Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Knowing or Unknowing Boy?

A 13-year-old boy, all arms and legs, has come in. He is sweet-looking and quiet, in the throes of gangly adolescence. His skin is pale, and the collar on his denim shirt is dusty. He has HIV. In Haiti, the acronym for AIDS is SIDA, backwards like many things.

John asks the woman with him if she is his mother. “Wi,” and “Non,” she confusingly replies, both shaking and nodding her head, as she stands behind the boy. Dr. Jean-François, the young Haitian pediatrician, who sees all of the children at the clinic with HIV, says to us in his ever-improving English, “I will explain to you later.”

But while the boy and woman are still in the room, Dr. Jean-François begins his explanation, still in English, of the reason for her ambivalent reply. “This is the boy’s aunt. His mother is dead, and he thinks his aunt is his mother.”

At the end of the exam, John tosses the boy a piece of gum across the desk. He catches it with ease, and says, “Thanks.” I am a little alarmed by this English response, wondering how much of our talk the boy understood.

After they have left, Dr. Jean-François tells us that the boy has said to his aunt, “If I have the bad disease, I will kill myself.” I hope this isn’t a warning, because he seems too smart to fool.

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