Your mother seems to have aged 20 years in 10 days. The skin on her face is shrunken and her eyes are a little wild, glittery with medication and terror.
“This is my daughter,” she tells the nurse who is taking her blood pressure when you arrive, and the nurse looks over tiredly at you, still in your school uniform, and says Hi. “She’s doing her final exams at school,” says your mother, her voice a bit slurred, but still sounding like she’s a hostess with everything under control, like all of this can be waved away. “So awful that I got sick now, of all times!”
You don’t want to make the nurse feel she needs to stay and converse, so you just make a small, self-conscious wave.
“How’s that dressing?” the nurse says to your mother. “More comfortable?”
“Yes,” your mother says, smiling, the good patient, no trouble to anyone. “It’s fine now. Thank you so much.”
“So just try to keep that in place,” says the nurse, “and I’ll bring you a cup of tea.”
She leaves and your mother turns, something bright collapsing in her. Her hand snakes out from under the cotton blanket and grips yours. “Look at it,” she whispers. “Under the dressing.”
Beneath her nightdress, across her chest where the swell of her breast used to be, is a square of white cotton dressing, over the curving scar. You hesitate. You have only just heard the nurse say to leave it alone, but your mother’s hand grips yours with the desperation of someone drowning.
“I can’t believe it,” your mother says. “Take a look.” She’s ordering you, in a voice tinged with barely concealed affront, like when she told you they had made her take her wedding ring off, honestly, it was ridiculous.
So you lift the corner of the dressing to see a bright red raised edge, solid and right-angled, like your mother’s been branded with an iron. The pale skin stops and this burnt square section begins. A razed field. A contrasting square of patchwork on a quilt. A badly repaired doll.
“That’s just the radiation burn,” you say. “Radiotherapy, I mean.”
Your voice sounds high, inane. Last night you’d practised your English presentation with your father for your exam and had completely lost the carefully memorised thread of your argument, and your voice had sounded like one of the Disney princesses.
Your father had said, “Don’t worry – it’s just a pass/fail situation here at the moment, they’ll understand”, like it barely mattered. You’d gone into the kitchen and prepped a week’s worth of school lunches and a week’s worth of dinners, practised the speech over and over to yourself grimly in your head, listened to your dad going through all the channels on the remote in the living room.
Now your mother blinks, impatient, and squeezes your hand again. “Quick,” she says. “Lift me forward and look at my back, will you? It’s so itchy.”
You grasp your mother’s soft shoulder gently and tilt her forward, feel her brace herself, holding her breath against the pulling of the stitches slashed across her chest and under her arm. All the lymph nodes taken, you remember your father saying on the phone to his sister-in-law right after the surgery. Yep. Yep. Radiotherapy then chemo. Looking straight down the barrel now.
All this week, you’ve been woken up by your brother, eight years old and mortified that he’s wet the bed. You’ve got to the stage where you can bundle a load of sheets into the washing machine at three in the morning without even properly waking up, hang them out before you get the school bus, have them ready to pull clean onto the stripped bed the next night. You need to get an ATAR of 97 per cent.
Now, you feel the cartilage in your mother’s shoulder shift slightly under your hand as you pull as gently as you can but still hear a little grunt of pain. Then your mother is sitting up, and you tuck the nightie aside to look at your mother’s back, as instructed.
You know this back so well: sitting on beaches in swimsuits, rubbing tanning lotion onto it, your mother’s shoulder blades in her yellow sundress just this past summer, the constellation of freckles and sun damage across the shoulders, the divot in her soft shoulder where her bra strap has always gone.
“Is anything there?” your mother says. “It’s so itchy.”
She smells like adrenalin and painkillers, antiseptic and ointment. She has been irradiated. Across the left side of her back is another pink square, flecked with uniform dots of red rash. The radiation has gone straight through her body, straight through her heart. She’s holding your hand now the way you used to hold hers as a child, crossing the street, weaving through crowds. Gripping tightly, not wanting to get lost.
You’d done that until the day your mother had flapped her hand irritably and said, Will you just stop hanging on to me, for godsakes? You’re not five! and you’d jerked your arm away, scalded with embarrassment.
Now you open your mouth to set it in motion, the way tomorrow they will say, Turn your papers over, girls, and begin.
“Nothing,” you say lightly.
“Are you sure? Tell me the truth.”
You look straight into your mother’s wide, panicked eyes. “Can’t see a thing,” you say.
“Help me lie back, then, quick,” your mother says, shaky and conspiratorial, “before she comes back.”
You feel it pass into you, as you settle her back on the pillow. You have more lies ready. They’re like the answers you didn’t know you knew for all those spaces ruled in place on an exam, and you know in your gut you’ll be using them all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "Pass/fail".
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