I can’t write about the visit with my sister without writing about Kalaupapa, Molokai. Kalaupapa (flat plain) is the most hauntingly beautiful place in Hawaii, a small peninsula that lies at the base of the pali (sea cliffs) that rise some 2,000 – 3,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Kalaupapa was populated by a community of native Hawaiians until 1866, when by order of King Kamehameha V, they were displaced so that persons with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) could be safely quarantined (imprisoned) from the rest of the islands. In all, over 8,000 persons, most of whom were native Hawaiian, died there. In Kalaupapa, each step is taken on hallowed ground
I had the privilege of visiting Kalaupapa three times while I lived in Hawaii, twice traveling by mule, down and then back up the pali trail (a 2.9-mile switchback that descends 1,700 feet to the peninsula) and once on a twin engine 9-seat plane landing on a runway right next to the waves and battered by wind. I am not sure which mode of transportation is more terrifying.
The first persons exiled to Kalaupapa with Hansen’s disease were taken by boat, and forced to swim ashore with whatever personal items they could carry. There were outbuildings, no running water, no stores, no medical care, no churches, no government. Things changed for the better when Catholic and Protestant pastors arrived to serve the people.
Three churches remain standing, as well as some of the buildings that served the colony – a hospital, dorms, a recreation building, and a store, as well as a scattering of houses. One portion of a visitors’ center remains – a long wall with windows every 6 – 8 feet, covered with something resembling chicken wire. Visitors would travel by boat to Kaluapapa so that they could sit on the outside looking in to visit with their loved ones, on the inside looking out. No physical touch was allowed. It reminded me of the few visits I’ve made to visit persons in prison.
And that brings me to my sister. I was screened for fever and filled out a form with all the COVID19 questions. My bag of gifts was taken and would be checked before being taken to her room by staff. After waiting a few minutes, my blingy sister, dressed in a bright purple popcorn top with bold floral print leggings, a shiny metallic-looking silver jacket and a colorful face mask came outside.
She’s lost weight, and height, and her short-term memory is shot, but she knew I was her sister, and she had business to talk about! After all, she is my oldest sister. Thirty minutes flew by, and we didn’t have nearly enough time before the staff person observing our visit told us time was up. Virtual hugs and blown kisses simply were not adequate.
I felt angry. Angry that staff can take her arm and help her. Angry that hospice staff and OT providers can pass through those doors but I can’t. I know the rules are in place to protect her, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I felt sad. And I felt a connection with all those persons who traveled long distances to Kalaupapa, to sit on the outside looking in, if only for a short time; of families separated by circumstances, by rules, by walls, by fences. A community of loved ones, doing their best to love beyond touch, beyond words, a “cloud of witnesses” who are with us in the solidarity of soul-full love.
With soul-full love ~ Anne