The Boy and
The Dog Are
(Ballantine)Awee has eyes that are wide, and very very black. He is eleven-years old and he also has AIDS --- as do his father and mother. They are dying. Awee's father comes to Nasdijj, tells him he wants the boy to live with him.Nasdijj's usual work is with disabled children, mostly Indians from the reservations.
I want the mad ones. The children mad enough to survive. I want the children who have seen war. The children mad enough to question everything. The children who have had everything taken away from them. The children who are broken and mad enough to attempt to repair themselves.His wishes are answered with Awee. The boy's father wants Nasdijj to take him on. "I could not do this," says Nasdijj. So the boy appears at one of his readings, steals one of his books and tells him to sign it. He also says he has to take him. Why would anyone sane adopt a child with AIDS? Nasdijj asks himself. So he adopts Awee.This is the story of their time together, the short time they are together. It's the story of a boy dying of a disease that gives no mercy; one that requires drugs for him to keep his shaky hold on life, drugs that create exquisite pain and destroy the very bones in his body.
The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping is a primer on juvenile AIDS and the medications used to treat it. It is also a primer on the lousy medical care available on the Native American reservations. It is also a primer on loving a son who must die --- the loveliness of living with a stunningly beautiful, stunningly proud, stunningly tragic boy, a non-stop fighter named Awee ... who must die.
It's also the story of a fifty-year-old man who learns to love this boy, and laugh with him, and nibble his toes, and clean up his shit and vomit, time and time again, again with such pain, watch him wasting away, listen to him tell his Cousin Crow what it is like:
How it hurt when they took his blood. How he did not like the girl ones (female doctors, nurses) to see him (naked). How he did not like their fingers in his rectum... How being inside an MRI tube scared him. How walking on the razor blades [the pain in his feet] was horrible. How the razor blades could come and go. How it was hard to always have diarrhea, and then you had to take a bath because the fungal infections were so bad... How he was mad because so many medications had tortured him with side effects. How the nurses yelled at him... How nobody believed him because he was just a kid.
§ § §
Writing on the death of children is something that tests the masters. Some succeed; most descend into deadly sentiment, cover themselves and the reader in easy tears. Death Be Not Proud by the journalist John Gunther was an immensely popular book dealing with his son dying of brain tumor. It was jam-packed with authorial sentiment, heart-tug journalism, lump-in-
the- throat bravery, bathos.
William Allen White's essay on the death of his daughter was, by contrast, restrained, careful, building on the tension of his grief pitted against the eloquence of careful words. It was a classic, and brought the tears through its journalistic tension --- agony vs. a tender yet distant caring.
This book --- on the love and death of Nasdijj and Awee --- is very different.
The two of them are tough: their childhoods so similar --- raised by drunks, beaten senseless, raped, deprived of schooling, forced out on the road at an early age. But once they come together, we get to live with a hard and cynical and frightened young man joined together with a hard and cynical and suicidal 50-year-old. We get to watch them do things that fathers and sons do so well --- riding a Harley through the west, playing baseball, eating junk-food --- and the questions, the questions: Why do boys have titties? Should we go to church? What happens when you die? Why are you pouting?
"I'm not pouting."
"Yes, you are. I know when you are pouting. You're pouting now."
"I'm not pouting. I'm just pissed off is all."
"I'm gonna die, you know, and when I'm gone I want you to take care of yourself. I worry about you. I am allowed to love you."
See what the writer has done here? Nasdijj --- fifty years old, presumably a grown-up man --- acting like a brat. Awee decides to parent him, get him to grow up a bit. For a boy who lives through a dozen bodily disasters a day develops a certain surety, knows how to talk to the pouting boy (inside himself, outside himself).
