Hope and heartbreak in the vanishing world of a leprosy settlement

Local writer Brooke Jarvis spent a year of her life living in the remote, fading town of Kalaupapa, Hawaii, the U.S.' largest remaining leprosy settlement.

Kalaupapa Photo: Brooke Jarvis

Father Damien's Headstone

Father Damien's Headstone Flickr: Karendesuyo

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from When We Are Called to Part, published by The Atavist. Download the full version here.

Speeding down the street is a car that I love. A Toyota station wagon — probably from the 1980s, but who can say — that used to be red or maroon, but is now mostly gaping, rust-lined holes and sun-bleached swatches of gray and white. The windshield is cracked; since I last saw the car, someone has patched a hole with plywood and covered the top with roofing paper.

For a second my breath catches, and I stop in my tracks. Dumb as it is, I hope. But the car is moving too fast, too purposefully down the center of the road. And instead of a pair of sunglasses, white hair sticking out of a visor, and a small, hunched figure with her hand held up to block the sun, in the driver’s seat is a much younger, black-haired woman I don’t know.

I should have realized that the car would still be here. In Kalaupapa, plenty of vehicles keep rolling for years after the salt air and the ingenuity of isolation have left them more plywood than metal. But it’s still a shock. The car is driving, and Gertie is not.

Gertie — Gertrude Kaauwai, known variously as Gertie, Gert or Girly — hated that station wagon. She’d had to switch to it once her remaining foot deteriorated to the point that, even with her stubbornness and the dexterity gained by more than four decades on crutches, she could no longer climb into her big gray truck.

On my first day in the settlement, before I even met Gertie, my new boss pointed the truck out to me on the street and explained that I should get as far out of the road as possible when I saw it coming — usually in the morning, during Gertrude’s food run for her dozens of cats, or in the late afternoon, when she was driving to the bar and would have to squint into the western sun. Just pull into any nearby yard, he said, it’s fine. The disease had gotten to Gertrude’s eyes, and she couldn’t see well at all. If she’d lived anywhere else, she would have been forced to stop driving long before. But Kalaupapa has its own rules.

The settlement, as everyone who lives here calls it, is the only town on an isolated peninsula on a sparsely populated Hawaiian island. Its history began a century and a half ago, when the first boatload of leprosy sufferers arrived — the unwilling founders of what in different times was known as a leper colony, or a leprosarium. Decades after modern medicine neutralized the disease, Kalaupapa is the largest remaining settlement of its victims in the United States.

I’m back visiting for the first time in more than four years, but nearly everyone guesses much less: “How long’s it been? A year? A year and a half?” Time’s passage always feels more uncertain here, more uneven. When I lived in Kalaupapa, I got used to hearing frequent references to patients who had died many decades before, often as if they were still alive. When I was new, and still putting faces to names, I assumed several of them were.

Now I know all too well who’s missing. In a sense, the past four years have been relatively kind to Kalaupapa. During the 12 months I lived here, in 2008 and 2009, we lost nine patients, almost a third of those who remained; since I left, three have died. I heard about them over the phone or by email: Uncle Henry first. Gertrude a year later, on Christmas Eve. Auntie Kay just a few months back. Her things are now boxed up in plywood crates in her side yard, waiting to be shipped to her family on the once-a-year barge.

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Posted Tue, Dec 10, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

All over America are towns dying, but not like this one and most, if not all, of them have no voice that speaks for the town and it's people. I'm glad that Jarvis is speaking for Kalaupapa, for many of us, place is the people and that is the true treasure.


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