Monday, November 05, 2007

Pretty woman - A patient encounter

“What is your relationship to the child?” I asked.

She looked too young to be the mother of the school-aged child accompanying her. “I am his mother,” she replied.

I almost said “Wow. You look too young to be his mother,” but I paused. I have learned that appearing young is not necessarily considered desirable by many here in Swaziland, where the principle struggle is to stay healthy so that you can some day achieve oldness.

This mother was not old, but she was certainly healthy and therefore, I suppose, on track. She was also HIV positive.

She wore an elegant headscarf and petite earrings. Her beige, delicate dress was simple but pretty, her posture correct and effortless, her face stately. “This woman should be sipping mint juleps watching a contest between hundred-thousand dollar horses," I remember thinking, though I admit that it was a strange thought as I know little about Kentucky racehorses, much less their market value. I did have a minty whiskey drink once some years ago.

Of course, this lady had not left home before dawn for lowballs or airy leisure. She had put on her best dress, walked to the main road and hailed a minibus in the dark because she is an HIV+ mother living in a Kingdom where four of five live on less than a dollar a day, the king has umpteen wives, and four of ten mothers are HIV infected. She had left the house for one simple purpose: to procure medicines that will keep her son alive.

Samkelo sat comfortably next to his mother on one of the clinic’s rigid plastic chairs. His face was tranquil, his expression dreamy. The child’s left arm was hanging casually over the chair’s backrest. He seemed to know that, on the other side of the exam room window behind him, it was another beautiful spring day in Swaziland. He and his mom had arrived at six in the morning, and he knew that he would not be indoors for long.

If the waiting room had not been so full, perhaps I would have been similarly wistful.

I asked his mother if she had told Samkelo why he comes to the Baylor clinic. She had not. Because he was almost nine years old, I suggested that she sit and talk with him about it soon. “If you would like, we can discuss it with him together when you come back to clinic in two weeks,” I added.

She looked over at Samkelo, the way a mother looks at a child when she wants to protect him. She said she would think about it. Samkelo, with a backdrop of soft yellow light and a swaying avocado tree, looked back and smiled at his mom, the way a child smiles at a mother when he knows she will protect him, even against those things he does not yet understand...or at least try.

The branches of the avodaco tree were heavy, some branches supporting four or five of the "pears" (as they are refered to locally). As Samkelo stood to leave, I imagined how much fun it would be to climb the tree with him and give him a lesson on how to make avocado pears into guacamole.

We would insist that his youthful mother relax on a blanket in the shade and we would serve it to her in an impeccable dish which we would have left in the clinic freezer for a few minutes so that it was slightly chilled.



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