Summary: ‘When Life Gives You Lemons’ is a short fiction by the Philippines-based writer, A. K. Tolentino.
The Bad News
Before the doctor came in, the parents were nervously excited.
The father had kept fiddling with the camcorder settings, trying to figure out the best background for the shoot, while the mother kept rearranging the position of the flowers and the chocolate cake that proudly displayed “Cancer Free! Yippeeee!!!” in bright pink icing.
The eerily calm, pale-faced daughter sat on the bed, surrounded by party poppers that were meant to be popped after the good news was revealed.
She wore a dark pink beanie, hiding a few strands of hair, and a chocolate brown cashmere cardigan over her hospital gown, chosen specifically for the video.
Candy-colored helium balloons adorned the ceiling, while small pastel pink balloons, filled with her father’s breath, covered almost every square inch of the floor.
Then the doctor arrived.
The parents stood by the patient’s bed as the doctor delivered the news. The doctor calmly awaited their reaction, but the room remained silent for a while.
The husband and wife exchanged glances with their daughter, who sat frozen on the hospital bed, clutching a pasalubong (gift) of sugar cookies..
“Oh, God,” she thought.
“I’m gonna die. I’m in the best hospital in California and I’m still gonna die.”
She lost her grip on the pack of flaky, sugary Otap cookies, displacing the pink balloons, and it fell onto the tiled floor. The sound snapped the mother out of her stupefied state.
“So, what are you saying?” enunciated the mother, her voice becoming louder by the second.
“Are you telling us to just—”
“Angie, kumalma ka muna,” says the father.
“Sweetheart, don’t tell me to calm down.”
“Anghelina, let the doctor speak.”
I would be laughing my ass off right now if my future hadn’t just crumbled to dust.
This is only the fourth time I’ve seen my mother get hysterical.
The first was when I was ten years old; it was our first Thanksgiving and everyone on my dad’s side of the family came to our home.
We were at the table woohoo-ing as my dad came in behind my mom. Then he tripped and dropped the turkey. I’ll never forget the turkey’s thud or my mother’s yells.
The second time was when I succumbed to peer pressure and visited a tanning salon with my girlfriends at the age of fourteen. She absolutely flipped when I returned home five shades darker and more than a little orange.
And the third time was during spring break when I accompanied my mom to her clinic. It was packed, as usual, and the day was rather mundane until my cousin, Eric, accidentally pulled the wrong tooth.
I’d never seen anyone have a whispering fit until that day—I didn’t think it was even possible.
I have a feeling my mom is only freaking out because she feels guilty about surviving when I will not.
Would it have been different if I had just stayed in the Philippines with my Lola Pru? The Arts Program closed within four years, so it wouldn’t have mattered much. I suppose I still would have gotten the Big C.
Great. The nurse finally got them out of my room. That took a while. I raise a thumbs up and mouth a “Thank you.” Finally, alone with my thoughts.
I’m not crying. Why the heck am I not crying?
I must be all dried up or something. If Eric were me, he would be bawling, “Nooo! So many women I haven’t boinked yet. Noooooo!” And if my cousin Krysta were in my shoes, she’d be wailing, “After everything I did to get my position. I mean everything. Why?”
I’ve asked why so many times, I still don’t have an answer.
Among the dela Cruz grandkids, I was the last to be born. And now the irony is that I’d likely be the first to croak.
Considering that I’ve been losing this battle with cancer for two years now, one would think I’d be better prepared for the end.
The doctor said I still have some time. Time to what? Enjoy my remaining days?
How can anyone enjoy anything when the clock is ticking? Oh, God. Why me? Why me?
Why not Eric? Not that I wish he’d get sick, but why not my whore-ish cousin who’d knocked up nearly every one of his girlfriends and married none of them because he wasn’t ready? The prick.
Or why not Krysta? Not that I’d rather she be the one dying instead of me. But why not my manipulative, bully of a cousin who loves telling me and her friends about how and what she’d done—including married men—to get to the top? Narcissistic twit.
And what is up with my mother’s hair again? Since we migrated it has gone from shiny ebony to trailer park blonde, all in the name of “Blending in.” Well, at least she’s past the yellow corn blonde phase. I still pat myself on the back for managing to not retch in her presence.
