My mother’s silent messages silenced me.

My mother was able to pass me silent messages just by a look or a tiny gesture. Looking back now, I can see my mother was hiding and she was afraid I would reveal her secrets and shame. Somehow she managed to transfer her feelings onto me until they became mine. My mother never allowed me to express myself. I think she was afraid of what I would say.

When we heard the bad news from the consultant that my mother had cancer, I was silenced by her silent message.

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The nurse opened the door and tucking her hand into the crook of Sylvia’s arm, guided her across the room to the chair beside the consultants desk. Lisa followed them, turning to closing the door quietly behind her. It felt like stepping into a prison cell. She stood by the wall, not knowing what to do.

‘Hello Mrs Hutchinson’, the consultant said as Sylvia sat down, offering her his hand. Turning to Lisa he smiled a greeting, the folds of skin around his pale eyes crinkling as he looked at her over the top of his glasses. He wore them on the tip of his nose that was crooked and bony. To Lisa his smile was a gesture to disguise a truth that was just moments away.

Uninvited, she took the only other chair in the room. It was beside the door. She perched there feeling like an unwanted spectator, silently watching the scene she had been dreading, unfold in front of her. It was like being held captive and forced to witness some terrible scene of interrogation. She wished she could be somewhere else, anywhere other than in that room, where in a few moments time, she sensed that nothing would ever be the same again.

The nurse remained standing behind Sylvia’s chair with her hand resting on her shoulder. She looked over at Lisa with warm brown eyes that held her tightly. Lisa tried to smile back, but her lips felt pinched and tight, like she was sucking a toffee. She couldn’t move her mouth to form any words, to exchange pleasantries. It didn’t matter how kind and caring the nurse was, Lisa was incapable of responding. The fear that enveloped her was paralysing; it formed a barrier between her and everything that was happening in the room. She was unable to escape, nor from the feeling that was growing inside her. It was like a balloon being inflated until it filled every space, so that even taking a tiny breath was difficult. She looked to her mother, but Sylvia had put on her mask and armour and was unavailable. Lisa turned to the consultant and watched as he shuffled some papers and then tapped them on the desk until they fell into line. He laid them out in front of him so that even from her place against the wall, Lisa could see the red pen scribbles in the margins of the typeface. Some of the words were underlined she noticed and there was question mark. What was the question, she wanted to ask.

‘I have the results of your MRI scan on my computer Mrs. Hutchinson. If you would like to look here, I can explain more easily,’ the consultant said, turning the screen towards Sylvia. ‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid.’ Pointing with his pen, he continued, ‘You can see from this area of your breast that a tumour has developed close to your nipple. The result from your biopsy has come back from the lab confirming that it is a cancerous growth. I’m sorry to have to say that a lumpectomy is not appropriate in this case and that I would recommend a full and complete mastectomy. I am very sorry.’

When Lisa heard the words cancerous growth, she stopped listening. She didn’t mean to, in fact she was still watching the consultant’s mouth intently, but for some reason she couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore. His lips were forming shapes that were like petals or leaves, some round and oval, others long and narrow. She noticed that every so often, the shapes were framed by teeth that were small and delicate and that his tongue punctuated the shapes, pointed and wet as it moved over his lips to moisten them. Lisa felt like she was floating inside herself, retreating to a place where she knew she was safe. The logical part of her realised this was an antidote to the fear that was threatening to engulf her. She was being taken away from this room and this dangerous dialog between her mother and the consultant.

As Sylvia leant across the desk to get a closer look at the image of her left breast, nodding to the consultant to show him that she understood, Lisa felt her stomach clench like a screwed up paper bag. She looked out of the window to watch two pigeons who were sat on the ledge. One had its chest puffed up like a soft purple ball whilst the other elongated its neck and ruffled its feathers. She imagined what it would be like to be one of those pigeons, to be able to launch herself from the window sill and fly away. She remembered the game that she played when she was a small child and still happy; she flicked her wrists with the action of the birds flying away one after the other. Then she felt something soft touch her arm, catching it to still her. It was the nurse offering her a tissue. Lisa realised that she was crying and the nurse was kneeling down beside her and was gently stroking her arm. Long tears had merged to flow down her cheeks and around her mouth to her chin. Lisa murmured her thanks and held the tissue to her cheeks with both hands pulling it tight across her nose and beneath her eyes. She became aware that they were waiting for her to speak. ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’, she asked the nurse whose eyes were warm and liquid, like runny honey. She sunk back in her chair and feeling comforted by the kindness shown by the nurse, began to calm herself. But then she felt her mother’s stare and looked to see that Sylvia’s mouth was turned down in a frown that sent Lisa one silent message that said stop your embarrassing behaviour – NOW! Lisa quickly finished wiping her face and tucking the tissue in her pocket sat back up on the edge of her chair.

‘I was saying it’s ok to cry. You have had a big shock’, the nurse said gently to Lisa. ‘Mr Hall has finished talking to your mum so I’m now going to take you both to a quiet room where you can take your time and enjoy a nice cup of tea.’ Turning back to talk directly to Sylvia, she continued, ‘I can take you through things again more slowly. It’s a lot to take in, I know. You can ask me any questions you like and anything that you don’t understand, we can go over as many times as you need. There’s also some information for you to take away and I will explain in detail what is going to happen next. You and your daughter are not alone, there will be important steps to be taken but I will be here for you both, to offer as much support along the way that you need. Is that ok, Sylvia? Lisa?’

Lisa looked to her mother for guidance, but her face was the mask she still wore. ‘Yes, thank you nurse, you are very kind’, said Sylvia. Her voice was steady, but Lisa noticed her hands were trembling as she got up from her chair and reached across the desk to shake the consultants hand one more time.

Lisa stood up as well. She had managed to control herself and pull herself together as her mother had instructed. She knew that Sylvia would not want any further embarrassment or anymore fuss. She stepped forward and took Mr Hall’s outstretched hand. It was cold and moist.

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