Pre-Existing Conditions

By Debra Marquart

“I am my sister’s keeper.”
           —Sister Simone Campbell, addressing the Assembly
             of the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 5, 2012.

Three weeks ago, my sister went on her lunch break
and turned right, for home, rather than left, for the clinic

where she might have been forced to admit to the doctor
that the pain in her left arm was something more than

the chronic ache in her left shoulder from the ladder fall
while cleaning last year. Instead, she went home for soup

which is where my brother found her the next morning
seated at the kitchen counter with her head resting

in her arms, as if she’d only fallen asleep, after her boss
reported that she hadn’t come to work. She rose

each day at 5 A.M to bake muffins and fresh bread
to make the potato salad and rotisserie chickens

that stock the coolers and shelves for the convenience
of others. Too young for Medicare, at 58, she earned

an hourly wage that held her just above the poverty line,
just enough to disqualify her for Medicaid. I see now

how she fell between the cracks. Sure, she tempted fate,
cooked with too many eggs, too much salt, sugar, butter,

and cream. And didn’t we gobble up every rich thing
she put before us? Did she calculate the cost of the new

health care coverage and think, Four hundred dollars
a month. That’s a car payment, that’s forty hours of labor,

a full week of wages. How I wish she’d been forced
to buy it. Did she turn right for home instead of left

for the clinic because she knew a trip to the doctor
would mean a quadruple by-pass, loss of a job,

bankruptcy, and the forced foreclosure of a house
almost paid for. ($700 left on the mortgage at the time

of her death.) So she decided to take the pain
and risk it, believing she was too tough to die.

Well, she wasn’t. To be human is to walk around
with pre-existing conditions—always some muscle

or valve poised to fail, some cell ready to grow wild.
Never before have I wanted to speak to my president

and say, please, hurry up with this. She was my sister,
do you understand? As children, we shared a bathtub,

in those years of once-a-week Saturday night washings.
I can still feel her soapy back against mine. As teenagers,

we shared a bedroom, whispering late into the dark
between our twin beds, until one of us would grow tired

and say, little red school house on the hill, our private code
for “shut up now, so that I can get some sleep.”

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