(for Emily)

AIDS is creating orphans on an unprecedented scale. There are 11.2 million of them, of whom 10.7 million live in Africa.
- "Battling with AIDS," The Economist Magazine, July 15, 2000

When the other kids are off
       being Americans or imaginary monsters,
       painting in the dust, climbing thick guava trees,
       or weaseling leftover sweet potatoes from the kitchen,
I find you looking in the window on the others
       as they sit mesmerized by the smurfs,
       soaking in cartoons 20 years outdated
       in a meaningless language
       on a scratchy donated television set

Or while the rest are on the playground,
       playing jacks with rocks
       or rolling some rich kid's unwanted toy,
You stand in the doorway, supported by the frame.

and your eyes appear bigger than the rest of you.
I look at you, parts in proportion,
but when I turn around my mind distorts them--
they weigh on your withering body
which somehow fits your organs, but barely your bones.
It doesn't fit.

Your body is too small
and your eyes are too big
crowding your face and
collapsing your forehead.
Your arms drag
and your clothes hang like afterthoughts,
sinking chest periodically taking command
as air grates at your lungs
followed by a sniffle.
I've grown accustomed to the pattern.

Heavy and stoic,
you don't react in daylight.
But as I tuck you in bed,
I can't help thinking that
when you wake up in the dark,
separated from the metal coils
by only a thin foam mattress,
scared senseless in the surgical silence
shaken by chills,
surrounded by sleepers,
head weighing
on an unsympathetic pillow that flatly states
       you can't rest here,
limp body stuck
to damp sheets that won't cooperate,
you must want to throw your collapsing body in its face
and scream: here, I give you my childhood
as southern Africa's sacrifice.

It's killing you,
knocking you down as you grow up--
so you grow up.
By the time you understand it will take you
and leave the rest confused.

These sleepless nights,
this learning by pain instead of age.

Elizabeth Whelan

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