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No Footprints in the Sand - Excerpt

No Footprints in the Sand

The sand beach that stretches nearly a mile beyond the Kalaupapa wharf was always laid smooth by the tide. Hansen's disease plays havoc with feet, ulcerating them, crippling them. Such feet walk poorly. And in sand they cannot walk at all. Most patients in Henry's time left no footprints in that golden sand.

When Henry Nalaielua was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 1936 and taken from his home and family, he began a journey of exile that led him to Kalaupapa—the remote settlement with the tragic history on the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i. During its century as a virtual prison, more than 8,000 people were exiled to Kalaupapa, until the introduction of sulfone drugs in the 1940s. Today fewer than 30 patients remain.

This is Henry’s story—an unforgettable memoir of the boy who grew to build a full and joyous life at Kalaupapa, and still calls it home today. No Footprints in the Sand is one of only a few memoirs ever shared with the public by a Kalaupapa patient. Its intimacy and candor make it, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, “a rare and precious human document.” Nalaielua’s story is an inspiring one; despite exile, physical challenges and the severing of family ties, he has faced life—as an artist, musician and historian—with courage, honesty, hope and humor.

No Footprints in the Sand: A Memoir of Kalaupapa

by Henry Nalaielua, with Sally-Jo Bowman

A JOURNEY OF EXILEWhen Henry Nalaielua was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 1936 and taken from his home and family, he began a journey of exile that led him to Kalaupapa—the remote settlement with the tragic history on the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i. This is Henry’s story—an unforgettable memoir of the boy who grew to guild a full and joyous life at Kalaupapa, and still calls it home today.

The following excerpt from No Footprints in the Sand describes Henry’s journey to Europe for Father Damien’s beatification ceremony in 1995, and the ceremonies that took place to honor Damien and his relic the Kalaupapa contingent brought back to Hawai‘i for reburial.

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In Hawai‘i there was a renewed move afoot to have Damien beatified. In the Catholic system, beatification is the last step in the long canonization process by which someone becomes a saint. It involves much study on a person’s life and ministry, and requires a miracle shown to have occurred by the person’s intercession. The miracle must have happened after his death. It seemed awfully complicated.

I put my efforts into something smaller, joining with other patients to petition the Catholic Church to return Damien to Hawai‘i, specifically to Kalaupapa. Of course we wanted his whole remains to return, but in the end we were happy to have a small relic.

Finally beatification was approved, and in 1994 I became part of a group from Hawai‘i that attended the ceremonies in Damien’s hometown of Tremeloo in Belguim. Shortly before the date set, Pope John Paul II broke his hip and postponed the Mass. It was too late to cancel our plans, though, so we went and had a Mass anyway, without the Pope.

The Vatican rescheduled for a year later, but in Brussels rather than Tremeloo. So in 1995 we went back. Our Hawai‘i delegation, more than 100 of us, stayed at a swank hotel in Brussels for several days, visiting various places and churches. St. John Vianney’s choir, our dear friends from Kailua, O‘ahu, sang in some of the churches. We toured a whole day, even going to the church where Damien had been baptized.

The Pope’s Mass was held June 4 at Koelkelberg Basilica. It was a huge cathedral, but the Mass was to be held outside. We were bussed from the hotel. I looked outside and thought, “Looks like maybe rain. I going stay inside the bus.” I sat there.

Somebody said, “Come!”

And I did.

Thousands of people had gathered. Our contingent was not seated together. My seat was perhaps 75 yards from the front, and I could see the Pope clearly.

As soon as things began, it started raining. And not just raining, but pouring, for the whole hour of the ceremony. Only a few people had umbrellas. The Pope was under a canopy. Me, I just got wet. Everyone else got soaked too. About 40 lay priests came around to give everyone Communion.

Then the Pope blessed Damien’s relic and presented it to the representative we patients had selected, Meli Pili, and Randy King, who had arranged our entire trip. The relic is the remains of Damien’s right hand. His body had been exhumed again in the 1950s for the Catholic Church’s forensic study that is part of beatification proceedings. They didn’t know then it would take another four decades to complete the process. When the examinations were finished, Damien’s bones were separated and put in individual marked boxes made of zinc. When it came time to remove his right hand for us, the Church opened the sarcophagus again, and brought out the correct box. The whole idea of relics is foreign to Americans, but to Europeans it’s quite natural, kind of like having a lock of someone’s hair as a physical connection to the person.

