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.
And someone else is driving Gertrude’s car; someone else is living in her house. No one plays cribbage anymore in the settlement bar, where she used to hold court until the eight o’clock closing time every night. The bar’s owner, a patient named Gloria, tried to ease the transition, rearranging the tables so that no one would have to sit in Gertrude’s old seat. People appreciated the effort, but it was basically futile; her absence was inescapable all the same. These days, with so few patients left, there’s no moving forward after a death in Kalaupapa. There’s really not much moving forward at all.
I used to love to explore the woods outside the settlement, which are filled with evidence of a much bigger town: concrete walkways and front steps that now lead nowhere, glass medicine jars and ceramic doorknobs shining in the mud. Once, a friend and I set out to capture a wild beehive and found our target not far into the forest, inside an overturned, overgrown cast-iron bathtub.
At first I found these discoveries quaint or charming. Like the settlement’s isolation, like its peculiar history, they were half-abstractions, stories to tell when I returned to the outside world. But in time I began to see them as the remaining patients did: relics not just of people they had known, but of a community that had dwindled to just them, and that would not last beyond them. No new patients, and no children, have come in decades; every death is one step closer to the end of Kalaupapa as they have known it.
In a settlement defined by tragedies—parents and children torn apart, years of forced isolation, funeral bells that once rang every day—this is the one that no one expected. The place that no one wanted to create, the place where no one wanted to go, is coming to an end. And even a prison eventually becomes a home, becomes something you mourn.