“But I have to go to school tomorrow, Mommy,” seven-year-old Jennifer whined and sat up in bed. “I have a test in English tomorrow. And the teacher said we all have to take it.” Fever or no fever, she didn't want to get a poor grade on her report card.
“They won't let you in school with the measles, honey. You might infect the other children,” Barbara Wilson said sympathetically while looking through a third floor window of the project development where they lived and frowned. “I'm sure the teacher will let you take the test when you get back.” As if everything in her life didn't seem to be difficult enough, now her daughter was sick.
“But why do I have to go to the hospital?” Jennifer fidgeted with her fingers. “Can't the doctor come here?” She had been trying not to upset her mother and hadn't wanted to sound as if she were arguing.
“I don't have money for a doctor, honey,” Barbara said solemnly and sighed in frustration. “In fact, the only food I have in the house is enough to make chicken soup with rice.” A moment of self-pity invading her, she thought about how difficult it was to raise a child with no husband, no job, and no money. If only her arthritis weren't so painful, she wouldn't have lost that last job. But the boxes she'd had to unload from the trucks had been too heavy.
“Does it have to be that charity hospital again?” Jennifer knew it had to be. Although the nurses and doctors there were nice, the thought of being poor depressed her.
Tears filling Barbara's eyes, she bit her lower lip. “For now, it does, honey.” She took a handkerchief out of the pocket of her housecoat and blew her nose. “When I get another job, we can go to a regular doctor. Maybe I'll even get a job that has medical insurance.”
“What's medical insurance?”
Passing a hand over her daughter's head, Barbara smiled warmly. “Medical insurance means we won't have to pay for all the doctor bills. The company I'll be working for will pay some of them for us.” Maybe she could even get a good enough job so they could move from that neighborhood.
Looking out the window again, Barbara shuddered at the sight of the garbage that had been strewn around the ground. Where there had once been lawns, there was now baron dirt. Two boys were sitting on a step, smoking marijuana. A young girl who couldn't have been more than thirteen was standing next to them while dressed as if she were advertising what she had to offer. Barbara dreaded the thought that her daughter might grow up to be like them. They had to get away from that area...somehow.
“How come only us Black people have to go to the charity hospital?” Jennifer blinked her eyes. She was starting to get another one of those headaches. “May I please have a glass of water?”
“Sure, honey.” Barbara left the room and came back within a half minute. “There aren't only Black people in the Medical Center,” she explained while her daughter sipped the water. “Lots of White people go there, too.”
“Is it far from here?”
“No, Jen, it's right here in Jersey City...not that far.” Barbara took the empty glass from her daughter and placed it on the night table. “We'd better get you bundled up and start out.”
“Do I have to bring these pajamas?” Looking down at her left leg, Jennifer sounded depressed. It was going to be embarrassing to let people in the hospital see them and know how poor they were. But she didn't want to upset her mother by saying that.
Only a week earlier, Jennifer had awaked in the middle of the night and heard her mother crying in bed. She wanted to go to her, but she knew Barbara was crying because they didn't have any money. If only she were older, she could get a job to help with the expenses. Someday, she would get a good job and her mother wouldn't have to work anymore.
“I'm afraid so, honey. That's all we have for the time being.” Barbara wanted to sit down and cry. But she didn't want her daughter to see her falling apart as she had fallen apart so often during the past several months. There would be plenty of time to cry later that night when she would be alone.
“Are we going to take a bus?” Jennifer removed her pajamas and folded them neatly on the bed.
“No, sweetheart,” Barbara sighed. “We wouldn't want to infect anyone else with the measles. We'll have to walk.” Even if they could take a bus, she didn't have the money for one.
“How far is it?”
“About ten blocks. So let's get you bundled up nice and warm. It's kind of chilly out there today.”
After putting her best skirt and sweater on, Jennifer had a thought. “Will I be home for Christmas?”
“You should be, sweetheart.” Barbara forced a smile. The only problem was that Santa Claus wouldn't be visiting them that year.