Eat All Those Damned Lemons!
Question: It has often being said that when life hands you a lemon, then make a lemonade out of it. This oft-mentioned phrase is used to encourage optimism and faith when one is faced with adversity, hardship, disappointment and setbacks and to maintain a calm composure and positive attitude towards the handling of personal crisis.
But what will you do when life hands you a bunch of lemons?
O’Mother of mine
My mother is 86, sharp of mind and with boundless wisdom. She has her share of health related problems, osteoporosis, some of her lumbar bones in her spinal cord have fused causing her to bend to the front and a hump back has appeared for years. She walks slowly with a tri-support walking stick.
Her eye sight is still very good with the help of her bifocals. She reads the vernacular Chinese newspaper daily, poring over headlines and in particular she reads the Life Style section meticulously. She cuts up those articles relating to health, life and death, handling of mid-life crisis, marriage and divorce, living philosophy, religion and in fact the whole works, that affects the mental and physical health and the well-being of a person.
Ah … all these are for the benefit of her son …
Me, Yours Truly.
To quote part of Thomas Gray’s elegy (1716 – 1771), written in a church court yard: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Perhaps this is somewhat sombre and solemn, but I am not about to let these timeless moments lay fritter away.
So I video-taped a number of her readings.
On the following newspaper cutting from Sin Chew Daily (星洲日報), she read in Cantonese, (the most common dialect in southern China), “If destiny will to hand you a bitter lemon in life, one of the best approach is to make a sweet lemonade out of it …….”
I listened intendedly for her to finish. This was the proverbial phase written in the early 20th century and was re-introduced into the mainstream by Dale Carnegie in his million selling book, “How to stop worrying and start living.”
“Mother, I have lived for over half a century, destiny did not hand me a lemon or two, it hands me a big bunch of it!” I said as I raised my two palms, portraying an imaginary bowl of bitter lemons in front of me.
My mother was silent for a while, then tilted her head up ever slightly with a compassionate glimpse at me, her countenance mirroring a calm disposition with the smallest of a smile and her eyes had a faraway look, that perhaps she was caught in this moment with some distant thoughts of my past. This was my mother who gave birth to me, raised me as a somewhat sickly child, saw me through college and university, career and business-wise upstarts, on a plateau, crashed and came back again, borne witness to my marriage and the kids coming along, and probably she would remember every occasion of significant events on my life-time continuum.
This was the mother of mine who shared my ‘love’ story when I fell in love for the first time and in no less than a year, my mother pulled me out of the deep abyss of depression, when the girl-friend dropped me like a hot potato and I had fallen flat on earth from Cloud Nine. In this case, there was to be no hackneyed and old fashioned words from her, like ‘Cry it out if it makes you more comfortable,’ or ‘This girl friend is not suitable for you’, or ‘There are plenty of ladies in waiting.’
My mother was not the type who added drama to a deteriorating situation and instead she would made some allowances for healing and then no more. ‘Get over your loss fast, and you can love again.’ she said, and I found this to be more comforting than by aggravating the present circumstances with over-used and oft-repeated advise, as in some tear-jerking B-grade movies.
This was the mother who slept with me on the same bed until I was almost eleven years of age, because I was a somnambulist – a person who sleep-walked. I would wake up in the middle of the night, got off the bed and walked around the room. At times I would walk out of our wooden house in a dream state, ignoring the bark of stray dogs or the hoot of an owl. Discreetly, my mother would follow me around, lest I fell or being bitten by a dog or met with some untoward accident. She also feared that to wake me up would lead to disastrous outcome on my mental equilibrium.
Later, I would return to my bed on my own and in the morning I had no recollection at all. It was my sister who told me of my somnambulism much later when I began to understand more about life.
However, I did have glimpses and flash-back even to this day on certain occasions, that what I saw was not of this world, probably in my altered state of mind, I might have wandered off to another realm of a parallel or alternative universe or into an era long past. In one incident, I saw a huge mansion, aglow with golden aura and it lit up like a crown jewel in the darkest of its surrounding. There were a lot of people in costumes and dressings of an old imperial Cathay – talking, feasting and drinking and it was a sort of a grand celebration. And I was a spectator or a witness who accidentally stumbled onto this event. In a flash, the whole scenario disappeared. I was alone in the dark again and I felt a gust of cold wind on my face, jotting me. Someone placed a woollen sweater onto my shoulder and then I remembered no more.
My somnambulism weaned off around the age of 11.
