Mum used to read me recipe books as bedtime stories. When we ran out of picture books and we had exhausted The Hobbit, she would go to the kitchen, pick out a complicated one and climb into the bed next to me. She would read the recipes slowly, building suspense and assigning different voices to each ingredient. Through our joint imagination and the shape of her voice, we would drift into a dramatic universe of food that left us both hysterical with giggles. I fell asleep knowing that no matter our resources, Mum could create good.
At the end of 2002, Mum picked me up from the airport – I had been visiting family in Sydney for a couple of weeks. We drove home and I chattered away about how everyone was, filling her in on all the family gossip. She was quiet as she drove, quieter still as we got closer to home. She pulled our tiny blue car into our driveway and I asked her what was wrong. She told me we would talk about it inside but I refused to get out of the car until she explained what was pulling the skin between her eyebrows inward and the corners of her mouth down. She told me she had found a lump in her breast.
When the doctor first told Mum that the lump in her breast was malignant, she cried. He called the nurse in and asked her to take Mum away until she could pull herself together. For him, this was a matter of science, of knives and chemicals. For Mum, the world was shifting on its axis, but doctors have no patience for the wobbling of the earth. He was terrible, but he was the only one in the neighbourhood with the medicine that Mum needed so we depended on him.
The threat was, primarily, to her breast. The place I had fed from and then later, the place I had nuzzled against when I learned what a terrible place the world could be. The threat was also to her life though, and to the two-person club we had spent 15 years cultivating. While others worried about spent femininity and wrecked bodies, I worried that for the first time in a long time, we might need others to look after us. Doctors and family crowded around us, bringing helpful but sometimes patronising advice alongside flowers and I hated all of them for taking care of her in ways that I couldn’t. I wanted to be able to do for Mum what she had always done for me.
As a kid, Mum and Dad often took me hiking at sunrise and Mum always went first down the track. We would drive through the dark so that we could be the first ones on the doorstep of the rainforest near our house. The spiders were always busy at night, stringing webs across the path, from tree to vine covered tree. I inherited my fear of spiders from Dad, so the two of us would hang back while Mum picked a stick and gently removed the spiders still lingering in the early sun. Once, our black and white cat, Mog, brought a snake into the house and left it – still alive – draped over the back of a dining chair. Dad shut himself in his room terrified while Mum got a tupperware container from the kitchen, flicked the snake into it and took it outside.
So it was with cancer, too. I barely remember Mum being sick. In part, this is because I was a self-involved teenager – full of angst, but it is also because so little of our daily lives changed. Mum still went to work and she still sent me to school. She asked about my classes and my friends and listened carefully and considerately to my answers. She travelled and threw dinner parties. She tells me later that the doctors advised more treatment and that she declined, not wanting to request more leave in a job that was still new and precarious.
The only time she was really sick was when she was in bed. After the surgery, I went to visit her in the hospital. She lay in a pastel coloured room surrounded by family and amongst it all she looked tiny. As the anaesthetic wore off, she got swept under waves of nausea and the memory ends with me at the door, slipping away. Later, when she got home from the hospital and it was just the two of us again, I stood at the end of the hallway and stared at her closed bedroom door. I wondered how we would move on, how we would take our next steps.
I call Mum to ask if she would mind me writing about her cancer and she tells me no, that it’s far away enough now, that it doesn’t hurt anymore. She’s curious about how I will tell the story. A few weeks later, we eat phò and I ask what she remembers. She says, ‘I remember being very angry.’
Breast cancer is no longer necessarily a death sentence. Early detection and treatment are increasingly common, in large part due to the tireless work of the Cancer Council and their ubiquitous pink branding. Their tiny pink ribbon has become almost universally recognisable and for many women this means the difference between life and death. Pink is never just pink though, in our society saturated with gender. Pink might be the colour of breast cancer awareness but it is also the colour of girlhood, of gentle fun, of docility and of femininity.
The Pink Ribbon website is packed with pictures of young women, smiling and flicking long hair over well-fashioned shoulders. The pink ribbons pinned at their breasts match the colour of their rouged cheeks. The battle of breast cancer has become about saving these women, about heroic men as doctors who strive tirelessly to save the femininity that breasts and the colour pink have come to represent. The patients are expected to lie quietly on the battlefront, as land to be fought for – won and sometimes lost.
Mum never liked pink. The colour was infantilising in the face of grown-up decisions, made her tiny in the hands of giants parading as medical professionals. The rhetoric of cancer asked her to rest in a bed of ribbons and meekness while the reality demanded that she navigate complicated decisions about medical procedures and treatment. Outside of the hospital, her life throbbed on, and work, bills, relationships all demanded her attention. I demanded her attention.
Mum writes to me and suggests that red would make a better flag for the fight against breast cancer – red for the blood lost, for bravery and for the anger of women pitted against the patriarchy as they fight for their lives. For our two-person club, cancer was a battle that was conquered not by courage alone but also by necessity. As with snakes and spiders, Mum did the things that needed to be done. When we ran out of stories that worked, she wrote us new ones.
Image: Gerald Girosimo
Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.