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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.