There was also one poignant occasion that I remembered clearly. I was probably about 6 or 7 years of age or there about. We were living in that part of the town, called the New Town, before we shifted to a village.
For a few days, I was sick, running a fever on and off in spite of taking dosages of western medication. Late one night my fever escalated. My father was frenetic and was closed to panic. My parents had already lost a son and a daughter before me. He was all thumbs when it came to handling a sick child. And so it was my mother who took charge, as my father too had to mind my sister and a younger brother who were sleeping.
My mother wrapped me up in some warm clothing and tucked me securely to her back in a traditional sarong. She had to take me to a private clinic immediately, located some distance in that part of the town across a bridge, called the Old Town. Those days there were no taxis and the few public buses had run their last route by 9:00pm. Trishaws, the normal form of transport at that time, were all retired for the night. My mother had to walk all the way to the clinic, which was closed, but as the western doctor was residing upstairs, she was determined to knock hard and called for help.
Certain parts of the street were alive with activities in the New Town while it was almost deserted in the Old Town. As she walked in quick strides along the street with her two hands firmly around my buttock, my head was lolling onto her shoulder. My whole body was limp and my little hands were too weak to hold onto anything, though it was swaddled inside the sarong. Strange that it might be, after a certain distance away from our house, I began to have some sensation of waking up. I opened my tired eyes slowly and suddenly I was keenly aware of where I was:
I begin to see the world around me with a kaleidoscopic pattern of vivid colors. I see the dimly lit street, lamp posts spaced apart with the soft glow of sodium light buzzing with hordes of flying ants. There are rows upon rows of little birds perch on three parallel overhead electric cables, forming a jagged pattern on the wire silhouetted against the moon lit night. Fuzzily, I recognize the blur outlines of bodies scattered along the veranda of shop houses, these are the homeless beggars covering themselves with old newspapers to shield against the bitter wind that might come later in the night. Once in a while a few dark shadows passes by, people going home after the night’s work is done. A soft zephyr breeze rattles the leaves on the branches of trees and the silvery reflection of the moon on the mantle of low height bushes adds a surrealistic view unfolding before my eyes.
My nostril begins to pick up the slightest scent. After a prolong spell in bed, the familiarity of the smells of the night street comes back to me once more, burning stoves, aroma of roast meat, fetor of waste food, kerosene permeating the air, steam vapour from Chinese dumplings bamboo containers, cigarette smoke and hot charcoal blazing on clay kilns, clogged drains of decaying leaves and rubbish and the strong body odour of people as we pass them by. An acrid stench assails my nose as night-soil collectors dump buckets of human waste onto a large truck, which is the usual means of removal of human faeces in urban areas. To ward off that stinky smell, I quickly put my whole face onto the soft fabric of my mother, and I inhale her redolent scent, she is perspiring from the labour of her brisk walk. It was a familiar scent which always put me at ease for I know that the whole world can come apart but my mother will still be carrying me on her back.
I begin to feel with heightened sensation. As a gust of wind blows across, I experience the slightest of pin pricks on my face. I feel the warmth of my mother’s back and my fingers begin to wriggle, clinging onto the side of my mother’s dress. I feel her continuous soft patting on my small backside and she is muttering a prayer or repeating some mantras of her own or that she is telling me to stay with her, do not go, stay with me, child.
My hearing becomes very acute, attuning to almost every sound that emanates from people, animals and nature. Some mid-night street hawkers are packing up, ranting loudly, cleaning their utensils and the cacophony of noise of the clanging of porcelain bowls and dishes added to the milieu of the night’s activities. I hear the crunch of bicycle tires on the macadam road. I shiver inwardly at the bay of stray dogs and the shrill meow of two cats in a fight with its hackles raised. Then I place my right ear onto my mother’s back. And I hear the wonderful sound of her quickened heartbeat. I know the familiar throbbing of heart beats, I have heard this before, some far away years ago, probably, when I was inside her womb.
My stomach begins to gnaw at me. I was hungry. I bite onto my mother’s fabric and it tastes a bit salty. I struggles to put my thumb into my mouth. It was tasteless. I am still looking for something to bite as now I want to taste anything within my grasp.
All my senses are now in a heightened state. And there is more….
All at once I feel something departing from me, like a part of me is leaving my body. There, I am hovering in front, suspends in mid-air upwards and I see my mother carrying a child on her back, walking in brisk strides, and the child is me. Strange, I am seeing my mother walking vigorously with me on her back, while I drift through the ethereal space effortlessly, like a ghostly figure.
