You can read an x-ray and tell someone they’ve broken their wrist. You can glance at a CT and tell someone they may have kidney stones. You can’t study an MRI and tell someone they have a brain tumour. Even if it’s true.
I haven’t quite finished my final year of radiography, but I know this much.
‘Sorry, I’m going to have to go – I’ve got a few missed calls from my mum, and my sister had an appointment today so they might be important.’ I wave goodbye to my uni friends outside the lecture hall and squint at my phone screen. Blue shapes hop out of the edges of my vision. I blink and wait for my eyes to adjust to the slanting sun after the artificial darkness. Then I turn off the pathway and walk across the grass until I reach the privacy of the straggly trees near the campus fence.
Messages received (3). Mum:
Just got home.
Can you ring me?
I juggle my laptop to my other arm and hit call. Students sweep by me towards the bus stop, until a group with a football congregates in the middle of the path and begins an impromptu game. Physio students, the ball tells me, as the other students navigate the obstacle with good grace. This is the health science campus, isolated from the politics of the main university site, and renowned for its general friendliness. A smile can’t do much in the face of illness, I know from experience, but I’m proud that we try.
Beneath the chatter a reverberating chorus of cicadas begins, rising from the bushes which line the tall wire fence. I scratch a mosquito bite. ‘Hello? It’s me. What’s wro—’
‘Emily! One second, I just need to put the washing on… How are you?’
‘Good. What’s wrong? I’m about to leave...’ I glance at my watch, phone still clamped to my ear. I don’t want to miss the connecting bus and have to walk the final forty minutes of my commute. Hurry up Mum, I urge silently.
‘Jasmine had her MRI today. You know, the one the doctor—’
‘Anyway, they gave us a copy of the MRI as soon as it was over. All the pictures! Is that normal?’
I shrug, and almost drop the phone. ‘I don’t know. So there’s no report yet?’
‘No, just the pictures, and Emily, I think she has something.’
‘Has something? Has what?’ A brain? Unexpected, certainly, but hardly worth a phone call or a missed bus. I begin to walk towards the campus gates.
‘I don’t know, I can’t read it properly. I just looked at the brain and there’s something there, and I thought you’d be able to read it. When are you home?’
‘As soon as I get on the bus.’ I allow exasperation to slink into my words. ‘You can’t get worried, Mum, it’s probably normal. MRI scans look different to CTs and x-rays, you know…’
‘But it’s bright. There’s a bright lump in the middle. Is that normal?’
‘I don’t know! They use different contrast to highlight different things, I’m sure it’s just a normal scan. I’ll have a look when I get home, okay?’ I breathe in. ‘Mum, please don’t worry. MRIs can look funny sometimes, but it’ll be fine, okay?’
‘Okay!’ Mum registers my frustration. ‘Okay. See you soon.’
I shove my phone into my satchel and jog out from the shadows of the trees. My bus appears on the horizon. Mum is not the worried type. She does not generally ring me in a panic. I reach the road. Cars and lorries zoom by. They really need a pedestrian crossing here. The bus trundles to a stop and the bus shelter empties. I crane my neck left and right. Should I run for it? Please let me through, I beg the passing cars. They don’t stop. The bus huffs and groans, then jerks forward and onward, leaving me behind on the opposite side of the road.
There can’t be anything wrong with Jasmine’s MRI if I can do something as normal as miss my bus. Mum doesn’t know how to read MRIs. I don’t even know how to read them yet! A ute lets me through, and I wave a ‘thanks-mate!’ and run across the road, bag thudding against my hip.
On the other side I wonder why I bothered. It’s twenty minutes until the next bus and I’m the only one at the stop. The back of the graffitied shelter rubs against the high wall of Rookwood Cemetery. It’s the largest burial ground in the southern hemisphere, according to Wikipedia. It’s a genuine paradox, of the everyday variety: a health science campus, dedicated to saving lives, only a short sprint from an overgrown, sprawling reminder of death.
Annoying little sisters don’t have ‘things in their brains’. The very idea eclipses everyday realities – even everyday paradoxes – and lands in the realm of impossibility. I relax on the metal bench. The MRI will be normal.
It has to be.
‘Hey.’ I dump my laptop and bag on the dining room floor beneath the calendar overflowing with Mum’s specialist appointments, and, more recently, my sister’s. There’s a big white envelope on the phone table. ‘Is this it?’ Mum’s stirring a saucepan on the stove. ‘And where’s Jay?’ I turn, as though expecting to find the answer printed on the back of her neck.
