We lived in Paradise. Tripler Army Hospital base housing for married officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, to be exact. Our home was an apartment in side by side units that had been converted from the original wooden hospital wards before the iconic pink hospital was built. Opposite our row of housing was a mirror image of the same, separated by a strip of lawn bisected by a row of palm trees. That lawn was my playground, mine and all the other kids who lived there with our physician and officer families.
Although Hawaii is famous for its cooling trade winds and daily tropical showers, I don’t remember either. I was four in the early 1950s, my day marked by playing outside. We were safe, we were free to play. After breakfast all the kids zipped around the lawn, back and forth between houses, going home only for lunch, then dinner as the orange orb of sun settled in for the night and cast Moanalua Ridge in balmy darkness.
I learned to ride a tricycle and to fly a kite, to string tiny koa seeds into leis, and to dance hula. I tasted both cotton candy and snow cones for the first time. Each was culinary magic, one a sugary pink cloud brought to earth on a paper cone, the other a paper cone of turquoise and pink sugared ice served on an island where it never snowed. Both are still favorite treats. Most days I wore a yellow or red hibiscus blossom in my hair, plucked from one of the nearby bushes, and carried lantana clusters, each a miniature pinwheel bouquet.
I didn’t have a baby doll. I wanted one desperately but we were poor, a concept I understood as meaning not enough money to buy a doll. A grotesque cloth clown and an ugly sock monkey, both discarded by other kids, substituted for the baby doll I wanted to rock in my arms.
I did have Pudd.
Pudd, pronounced like the first part of the word pudding, was the baby girl born to the couple who lived across the lawn from us. I visited her every day, politely knocking on the door until Pudd’s mother, Mrs. Dalton, welcomed me inside.
Renaissance beautiful with satiny pink skin and enormous blue eyes, Pudd remained smiley and sweet-natured. She rarely cried. She wriggled her hands and feet but never tried to turn over. She kept silent as if concentrating on music in her own heart. She grasped my hand, making it seem like a giant’s, and she grinned and bubbled when I sang “Twinkle Star” and “My Little Grass Shack.” If I got the words wrong, Pudd never complained.
Mrs. Dalton lifted Pudd gently, holding her head carefully. She spoke in dulcet tones to her daughter as loud voices startled Pudd and caused her to jerk in fright. Pudd and her mother were great training for big sisters-to-be, a good thing as my mom would soon present our family with a sibling for me. I was ready for the baby doll coming to our home.
I never stayed long when Pudd needed a nap or it was time for Mrs. Dalton to feed her, acts I wasn’t allowed to witness. Giving Pudd a kiss on her forehead but never on her lips or the top of her head on her fragile fontanel, I said good bye until the next day, and danced down the steps to the lawn.
One afternoon my mom told me I couldn’t visit Pudd, her tearful eyes warning me not to go over to the Dalton’s house. I pestered my mom about why I couldn’t visit until she said, “They’re giving Pudd her last bath.”
My brother was born only a week or so after I’d been forbidden to bother Mrs. Dalton on the afternoon of Pudd’s last bath. I didn’t see Pudd again as I had my own baby doll to watch over and sing to. We left Hawaii a few months after my brother was born, eventually settling in Trenton, New Jersey.
Seven years later we drove to the Midwest to visit the Daltons who now had three kids like us. Only they weren’t at all like us.
The last bath hadn’t been the last one after all. Pudd’s real name was Edwina, a fact my parents revealed on the drive. Her parents had to teach it to her before she started school. The Daltons had been planning to give up Pudd to an institution but changed their mind and moved to a state that had the best school in the country for children like Pudd. Children born with hydrocephalus – water on the brain. It’s a misnomer for a defect that allows excess spinal fluid to collect around the brain and spinal cord, causing the head to swell and a myriad of developmental problems. Though Pudd’s life had been saved shortly after birth with a shunt to drain the fluid, the damage had been done.
My parents tried to prepare me to meet the Pudd who was now almost eight years old. But nothing could have prepared me. She was still incredibly beautiful, with golden ringlets and satiny pink skin. She wore thick glasses and leg braces from ankle to thigh. She could neither sit nor stand without assistance though she had learned to take a few clumsy steps. I talked to her about school, art projects, and TV shows, as I would with any friend. Her speech was nearly impossible to understand and I realized she had limited mental abilities. She wasn’t the perfect baby I’d sung to in Hawaii, but she smiled with radiant warmth as if she remembered me. I squelched my tears.
At bedtime her parents undertook an elaborate ritual to prop Pudd between half a dozen pillows to hold her body still so she could sleep without convulsions, without breaking one of her fragile legs or arms. They would wake to check on her twice during the night. We didn’t stay longer than that one day’s visit and I never saw nor heard about Pudd again. I don’t know if she is still alive though it’s unlikely.
Pudd suffered an unimaginable, freak injury that can be ameliorated today with advanced medical technology, but her life wasn’t a lesson for all the rest of us to digest. Her fate was unfair. Knowing Pudd helped me develop a sense of compassion for people with disabilities but it wasn’t why she was put on earth. She wasn’t born to be a model for research, though her life was an example to her doctors and teachers. I don’t know why there is a magnitude of injustice in the world. Paradise doesn’t exist if one person hurts. I do know I can make someone feel that they are loved.
I love you, Pudd, wherever you are. You will always be my sweet Hawaiian baby doll.