Heart of a warrior

KEKAHA — Fighting a second battle with cancer, the owner of Waimea Canyon General Store is closing the business to concentrate on her health.

Pamela Kailikini Dow, 62, has run the popular outlet since 1996. Visitors and locals alike have frequented the 3,500-square-foot warehouse of merchandise, aloha shirts, formal gowns and some of the most exquisite shell jewelry in the world.

It is all coming to an end this week.

“I need to continue my battle,” Dow said. “I want to work on being well, and focus on wellness with my husband, without the financial stresses of owning a business anymore.”

Dow was working as a buyer for Big Save when she and her husband Ernest opened the store. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 and underwent intense chemotherapy and radiation that led to full remission for 14 years.

“That little store saved my life,” she said. “It kept me busy and it gave me a purpose that helped me get through the most difficult things I thought I’d ever have to go through.”

Traffic has dwindled in recent years but that is not the reason for the closing, Dow said. The five employees have prepared for the eventual day when Dow would receive her Medicare disability and could go off of private insurance.

They are planning closing sale within the next few days — a month short of the 19th anniversary.

“I’ve have quite a run,” Dow said.

Known as the woman who made Niihau shells famous, Dow held exhibitions at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 2001, and at the Bishop Museum in 2014. She was invited to do demonstrations and exhibitions at the Smithsonian in Washington in 2008 and 2013.

The unique jewelry resulted in a 2004 law prohibiting shell jewelry from being labeled “Niihau” unless it was made with shells from the island. Dow was instrumental in drafting the bill.

“It created a level of quality and a standard to say that if you wanted to get this amount of dollars for your work then it should have these characteristics,” Dow said.

Raised in the Hanapepe Valley, Dow’s father was stationed on Niihau during World War II. Dow attended Eleele Elementary School and Waimea High School, and studied elementary education at Hilo College. But business would be her true calling and she worked as a business manager on Maui in the 1970s.

“I always had a love for business and I knew that at a very young age,” she said.

The store was in business two years longer than planned. It was to keep Pamela’s medical insurance through a lease company until a Medicare disability kicked in this year.

Now wanting to retire to her private life, Dow said there is dignity in retiring the store as well, she said.

“This is a unique business and I wanted to take that name and put it in my pocket and take it with me when I go,” she said. “Nobody really understands that except me and my husband.”

When her cancer returned in 2009, Dow said it was terminal and that to survive she must have chemotherapy for the rest of her life. By 2012, Dow said she thought her life was coming to an end as bones began to fracture.

She asked Ernest to organize a dance instead of a Christmas party. They turned the lanai and driveway into a dance with a DJ and 75 people.

“I was so sick that I couldn’t think of anything better to do than dance,” she said. “Low and behold I thought it was all over and I felt rejuvenated instead.”

The following year, she and a sister went to Kokee and danced naked under the moonlight — for two years in a row.

“There was no rhyme or reason,” she said. “Those are the moments that made the difference for me.”

Ernest, 80, had his own heart issues but continues to care for them both.

Dow also credits Dr. Aileen Denny, a former oncologist at Wilcox Memorial Hospital, with showing her there is life after cancer. Denny would pray, sing, and play the piano for her patients — and it was a song off one of her CDs, “The Heart Of A Warrior,” that kept her going.

It was the song she and Ernest danced to at their party in 2012.

“I felt as though she was singing to me,” Dow said. “I felt as a cancer patient that you needed to develop the heart of a warrior.”

Dow said she would like to be remembered as the warrior who has endured such a long battle. You have to feel like a warrior in cancer treatment, she added, as many friends going through it with you also share the victories and prepare along way to say goodbye to friends who pass on.

“It is a reminder of our own mortality,” she said.

The American Cancer Society will honor Dow as one of 10 cancer survivors during its seventh “Hoedown For Hope” from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

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