Flesh and Stone
When my mother announced that a lump had been detected in her left breast, all I could think of was how, to the Singaporean Chinese, the left is symbolic of the inauspicious.
If my left eye twitched, I had to be careful when I crossed the road. Pain and numbness in the left arm are indications of a heart attack. The inconvenience of left-handers. People left behind. Surely a lump in the left breast meant cancer.
I was the eldest of three, the first to get multiple ear piercings, a tongue piercing, a tattoo. The first to embark on travels more than a few days long. A constant absence, returning home late when my parents were sleeping. The only time we really saw each other was in the mornings, when she’d enter my room, admonish me for its state of untidiness and leave for work.
Our conversations rarely pierced beyond the skin-thick of the superficial. Gossip revolving around extended families, current affairs, the have-you-eaten and why-are-you-still-awake. Plans made for family holidays, abandoned even before the excitement had cooled.
I’d see mothers and daughters holding hands on the street, children hugging their parents; read about them. They were all works of fiction to me, because I could not fathom a bond like this. How could the words “I love you” fall so easily from the mouths of characters in books and television screens, like raindrops in a shower—as if the pull of gravity made the gesture natural and unavoidable?
But perhaps it was simply evidence of a lack of imagination on my part. Perhaps it would take a crisis to unfreeze my mouth, loosening it with desperation and fear.
I tell myself that sometimes superficiality belies the depth of feeling. That the hottest, most passionate chambers exist in the core of the Earth, untouchable by those who tread on its surface.
So after my mother’s announcement, I imagined being her heroine, rescuing her from the clutches of despair. She would cry into my shoulder, her tears soaking my shirt. I would hug her and stroke her head, with that short, economical haircut that broke my heart every time I looked at it. There is always an innate desire to mother our own mothers, but for their sake or ours?
I accompanied her to the hospital for a breast exam. At the waiting area, padded chairs lined the room, linked but placed at comfortable distances apart, as if the architect had understood that each person needed her own personal space to despair. Outdated magazines, depicting healthy children and families, were scattered on tables. I took one and flipped it open. Some pages had been torn out. I was in a room where one left her fate to whatever entity presided over her, a place where atheists and religious people were equal.
My mother and I sat with an empty seat between us.
“You needn’t have come,” she said. “I can handle it myself.”
“It’s okay,” I replied.
The silence stretched and expanded, thickening like curdled milk. I felt as if the space between us had taken on tangible weight and was threatening to press on me. When a nurse called my mother’s name, I was relieved. We entered the doctor’s examination room. He was a Chinese man with chapped lips and an inscrutable expression.
“Alright, let’s take a look at your breast. Proceed to the bed, please,” he said, after bombarding my mother with questions about our family history of cancer.
My mother shuffled to the bed and a nurse drew the curtains. I watched her feet as she kicked off her sandals. They disappeared from view. The doctor walked behind the curtains and I was left alone, twiddling my thumbs as two strangers assessed and touched my mother’s breasts, just a few meters away behind ugly green curtains.
The doctor said it was calcification, as if my mother’s breasts and her body were limestone. I had a mental image of her slowly turning to stone. Her heart, petrified.
He bared his teeth in a smile, patted her back and said, “Nothing to worry about, let’s see you in a year’s time.” She thanked him a little too profusely, in my opinion.
“Do you want to go for lunch?” she said, the moment we stepped out of the room.
I nodded. There was relief, a tinge of disappointment, and guilt for feeling this disappointment. And still the unspoken words hung on the precipice of my lips.
Chua Yini is a writer and researcher from Singapore. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a major in Journalism and minor in Philosophy. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine (New York), Cadaverine Magazine, Eastlit Journal, Cleaver Magazine, and Sinister Wisdom Journal. She is a co-editor of Junoesq Literary Journal. www.yini.journoportfolio.com