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You slid into this world in the early hours of the morning, your skin like curdled milk. raw milkThey placed you on my chest and you burrowed, sure of your place. A part of me leaked out, and they mopped it up with strips of cloth soaking with my blood. You were so floppy, a baby made of dough, your dark eyes peering into me, into the fear and darkness gathering inside.

You knew me.
I didn’t know you.

You searched, found my breast, sucked. You were clumsy and desperate. I was desperate for you to stop. Every time you sucked, my stomach contracted, as if being cleaved by knives. It’s normal, they said, your womb is inching back to place. I squeezed my eyes shut until you stopped and became a lump on my chest again. We lay there, long after the room cooled down and the obstetrician left with his shiny tools that stitched me back together, but not whole.

We got you home, twenty-five grams heavier, with their warnings ringing like sirens. We were to raise you in three-hour blocks, to fatten your lanky body with formula and colostrum that we scraped off my nipple with spoons. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. Feed. Pump my breasts. Put you to sleep. You wouldn’t latch on the right way when my milk came in, and my nipples cracked, my ducts got blocked. Cabbage leaves cupped my inflamed breasts. My body was raw tissue renewing itself without me.

Your daddy held you with a certainty that I should have had. You and I had fed off each other for nine months, after all, the two of us connected. We were skin and bones and awkward angles. Yet when I held you, my hands shook, as if you were going to slip through my fingers. The fear of losing you was a tangible thing. It stalked my days along with the loss of your sibling who flowed out of me at ten weeks gestation.

They will take you away from me.

The thought squeezed my throat one morning when your daddy was downstairs washing dishes, the chink of cutlery rising with the shadows in the room. You were sleeping in the bassinet beside my bed, safe. But what if you weren’t safe with me? I gasped for breath, reached for my notepad, spewed out my thoughts. What if my milk wasn’t enough for you to grow? What if they thought I was crazy? Why would they trust me with a baby when I couldn’t trust my own thoughts? I plunged rebuttals onto the page, pierced the fear with truths.They’re just thoughts. They’re not real. They’re just thoughts. I had overthrown them before, I would again. My fears would not destroy the miracle of you.

But the thoughts were still there at night when I called my psychologist. You are at your most vulnerable, she said. I cradled the phone in one hand, and you in the other. You were sucking again, my nipple up in flames. We knew this might happen, she continued. This is uncharted territory, but you are prepared for it. You are equipped to handle it.

I can handle it.

I held onto that thought, held onto you in the shifting fog. I breathed in your foreign smell. Instead of lullabies, I sang you questions and affirmations. “Zara, are you my baby? I love you, you are my baby,” familiarising my mouth with your name. I breathed you in until your musky scented hair filled my lungs. In two three. Out two three. I inhaled you until my heart rate decreased and your smell seeped into my skin.

When your daddy went back to work,we clung to each other on the couch, our days moving to a familiar rhythm. My fatigued eyes searched yours for an anchor but it was the crease on your forehead, the same frown that punctuated my brow since the day I was born that loosened the fear in my gut. You were a piece of me, foreign yet familiar, the same curiosity and bewilderment etched onto your skin. My singing became assured, my words firm, unyielding. “Zara you are my baby, I love you, you are my baby.” I sang until the fog scattered and I came up for air. I gathered you in my arms, held you to the new part of me, the one that slid into the world beside you the day you were born.

 

First published in The Big Issue’s 586 edition.

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I am writing a novel that is rewriting me.

 

Death is the only true magician.

 

Dreams need to be ripped open, their layers discarded like gift-wrap in order to come true.

 

Happiness is not created. It is uncovered.

 

Words should be harvested like crops.

 

Being mindful makes my mind full.

 

Breath is a gift that stokes the fire of life.

 

I am human. I know nothing.

 

 

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.

When I was a kid, my dad had soccer shoes with red cleats on the soles. They were round and puffy and I was scared he’d lose his balance and break himself. They looked as dangerous as Mum’s heels. Some days we’d sit in silence and watch tennis together, on one couch each, holding the armrests. He’d play the Saz, a stringed Turkish instrument, his fingers leading the way into the tune, his voice thin and fragile. Once, I even sang with him, but my heart was beating so fast the words came out wobbly. What if he didn’t like my voice? But he didn’t say a thing. He always had a firm grip on the Saz, his veins protruding on arms that were white and hairy. Those fingers would wave threateningly at me when I was too much for Mum. Dad worked at a factory for 12 hours every day and as soon as he came home he’d wash the day’s labour off him. He hated the smell of sweaty feet. So did I.

With years came curfews that were broken, fights about dress codes that I’d win with mascara streaked tears and the crack would widen until we were standing on opposite sides. Hugs were reserved for Bayram and birthdays, a brief tap on the back. Awkward silences in front of the TV, we’d flick through the channels with the same speed we’d have conversations. But time has a way of softening us, like Dad’s face, creased with years of hard work, the black of his hair, whitened with time. Sometimes his cheeks would sag when he sat forward and on impulse I’d cradle his face in my hands and squeeze until he’d go bright red. ‘You’re crazy,’ he’d say, shaking his head, his lips a lopsided grin.

The first time my dad said ‘I love you’ was on my wedding day. The hug was a tangle of arms and his body was stiff with unsaid things. ‘I love you, kizim,’ he mumbled into my shoulder and kissed my cheek. He gave me the most precious gift of all, he closed the divide. And just like the Saz Dad used to adjust in our lounge room, time fine-tuned us until we found the right pitch.