At the end of the Mass, the Pope’s attendants tried to get him to leave. He said, “No, not until I see the hula.”

The dance was performed—in the rain— by Hālau Hula o Ma‘iki.

The next morning a Mass was held in our hotel at 6:15 a.m. especially for us from Kalaupapa to receive the blessing of Damien’s relic and kiss the box in which it lay. Plenty people came.

The reliquary, the beautiful koa box made by the famous ‘ukulele maker Sam Kamaka, was on an altar, ringed with ti leaves. A prayer was chanted in Hawaiian, and the hālau danced again. Father Joseph Bukoski, who headed the Damien Commission in Hawai‘i, and some other priests broke the wax seal on the reliquary. He pulled out the zinc box and gave it to Pua VanDorpe, the kapa (barkcloth) master from the Big Island. She wrapped it in ceremonial kapa she had made. First she wrapped the paper-thin white layer with a border design that included two hearts and a cross. The outer, sturdier kapa was black, signifying high rank.

After communion, Bukoski carried the bundle to our Kalaupapa group, and we kissed it. My feeling then is not easy to describe. Emotional. Eerie. Something that stirred me. I wasn’t thinking about touching heaven. Touching Damien was enough.

When all the ceremonies were over some of our groups stayed on to travel more.

But I was in the group that came home with Damien’s relic. When we got off the plane in Honolulu it was evening. The relic went immediately to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace downtown on Fort Street. From there it spent the next few weeks touring the islands.

Then, on July 15, the Church arranged a huge public reception in Honolulu at ‘Iolani Palace. Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium was a special guest. I was on the program as a speaker too. I have no idea how I was chosen. I think someone said, “Oh, go ask Henry for say something.” I prepared some notes and stuck the paper in the pocket of my aloha shirt, under the ginger lei someone had given me. But when it came time to speak, I just couldn’t talk looking at a piece of paper.

I stood up at the lectern. I thought about the first time I saw Damien’s grave in Louvain, and about the beatification only last month in Brussels. It all took just an instant. My feeling of dedication to the man was so strong, I knew I was going to say the right thing. A complete calm came over me. I left the notes in my pocket and spoke from my heart.

“Damien spent months coming across the world’s oceans just to serve in a small place like Kalaupapa,” I began. “He came, he saw, he conquered.”

I didn’t have a chance to finish. I heard the scraping of folding chairs arranged on the paving in front of the Palace steps. People were getting up. Finally, much to my amazement, I realized they were giving me a standing ovation.

A week later, the Bishop of Honolulu, Francis X. DiLorenzo, came to Kalaupapa to preside at an open-air Mass, and this time we buried the relic in its beautiful reliquary in Damien’s original grave outside St. Philomena’s tiny country church. Four patients assisted in pounding the dowels to secure the reliquary lid—Bernard Punikaia, Nelly McCarty, Richard Marks and Kenso Seki. When the reliquary was lowered into its resting place and the concrete slab replaced, many of the 500 people who had come to attend this Mass heaped the grave with lei and bouquets.

This time there was no rain. It was a bright, shiny day, with the tradewinds welcoming Father Damien home. He will not leave again. This was Damien’s true home. And it is mine. Kalaupapa, the home of my heart.

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Henry Kalalahilimoku Nalaielua was raised in a sugar plantation community on the Big Island of Hawai‘i until the age of ten. In 1936 he was diagnosed with what was then still called leprosy and was sent to Kalihi Hospital on the island of O‘ahu and then to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i for indefinite confinement at a quarantine facility for Hansen’s disease. Despite lifelong medical problems, Henry learned to drawn and paint, to master ‘ukulele and upright bass, and to turn his naturally inquisitive mind to learning. When the health facility at Kalaupapa was named a National Historical Park, he became a guide for park visitors. Henry also served on numerous public agency advisory boards. At the time No Footprints was published, Henry continued to live at Kalaupapa. In April of 2009, Henry Nalaielua passed away at age 84.