‘Upstairs. She was tired and I said she should have a lie down before dinner.’ Mum comes over. ‘What do you see?’
‘Can’t I even get a drink first?’ I grumble, more to inject reality into the situation than because I’m thirsty. I don’t like this frowning, worried person. I want pre-MRI Mum back.
Pulling a chair out at the dining table I yank the films from their bag. Static causes the sheets to cling together and I’m forced to peel them apart one by one. It takes a good minute, but Mum doesn’t waver from her vigil at my shoulder. I shrug away and flip the blue-tinged film to orientate it correctly. Where are the axial views? I suppose I should start there. Here we go. ‘Top of head, sutures, ventricles—’
‘There! Do you see it?’ Mum jabs a finger from behind.
If ‘it’ was a white, bright (hyperdense, my university lecturer supplies in my ear), round mass in the centre of Jasmine’s brain behind her nose, then yes, I see it. All too well.
For goodness sakes. ‘Mum, it could be anything! It’s probably normal in this scan phase. Or, at the very least, it’s a normal variant. Brains always look odd on MRIs, this doesn’t mean she has a tumour!’
‘Shh!’ Mum gestures upstairs to Jasmine’s bedroom. ‘Keep your voice down! She hasn’t seen the pictures.’ Mum walks over to the desktop computer in the corner. ‘I Googled what a brain MRI should look like, and none of the pictures have that! Then I Googled what it could be, and it sounds like a large pituitary adenoma. The website said you have to have brain surgery and -’
‘Mum! You know you can’t trust Google! You know that!’
She pulls me over to the screen. I shake off her clawing hand and glance at the webpages. I completely expect to find URLS like ilovebraintumours.com or greenteacuresall.net, but the pages seem reputable. I’ve trained Mum well, and it’s about to be my downfall. ‘Mum, it could be anything. Just because it looks like a brain tumour doesn’t mean it is. This is why they tell people not to read their reports without a doctor. It could be a benign cyst, it could be—’
‘But it doesn’t look like a cyst,’ Mum protests. Apparently, she’s a qualified neuroradiologist. I wish I could achieve that in a single afternoon.
‘I Googled that too,’ she continues, ‘and pituitary tumours can make someone fatigued, it says, and cause loss of vision, and interrupt hormone production. They’re normally found before the child reaches puberty, but if not they can cause stunted growth due to lack of hormones.’
Jasmine’s underactive thyroid, below average height, sudden new glasses prescription, and excessive tiredness hang between us, spectres pointing to a devastating end.
Not on my watch. ‘Mum, please,’ I beg. ‘We don’t know. We don’t know anything. Bodies are complex, MRIs are hard to read. Even if she does have this tumour, we can’t do anything about it until the doctor tells us. There’s no point in worrying or stressing about it. Besides, think how rare it must be. How could Jasmine have a brain tumour?’
It’s this last appeal to the inviolable script of our lower-middle-class lives which finally relaxes the wrinkles above Mum’s eyes. ‘You’re right,’ she admits. ‘But still, it would explain a lot of her symptoms...’
‘Did the radiographer say anything when she gave you the pictures?’
‘She asked if our doctor’s appointment was soon.’
Fiddlesticks. That phrase is classic professional code for I am concerned. I begin putting the films back in their bag. There’s a lot of them and they’re heavy and slippery now I actually want them to be clingy. The corners all bear the same identification tag in Times New Roman: JASMINE S. MAURITS 16 YEAR OLD FEMALE. Too young to have a brain tumour. ‘When is it?’
‘Tuesday,’ Mum mouths as footsteps sound above us. Jasmine. The front door crashes. Dad’s home. The stovetop emits a curdling noise.
I ‘switch users’ on the computer and tuck the films away. If Mum’s going to Google things like this, I really need to teach her how to open an incognito tab. The web pages slide away and normality returns.
My bedroom carpet nuzzles against my bare legs, scratchy and hot. The lights have been off for a while, but sleep won’t come. The MRI was normal, wasn’t it? My earlier, desperate reassurances cycle and recycle before me: flimsy words, terror masquerading as truth.
I have no desire to re-open Google on my phone and dig up more information. What’s the point? If Mum’s correct, there will be plenty of time to worry in the future – why start now over a white spot on a scan I can’t read, which is probably not a tumour?
