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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 24, 2001

A life story shared, a special gift given

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Health Writer

Tomorrow will probably be Charles Kuahine's last Christmas.

Charles Kuahine shares a laugh with daughters KeithAnn Lum, left, and Zel Boddie at his Kailua home hospice.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

He has lived his life with Hansen's disease and cheated death more than once. His daughters laugh with him and call him the "bionic man," but they know he will soon be leaving them.

Nine months ago, Kuahine was diagnosed with cancer and told he had six months to live. Christmas this year is bittersweet. His daughters Zel Boddie and KeithAnn Lum have been in tears as they search for the special gift for their dad.

"What do you give to someone who will be leaving you?" Boddie said.

Then the sisters realized what they wanted most was to share the story of his life.

"He's had a simple life," Boddie said. "But it's an extraordinary life. He's touched so many people."

Kuahine's life also is inextricably wound in a chapter of Hawai'i's story. Fifty years ago, at age 18, he became one of the 8,000 exiled to Moloka'i's "leprosarium" for those with Hansen's disease. Out of the 13 children in his family, three were banished to Kalaupapa.

Kuahine remembers the isolation of the windswept peninsula. He talks matter-of-factly about conditions that today seem unbearable — how the patients had to worry about rats and mice nibbling at their numbed fingers at night.

But Kuahine bears no bitterness in his heart for his exile. Most of all, he remembers the good times.

Kuahine was one of "the school kids," a group of young boys who ran together.

"We'd go fishing," he recalled as he sat in his wheelchair at his Kailua home hospice on the weekend. "There was lots of fishing. Hunting, too. There were wild pigs, lots of goats. Yeah, it was a good place."

Kalaupapa was a sentence for some, but for Kuahine it was a beginning. It was there that he met Sarah. She was a lab technician from Texas who planned to travel the world. Her first stop was Kalaupapa, and there her world tour ended.

"When I first saw her, I fell in love," Kuahine said with a wide smile. "I used to go every morning to talk to her."

One morning Sarah wanted to go swimming at the pier.

"There she was in the water and then she started calling out to me, 'Chuck, Chuck, I'm drowning.' I didn't know what to do. I was afraid to jump in to help because we were not supposed to touch the kokuas," Kuahine said.

Chuck and Sarah were on different sides of a void — patients and kokua (help staff) were not supposed to cross that line. But Kuahine jumped in the water to help Sarah.

And what did they do with the no touching rule after that? Kuahine smiles the cheeky smile of the teenager he was.

"Turn off the light."

Life on Kalaupapa went on despite the rules. Like others, Chuck and Sarah found ways to meet. They would sneak out at night. They would meet at Kalaupapa's two beer joints where the patients and kokua would meet to dance and sing.

There was a special song for Chuck and Sarah: "Sunset of Kalaupapa," a love song for a person and a place written by Kuahine's brother Samson, who also was a patient at Kalaupapa.

"His room faced right where the sunset is; he saw it everyday," Kuahine said. "I guess that brought everything out, his feelings about the sunset and the rain, the breeze. He was blind when he wrote that song."

Chuck used to sing it to Sarah.

"My island of dreams
Means so much to me
When you're in my arms
Sighing so tenderly"

In 1955, after new medicines improved the treatment of Hansen's disease, Chuck was given his release papers, and he and Sarah left Kalaupapa so they could marry and live together.

There were 44 years of marriage, eight children and lots of memories of their homes, first in Kahalu'u, then Kailua and later Hau'ula.

For a time Kuahine worked in construction. Then one day, when he was 31, Kuahine nearly died when he fell 21 feet onto his head from the scaffolding of the freeway construction near Palama Settlement.

Doctors told his family he might never recover.

But he did.

Although Kuahine could no longer work, he took over the care of his children.

"Mom worked two jobs, so he was the stay-at-home mom," Lum said. "He did everything with us. He helped with our school projects. He did the laundry, cleaned the house. He had us all bathed and dinner done before Mom got home."

Kuahine also inherited about 30 more children when he signed his son up with the Boy Scouts in the 1960s and became the assistant to scout leader Abraham Toro.

"It seemed like he was the father to all of the kids," Toro said. "He spoiled them rotten. He's got a big heart."

Then in 1998, Kuahine took over caring for his wife, too, when she became ill with Lou Gehrig's disease.

She passed away in October 1999.

Kuahine cheated death again one year ago when he nearly died on the operating table. Again, he made it through, but during the surgery doctors found a tumor on his colon. Later they found it had spread to his liver and lungs.

Kuahine has been back to Kalaupapa four times since then to see his sister, Katherine, who still lives there, and to visit old haunts.

But things have changed. There are now just 41 patients left and Kalaupapa's story is coming to a close.

"I miss those days," Kuahine said. "Those days were wonderful. But all the young boys are gone now. When I go back, the porches are empty, the beaches are empty."

This Christmas he and his daughters are spending time talking. Kuahine wants to see the Ali movie.

Tonight they will unwrap gifts together. And they will sing along to the CD that Boddie hunted down of Brother Noland singing "Sunset of Kalaupapa."

"So hold me close my darling
Kiss me as lovers do
The sunset of Kalaupapa
Will be a dream come true."

What does Kuahine wish for this Christmas?

"I want to see my wife."

Merry Christmas, Charles Kuahine.