At 48, Mum is 15 years older than me. As a child, I was the keeper of her secrets and her tears when she longed for family in Turkey and homesickness weighed her down. As a teen, we butted heads like siblings. As adults, we visualised dreams in Turkish coffee cups and followed the grainy trail to each other’s hearts.

So when Mum found a lump on her left breast, we made our way together to her GP. Mum was prone to cysts and had had two removed previously.

The doctor ordered a mammogram.

“Ouff. This gonna hurt too much. They squash boob!” Mum said. We found ourselves at the local BreastScreen early the next morning. Mum undressed in the partition opposite the X-ray room, her white gown exposing her bare back.

She walked in to the dark room that hummed and clicked behind the white door.

“You’ll be fine, Mum.” I stood there, cradling her clothes in my arms. They were warm and smelt of smoke and deodorant, as alive as if she was standing next to me. She’ll be fine, I repeated, inhaling her. She will be fine. It’s only a cyst. Yet fear crept in, as real and palpable as her clothes.

When we received a follow-up letter from BreastScreen for further tests at an Assessment Centre, we could only stare at each other.

Mum’s eyes welled up. “Something wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “I feel it.”

“It’s a cyst, Mum. All good. They just want to make sure. Nothing’s wrong with your big mammas, okay?” I said, eyeballing her breasts.

“Tsk,” she said, smiling. “Even time like this you try make joke. You not funny.”

We laughed at Mum’s breasts that spilled out of her bra. We laughed to suppress the fear that swelled between us.

The Assessment Centre waiting room was full of whispered conversations. Mum stared at her feet, cradling her handbag in her lap. Her fingers had whitened from squeezing the strap. I released her hand, put the bag on the floor.

“You’re going to be okay,” I said in Turkish.

Next to us, an elderly woman with short white hair cried into a crumpled tissue. A younger woman held her hand, eyes glazed. I looked away, tried to read the information pamphlet they’d given us at reception. Only one possibility stood out. An abnormality does not always result in cancer.

When Mum’s name was called, an attendant led her to a changing room where she undressed her top half and slipped on a blue gown over her jeans. We moved down the hall to another waiting area.

The room was a sea of blue. Women sat side by side, some with family, others with friends. Those who were alone distracted themselves with magazines as the clock stretched time. A table was set up in the far corner with tea and coffee facilities. “Who’d like a warm drink?” asked a softly spoken volunteer. As she went around taking orders, the white-haired woman I’d seen earlier walked in. “I’ll be okay, Mum,” said her daughter, now dressed in a blue gown. The older woman nodded, her cheeks wet with tears.

Mum and I sat shoulder to shoulder. I rubbed her arms, which were peppered with goose bumps.

“What if…” Mum whispered in Turkish. “What if it’s cancer?”

We stared ahead. My throat burned and I focused on the light blue wall that blurred with my tears. I fought them back as we were called into the X-ray room.

Mum’s breast was magnified on the ultrasound screen. The lump bobbed as if at sea as the transducer circled her breast. I squeezed Mum’s hand while two doctors analysed the images and spoke in hushed tones.

The male doctor’s face was impassive. “It doesn’t look cancerous,” he said. “We recommend that you monitor it.”

Thank God, I thought. Thank you, God. I helped Mum up and we walked out of the dim room.

We were quiet on the drive home, our words collecting like the froth that layered a cup of Turkish coffee. I held her hand and she squeezed back, her smile breaking us away from the monitors and machines. Her hand was soft, girl-like. I held on, with the relief and intensity of a child, our world shifting once again.

 

First published by The Big Issue Australia in Ed#446, My Word Section.

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