Ugh. My mom’s unmistakable tap, tap, tapping on the door is a little too—“WHAT?”
“Your grandma’s here.”
“Okay, but just Lola.”
My grandmother walks in wearing her blue-green floral dress, her white, thinning hair twisted in a bun. She wraps her arms around me and I hug her right back.
“Have you cried yet?” she says.
I shake my head.
“You have time. You’re Uncle Peter wasn’t as lucky. I’m sure he would have liked to have had a few more days or even hours to say goodbye, and fix their cupboard as his wife had asked. I imagine he would’ve wanted to finish the tree house he promised Krysta. If he had, maybe she wouldn’t be so..”
I hear my grandmother sigh as she releases me. My bed dips. I scoot over to the right so we’re hip to hip. Lola’s warmth reminds me of a big warm bowl of garlicky thyme chicken soup with a dash of oregano powder.
“Lola, I dreamt of my bad news last night. It was the same setting, same scene, but different people. I don’t know if I’m supposed to thank God for that stupid dream. I mean, it didn’t have a bad ending, but—”
“You know, when your grandfather was dying, he told me he loved his whole week in the hospital. Our children were all busy with work and their own family, while our grandchildren were busy with school and their friends. And when the whole family did get together, sometimes the cell phones or the laptops got in the way. At least, he said, when he was confined to the bed, he got to spend some quality time with each of his children and his grandkids.”
“Lola,” She looks at me expectantly. “I had..hoped. What kept me going through the nausea, the vomiting, the losing hair, and sallow skin thing, was the thought that I would eventually have what you had. A great marriage, good husband, wonderful kids.”
“Well, you won’t be missing out much.”
“It wasn’t all roses for me, you know. Nothing is. That’s just life. Love is wonderful when it’s genuine, when you have nothing to worry about, and when it’s uncomplicated. But sometimes, love hurts—It can hurt just remembering. Imagine people my age who have nothing but their memories to pass the time.”
I pout a little. “You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“Of course, I am. I’m your grandmother.”
I can feel my throat closing up a little.
“You know, your grandfather and I were married, but he never even proposed to me.”
“Wha-at?” I goggle at Lola in horror and disbelief with multiple scenarios running amok in my head.
“We were neighbors and our parents were good friends. When World War Two reached the Philippines, I suppose someone suggested to worried parents that they marry off their unmarried girls before Japanese soldiers come marching in. I was eighteen, he was ten years older than me. I had a crush on him for a long time and he never seemed to notice me.”
“So, did he?” I ask smiling. “Notice you?” I wink at my Lola making her laugh.
“He said he did, but he thought I was too young for him. It was wonderful. He was wonderful. A year later, I was pregnant with our first child. News traveled slowly in those days, but the war halted almost everything. When I heard Bataan fell and USAFFE scouts were included in the Death March, I couldn’t breathe. I kept thinking he must be dead by then, the love of my life, dead on the roadside. The horrific stories we’d heard replayed in my head. American and Filipino soldiers just skin and bones, stabbed to make sure they were really dead and left to rot.
“And then suddenly, I lost our baby. I can still remember the racking pain, the smell of blood, and the fear. Time doesn’t lessen the pain of losing a child.”
I bite my lip and take her hand in mine. “I’m sorry, Lola.”
“And I’m sorry, my dear bunso.”
I smile a little, if not sadly. I haven’t been called that since I went to college.
“What?” says Lola, “You’ll always be my youngest grandchild. You could be covered in wrinkles, and you’d still be my little bunso.”
I feel my lungs seize at the mental image, and the first drops of sadness come trickling down. I wrap my arms around my Lola, heaving and shaking, and she hugs me right back.
The Next Day
“Shall I bolt the door today?” says my Dad as he seats himself on the chair across my bed.
I suppose that’s a joke. “Huh?”
“Your cousins have been texting me. You barred everyone except your grandma yesterday. Are we letting other people in today?”
“They’re not really other people, Dad.”
“Okay, just checking.”
I hear a familiar clickety-clack on the cream hospital floors. I’m guessing I won’t have to wait long for my ball-busting cousin and her outrageously priced heels.
“Hey, Uncle Jude,” says Krysta flipping her Farrah Fawcett-inspired caramel brown hair.
“Hi, Krysta. Thanks for coming.”