It is Nasdijj's art with words that makes this hang together, lets us live with a child of towering dignity despite daily mortal danger, one who loves, cares for this man who elected, after all, to take him on his Harley, clean his aching, dying body, and finally, when the pain is getting to be too much, when the razors and ice picks are driving the boy to madness --- go out (against his own conscience, and his own belief system) to score some heroin on the street. For you see, in the American health-
care system, doctors wouldn't be caught dead giving a twelve-year old pain medication, no matter how much agony was wracking his body.
I was scared to death to do it. I had tried everything. But this. Let them put me in jail.
I am not going to sit there and see my child sick and screaming with pain while everyone did absolutely nothing.
Live with it.
He could not live with it.
Neither could I...
Good good boy. It is over before you know it. Shooting heroin is not rocket science.
The unruined rivers running hot inside the chambers of your skull give rise to carnivals and flares. The latitudes of night swim like bitches sing the blues, wild and with you, tormented, the strings of violins popping inside your eyes, finds me austere, catapulted, vast hordes of suns making contact with the center of the earth, a heat rising from your belly to expand like molten lead has burned the hearing from your ears.
Awee floated and smiled with me just a little.
Sounds like a humming came from him.
His eyes were half-lids but he was with us. Really with us. He looked at me with the biggest look of surprise on his face.
Where did all the pain go?
Get it? This is a moral man, a man who cares for children. He is one who for years has sought out the abused, beaten, wild, hurt, mad children of the reservation, a man who loves children so much he sets out on his own to do whatever he can to help them.
And this is a man, who --- with great reluctance, has taken on a boy, dying in the most nightmarish way possible, volunteers to go out on the streets of White Man's City to find the biggest no-no drug, so he can shoot up the boy he loves the most in the world because he can no longer stand to see him in such agony. He commits a triple felony to save the one he would die for, to protect him from another day of pain.
§ § §
I said that this is a primer on AIDS, and the treatment of AIDS, and what the treatment does to destroy the body while saving the body, and the mad-making world of the medical professionals, especially those who deal with the poor, who cannot and will not properly care for those who are at high risk.
But this is also a primer on love, the love of a man for a boy, and a boy for a man --- one that lets us in on all the woe of it and at the same time all the joy of it.
Traditional tragedy is the stuff of the stage, filled with ringing phrases and glorious acts --- Hamlet, Electra, Anthony and Cleopatra, Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet.
But there's a new tragedy now, an up-to-date tragedy, one perhaps too close for comfort; a tragedy filled with fungus and vomit and diarrhea and bones wasting away and a boy knowing that he will soon be gone from his best and most loving friend and father. It's a tragedy of a writer who admits that sometimes he doesn't even want to put the story down on the page because he is worried about how those of us who are reading these words are going to picture his beloved Awee:
I was going to ignore the wheelchair because it would not be the way in which he would have wanted to be portrayed. I wasn't going to write about the heroin either. I felt bad about a lot of things.
§ § §
I didn't finish this one. You can do it for me. You can go to page 318 do the rest. To hell with AIDS and Nasdijj and one named Awee who is dying. To hell with them and with writers who tear at your heart. I'm not paid to do this, to read about Nasdijj's love for his new-found now-gone son, I am not paid to read the words of this sad writer writing of his great love, one that tears us up more than it should.
I absolutely refuse to countenance the death of such a funny skinny kid. To hell with dying and the sadness of it all. I do not want it to happen so I have just shut the book and let's let someone else read the last pages because if I go to the very end, the author will have taken something from me and I am not so sure that he should be allowed to do this to me, to the boy with "black desert eyes," to take him from us in such a fashion so that we are pissed at the disease and the world that lets this disease go on and the world that won't take the time nor the money to stop this death of children, those who are dying --- the ones who should not be dying, the ones who should never ever have died at all, the ones that should be protected but, because we all have something better to do, what we think are more pressing things to do --- speculate in real estate, declare wars, go on a cruise, get drunk ---- we do these things because we have decided that the fate of a young man and the world and his disease are not worth the candle, are not worth our efforts at all, at all..--- L. W. Milam