intense back pains again. She resumed “doctor-shopping” to get more Seconal—and we would see her high more often. Physically, she lost a lot of weight and appeared sickly in her complexion and in her eyes.

The future governor, left, and his brother, Ken. photo: courtesy of Benjamin J. Cayetano

There was little anyone could do. There was no legal recourse; Mom was still a competent adult. I was frustrated by the ease with which she got doctors to prescribe Seconal—even though she showed all of the physical signs of addiction. Once, I telephoned her doctor and voiced my concerns about Mom’s drug abuse. Yes, the doctor replied, he was aware there was a problem and had substituted a placebo for the Seconal, hoping to wean her off the drug. It didn’t take long for her to figure it out and change doctors.

Back then the only non-invasive procedure doctors could use to diagnose back problems was the X-ray. Her doctor told me the X-rays showed no abnormality. So I concluded there was nothing wrong with her back; she had just become addicted to Seconal the way others were addicted to heroin or cocaine. She was such a tough person, I often wondered why she couldn’t fight the addiction—why couldn’t she beat this thing? It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I soon found myself avoiding being with Mom, and instead immersing myself in my law practice and my duties as a newly elected state senator.

Ken took Mom’s death especially hard. When Mom found out he was a homosexual, she had put him through hell. Once, when he was still living with her at Aliamanu, Ken awoke about 2 a.m. to hear Mom pounding on his bedroom door. “What kind of creature did I bring into the world?” she screamed. For a long time, Ken suffered from depression and guilt, but he never held it against her. “She only said things like that when she was high,” he told me. My kid brother was a bigger man than I could ever hope to be.

Though it wasn’t as obvious, Dad also took it hard when she died. He never remarried. He never stopped loving Mom. Sometimes, he would joke about her “coming back.” But it was no joke—it was a hope he harbored for a long time. The first time I saw Dad cry was at Mom’s burial service. I was standing next to him and, as each of us waited to throw the traditional handful of dirt into the grave, a solitary tear streaked down from the corner of his right eye.

I shed no tears that day; I couldn’t. I was long past feeling grief. The only emotion I felt was relief—relief that Mom’s suffering had ended and relief that this long, sad episode was behind us.

My experience with Mom’s drug addiction influenced my views on drugs, religion and God. What kind of God, I wondered, would allow a person supposedly created in His image to be degraded and to suffer as Mom did? When the Catholic priest recited the ritual of prayers at the funeral services, I tuned him out.

Ken and Eleanor, 1960s. photo: courtesy of Benjamin J. Cayetano

In public office I opposed draconian laws that imposed mandatory sentences and harsh penalties for drug use. I felt strongly that just throwing drug addicts in jail was not the answer. Most legislators disagreed and took a hard line. There were times when only a few of us—sometimes only Neil Abercrombie, a former probation officer, and me—argued for treatment rather than incarceration of first-time drug offenders. Nothing annoyed me more than the law-and-order types who argued that the best way to fight the drug problem was to throw every addict in prison.

Years later, as governor, I submitted a bill to require treatment rather than incarceration for first-time, non-violent drug offenders. This was not a new idea. Arizona, hardly a bastion of liberalism, was the first state to enact the idea into law. Despite the objections of law enforcement officials and judges, an overwhelming majority of Arizona voters approved it at the ballot box—not once (it was declared unconstitutional the first time) but twice. Shortly thereafter, California followed Arizona’s lead. In Hawai‘i our bill was strongly opposed by law enforcement officials. In 2001, however, the Legislature approved it and I felt great satisfaction and pride when I signed it into law.

Many years after Mom died, I shared her story with my doctor. “You know, Ben,” he told me, “X-rays only show clouded images of bone. They couldn’t have helped your mother’s doctor find out whether she was suffering from damage to her nerves and therefore experiencing real pain. Today, an MRI would clear that up for him. Your mother’s reaction to the placebo suggests she was probably suffering extreme pain. Seconal isn’t like cocaine or heroine; those drugs are so highly addictive because they give the user a big high. Seconal numbs its users to pain; they get addicted to it because it’s the only way for them to get rid of the pain. Seconal is so powerful and destructive that today it’s rarely prescribed.”

I wish I had known this when Mom was struggling with her addiction. I think it would have helped me understand better what she was going through and be a more caring son.

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