I suspect it is.
Bringing my knees up is the only way I can squash the rubbery jelly-fish lurking in my stomach, pressing on my chest, sending electric currents up my neck. I rest my chin on my kneecaps and my short-short hair barely flops down to my eyebrows.
I shaved it for Mum’s type 1 diabetes a few months ago, and people assumed I was shaving for cancer. Of course not. Cancer and tumours are things that everyone else gets. Teachers at school, friends of friends, workmates’ aunties – those sorts of people are allowed to grow tumours and get cancer. Not my sister.
It’s a mistake, isn’t it God? The MRI… the symptoms… But they match up so well! Idiot. Don’t jump to conclusions. How can someone else in my family have medical issues? What happens when you have a tumour?
Will she die?
In my small room surrounded by thick, clammy silence, I believe she can. Every word Mum spoke, every suggestion Google planted feels far more real now in the dark epicentre of the night than they did at 5.30 pm this afternoon. I try and push the question away, but it returns like an annoying computer pop-up. Tumour – brain – death – death – death –
I wish I could believe the comfort I offered Mum, but my own mind is not that obliging. Instead I close my eyes and launch myself into another realm, a realm no less real than the one breaking down around me. I see and create a picture instantaneously: Jasmine, cradled in a pair of ginormous hands. And in this realm beyond physics, I know they are God’s hands and they will not let her fall.
I hope. Don’t let her die. Don’t let her die. My fervent chant drags me back into my own reality, and then back further, back in time…
‘Have you – have you been reading anything in the Bible lately?’ The question prickles unnaturally on my tongue. Too stilted, too formal – yet it’s the only way I know to broach the topic of What Matters Most to Me. Experience whispers that I’m already doomed.
Jasmine stares into the distance. ‘Um, we’re reading Luke at school.’
‘Yeah? What’re you learning?’
‘I dunno.’ She shrugs. ‘Stuff.’
‘About Jesus?’ I sound sweet and I hate it. But how else am I to ask?
I grab a frustrated sigh just before it escapes. ‘How about by yourself?’
‘Why’re you asking all these questions?’
‘Because I want to.’ Because you never talk about anything real. Because I want to know if Jesus means anything to you. Because I would do anything for us to share this one thing.
‘You’re not my mum.’ We walk along the wide main road. Brown leaf stains mar the white concrete. Gum nuts crunch underfoot. The smell of eucalyptus burrows up my nostrils.
‘I never said I was.’ I breathe in. ‘I’m just trying to talk to you! You never talk.’
She makes a face. ‘We’re talking now!’
‘Not about anything important!’
‘Stop trying to be better than me! You’re so perfect.’
‘I. Am. Not. Perfect.’ I’d sort of like to strangle her. Sort of really like to. I growl instead and I’m not sure it’s much of an improvement.
‘Sure.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘I’m tired. Can we go home now?’
I glare at her spindly legs and baby-smooth face. Lord, I can’t make her love you. I’ve tried everything. You have to do this. Make her love You more than anything. Please. Whatever it takes.
In the present I shuffle to relieve the cramps in my legs. May as well go back to bed. I pull my sheets to my chin and stare at the ceiling. Try as I might, I can’t seem to re-enter the realm where Jasmine is okay. Time buckles and stretches. I feel as though I’ve been lying here forever, and as the night curves around me like a burial chamber around a body, I wonder if there are certain prayers which should never, ever, be prayed.
* * * * *
Two Sisters & a Brain Tumour by Emily J. Maurits
As a teenager, Emily prayed a desperate prayer. Now, in her final year of university, Emily has already witnessed illness tear apart the lives of those she loves. Yet when her younger sister, Jasmine, is diagnosed with a brain tumour, her entire world is turned upside-down. As she watches Jasmine go through more than nine operations in three months, she struggles with what this means for her future, for their relationship, and for the prayer she prayed so long ago. This is the story of two sisters, the brain tumour which tore apart their lives, and the God who used it to save them.
Emily J. Maurits is an author, radiographer and theology student. She is the founder of Called to Watch, a ministry for those with chronically ill loved ones, and also writes at emilyjmaurits.com. Her books include Thomas Clarkson: The Giant with One Idea, and the award-winning short story, ‘Confessions of a Realist,’ published in Papa’s Shoes.