Then I slumped forward onto my mother’s back and darkness enveloped me. When I received an injection I did not feel the pain but on the next day I was still very much alive.
It was truly remarkable that I could recall certain episodes of my younger days so vividly and on occasions certain smell, touch, sight, sound or taste would trigger off these memories. When it came, I was overwhelmed with emotions, as if it had only happened yesterday, and I would close my eyes for some time to ponder, reliving all those moments. But these emotions were not one of anxiety or fear or apprehensions, rather it was a moment of cherished contemplations.
In the course of my life’s journey I came into contact with priests, monks, men and women of cloth, spiritual ‘masters’, religious teachers from various sects, psychologists, psychiatrists, men and women of learning, fortune tellers, tarot card readers and even to the extent of consulting a Taoist monk who went into a séance. To some I asked questions. I was curious and was interested to know whether these episodes had any bearings on my future. But nobody gave me any satisfactory answers, and I believed that most of them were interpreting these mini episodes of mine as dreams, imaginations of a child, a make believe, my days were marked, some nether world spirits would like to possess my soul as well as all sorts of ridiculous spiritualistic explanations. They gave answers as relating to their own experiences, their individual parochial leanings, their distorted perceptions or according to what they had been taught at religious schools or institutes of higher learning.
Later I realized out that there were no exact answers to these imponderables and unknowns. The answers from these multitudes of people and from the various literatures I read were not as important as the questions any more. It just had happened and there was no necessity to find out why.
Perhaps part of the answer was within me.
The probable cause could be that I was in a near death situation that sparked off an epiphany of sorts. I was walking precariously the thin line between living and death and my life was slowly ebbing away. At that age I could not even understand death.
At a critical point when all my faculty of senses was elevated to a heightened state, I felt that I was truly awakened, if only it was just for that very brief interlude in time. I became acutely aware of where I was. Keen awareness created memory and this memory would sear, like a hot sizzling iron being branded onto flesh, into the core of my very being. And this memory would not decay with time nor with age, though it may dim with the passage of time, but occasionally, it would just bob to the surface like a cork being released under water.
My mother was trying to frame a response for me when I answered my own question. “Mother, I think it is best that if destiny will to hand me a bunch of lemons, I just eat the whole damn lot, instead of making lemonades out of it.” I flicked one of my hand upwards to emphasize my intent.
An instant smile spread across my mother’s face. She said, “Perhaps you are right, son. When a situation is irreversible or we think that there is no going back, we have to accept the inevitable, no matter how bitter it is. One has to move on instead of lamenting the past, holding onto regrets or hurts or trying to self-console.”
She continued in Cantonese, “There was this Chinese poet and writer of the late Ming Dynasty, Feng MengLong, who was attributed with this quotation, “To take the bitterness and hardship of life in your stride is to rise above humanity.” (吃得苦中苦,方为人上人).We can learn a lesson from here.”
She folded the newspaper cutting, while I disengaged the camera from the tripod. Here was my learned mother who cared for her children with unconditional love. Her frailty was quite visible with wrinkles in folds on her cheeks and there were some faint worry lines on her forehead. A medium size liver spot had appeared slightly below her right eye which had grown bigger in size with her passing years, but which did not otherwise mar her facial appearance. Her hair, which was cut from time to time by my sister, had grown sparse with streaks of white on the fore. Her eyes were alert and she spoke clearly with rhythm and reasons, quotes and proverbs, and never mince her words with flattery and unnecessary praises. There was still a lot of iron in her.
I say, she is a commoner but in my heart she has the bearing of an aristocrat or a royalty and I being a subject must always give her the utmost due respect, love and care as well as to honor her. The old Chinese adage has a familiar ring to it, “To raise a child for a 100 years, one has to worry for 99.” (养儿一百岁，常忧九十九). Thus, my frequent prayer and my supplication plead to God will be that if she lives to a hundred years or more, or if she lives to a hundred years or less, then let me live just one more day than her. She had already sent off 2 of her children and it will be the most painful experience for her to see me going off earlier.
But then again, that is not my call.
Note: The translation to English on the two Chinese proverb is my own, as I cannot find any suitable translations as yet.
Pix acknowledgement: history.cultural-china.com, homegrownway.com, wuestenhagen-imagery.photoshelter.com, great-railway-journeys-malaysia.com