I remember a few months back when “little Richard” first came to live with us at the orphanage. We had been through a handful of new additions and were getting used to the drill: “Here’s the toilet, here’s where we eat together, if you are scared, or hurt, or lonely, or bored, here’s where to find us… ” typically the key was just to not make a big deal out of a child being new or different, and to help them feel accepted. But Richard was the first child that came to us with such serious handling instructions… and an expiration date:
WARNING: THIS CHILD HAS HIV.
Now, when I was a kid I watched all the cheesy, feel-good after school specials about tolerance and inclusion, and I paid attention in all my health classes in high school, and I’ve even muscled down a few episodes of Barney as I’ve become a parent (though I did NOT skidda-marink-a-dinky-dink along with him, no matter what my kids tell you). With this kind of education and programming I know that getting AIDS is always a matter of dedicated body fluid swapping, and not a toilet seat or handshake affair, but, to my shame, I still was afraid to touch Richard when he came. I wasn’t petrified, but I ignored all of the things I “know” about HIV and basically tried to be loving and nurturing from a safe distance. I had a secret little perimeter for interaction with Richard… and I soon noticed that other kids in the orphanage did too. He was basically getting the Heisman Trophy pose from all of us. Of course we had warned Richard and the other children about the danger of touching his blood or other fluids, but we had not counted on the result of him living as if he had a force field. It doesn’t take long for this kind of alienation to show on a kid’s face, and when I gradually got a real sense of his isolation and forsakenness I realized that I needed to change. This precious kid needed hugs and conversation and for me to not be such a coward.
Now, what made me think of all this is that a couple of days ago, Richard fell and bit a good chunk out of both of his lips, also knocking a tooth loose. He came crying into the house and I instinctively held him in my lap to assess the damage as he wept and bled. Shelley got me a plastic glove so I could inspect his mouth, and after holding him for a moment we went outside away from the other kids and I gave him a milk can to spit into and some water to rinse with and drink. Then I asked him if I could pull the loose tooth, and he agreed. So here I am, pulling a tooth whose bloody roots were as dangerous as a loaded gun, and I didn’t even think about being afraid. I was cautious, but not worried. Richard is no longer doomed to negotiate the orphanage terrain alone, but had been carried to my room by a couple other orphans who held him and helped him hold his hands in the right place so he wouldn’t bleed everywhere. In the middle of this whole ordeal I just realized how good it felt to be free of a fear I hadn’t realized I had before, how glad I was to be there for Richard, and how fortunate I feel to be able to say that extracting loose teeth from HIV positive orphans is part of normal life for me now. There’s no adrenaline in it. No worry, just care.