“Can I tell her? Please let me tell her,” she smiles ever so sweetly, which always reminds me of Disney’s Snow White.
Dad nods at Snow White/Siren/Harpy.
“Oh, Aunt Angie just parked behind me. Can you help her with the—” She chortles. “Your Dad moves fast for an old guy. Hey, I got you the beach house!”
“Oh, wow. How many arms did you twist this time?”
Krysta laughs. “Just one. But I twisted really hard,” she says grinning. “You better get there ASAP. There’s tubs of chocolate mousse in the ref and boxes of otap and chocolate covered polvoron.”
She gives my somewhat bony arm a very light squeeze, “Boxes.”
I really can’t help but smile.
“Thanks, Krys. What’s the cost?”
Krysta shakes her head with a look of what could be pity, but might just be from a bout of constipation.
“How much? I know Dad wants to go all out since I’m dying and all, but I don’t want them swimming in debt. How much?”
“What do you mean nothing?”
“Just consider it my advanced contribution.”
I hurl my pillow at her, but she runs out of the room in a fit of giggles.
When Mom comes in she looks much chipper and more everything than usual. She should have used more concealer though. “Hi, Sweetie. Eric and the girls will be here in fifteen minutes.”
“I called Father James. Is that..alright?”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I say nodding. “Uh, Ma, is that a new shade of blonde?”
“Yeah,” she says with a lilt. “This one makes me look more American, don’t you think?”
“Um, Mom, can you dye it chestnut or medium brown? Or mahogany, maybe? Just while I’m around?”
Mom chuckles, her eyes alarmingly wet. “Of course, baby,” she kisses then presses her cheek on my crown, “I will.”
As the bleakness of dusk crawled over the city and rain splattered and streaked the hospital windows, the parents stood by their daughter’s bed when the doctor delivered the news.
The doctor was well prepared for any questions and possible outbursts, but no one made a sound. That is until a few moments later when the patient started to sob, heave, and, eventually, wail.
In tears, the mother hugged her daughter and whispered promises she could not keep.
The daughter inched away and turned from her mother’s grasp to weep face down on her pillow. The sound of her sobs was muffled by the softness of the bedding.
The father leaned on the wall behind him and placed a hand over his face; the sounds of his daughter’s cries hammered his insides to bits and pieces.
The daughter was young. She was only in her twenties, still inexperienced with the world, but not oblivious to its ironies, reality, and how much it bites.
The daughter demanded privacy. She wanted nobody’s company and certainly no one’s pity.
The daughter spent the next few hours crying alone on the hospital bed, time and again staring at the view from the window.
She couldn’t help but marvel at and envy the vibrant, pulsating city below. The yellow mango Jell-o brought her very little comfort, and the full moon hanging in the sky offered even less solace, as she felt it taunting her.
In about a month the moon would still be there, radiating in its full glory. The daughter mumbled sadly to herself; acknowledging that by then, she herself would not.
As the night wore on, her thoughts turned to the things she had not done yet. Things that could have been and the things that would never be.
She wished to travel and see the ancient monuments of Italy, to taste the best gastronomic delights in France, and to swim in the famous beaches of Asia.
She regretted turning down the boy who had asked her to the prom. if only, she thought, just maybe.
She yearned to meet the one, to fall in love and be loved. She had hoped to become a mother someday and do fun things with her children. If she could only win one award, she thought. She wanted to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.
Exhausted, she rested her head on her pillow, turned to her side and sighed. The full moon gleamed down at her, taunting her still.
“I’m nothing,” the daughter whispered. “I have nothing,” she thought just before she closed her eyes.
The daughter slept and awoke much earlier than she had intended. She hadn’t wanted to wake yet, but the rays of the morning sun were quite insistent.
They danced and swayed, and their warmth seemed to caress her even under the covers. So, the daughter pulled the sheet off of her and opened her eyes.
Something was moving. The bird’s nest outside the window was alarmingly chaotic. Three hatchlings were bobbing, shaking, and aggressively crying out.
“Poor things,” the daughter thought.
The hatchlings’ parents soon came flying back to feed and groom them, providing them with warmth.
The daughter slowly sat up and turned to her sleeping parents slumped over on the edge of her bed. She smiled, sighed, and reached for their hands.