She had lost so much in her journey. Almost everyone that she loved. It took her years to realize that she only loved one man, be it for the better or the worst. There were many sacrifices that had to be made: for her mom, her dad, her brother, and most of all — her. That she thought, when everyone’s eyes were in someone as the bride walked down the aisle, in the church where her life will change for the best. Or the worst.

******************************************************************

Smiles were everywhere, the years before. I was 19 years old, young, in love, and was loved back. My mother was a hardworking vendor, but sadly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer just 8 months ago. We had no money to pay for the hospitalization. My younger brother, Robert, had been told that he would have a big chance to become a doctor if he continues his studies, which no doubt, he will, if there was enough money. And my father was drunk every time I see him.

Sometimes, I was left to wonder why my mother fell in love with him. There were times when he abused her, or just leave her alone after he gets the money. Once, I asked my mom, “Why did you ever fall in love with him?”, but only left with a reply, “He wasn’t always like this. But I know that the man I fell in love with 20 years ago is still there. Just wait, Penny. Just wait and see.” She would say with a smile.

Traumatized by the fact of true love, I vowed to myself to never love anyone. How could I, when my parents’ love was upsetting enough? But it all changed when Aspen came. He was the star of our school, the drop-dead gorgeous football player. Sometimes, I would have to rotate my head back to studying with the thought that I could lose the scholarship. And take note it was a “full” scholarship. I’d be a fool to waste it. But love does get in the way. Mom knew it, but always warned me not to take it too far.

It was midnight. Robert was already sleeping in his own bunk while I was still studying for an upcoming test tomorrow. Professors only give us two days to prepare, even when it’s Sunday. My father wasn’t here yet, probably stuck on some night with his pals, drinking, if he was really drinking. I think Mom is staying up late, waiting for him. I should go check downstairs.

No sooner then, I went out of the room when the front door banged and opened. As to be expected, my father was drunk and out of his mind, booze and beer stinking his shirt. I was peeping on the staircase, on alert in case he does anything to my mom. Now, where is mom? I waited for a few more seconds, but she didn’t even appear on the scene. And I also noticed that my father was rooted to his spot, staring at some object on the floor. Only that it’s not an object.

“Mom! Help! Call the ambulance. Hurry!” I shouted to him while I scooped up Mom in my arms. I looked at him, still in the same spot, as if he was in shock. “Don’t just stand there. Call the ambulance!” And he moved. Going on the other side of the door, he was running, running away from my mother’s last breaths.

Robert was going down hurriedly, telling me that he already called the ambulance. But I didn’t say anything. How could I? I cradled my mom as Robby went near us. He cried. I cried. We all did, even mom, kissing us one last time in the forehead, as if she is telling her goodbye to us. As if I will let her go.  And as the sirens deafen our wails of agony, our mother already breathed her last!

The days passed on. I was taking care of the funeral. The word tasted so bitter when it left my lips. The coffins, the flowers, the service, the mass, everything had to be taken care of. Dad never came back. No, not yet! Robby was with me, not understanding anything, except that both of us were all by ourselves. I informed both of our schools, and they already gave their condolences. Oh, but they don’t know the grief.

Finally the day of the funeral arrived. Many had gone. Everyone was wearing black, even me and Robby. We threw dandelions on her coffin as it was lowered. Oh, she loved dandelions. She once told me that if she had enough money, she would grow a garden where dandelions and roses could be seen in all different colors. I never doubted her.

But where would that garden be? When could she see her grandchildren? Where would those promises and hopes that she once told us happen? When can she see her husband, changed anew, who truly loved her? Why did she even have to leave? Why, now? Why not never?

I clutched Robby’s little hand, my younger brother also deep in his own thoughts. My black dress, the only dress I’d ever had, was making me warm and sweaty, and it was time to go home. Home?!!! The place where everything started, happened, and made. I just didn’t know it would also end there. Or so I thought.

6 years later…

I was now a lawyer at 25 years old, and my brother was 16, just starting college. We never heard from our dad, and we never expected to. I broke up with Aspen when we graduated, but damn, I still love that man. He was there to comfort me when I had few throwbacks about my past. He knew about my family, even my mom’s death, but all in all, we knew we can’t be together. It’ll all just be short 5-month summer romance fling. He left for a Broadway play after we graduated, and that was the last time I’ve ever heard from him.

I was studying up a file when my manager handed me another set. We both sighed in exasperation. I’ve been working in this company during my intern and until now, that I am even friends with her. We were working together on a pretty big case that could boost both our careers and the name of the firm, but I can’t seem to think straight this time. Probably, another one of those migraines. I’ve been having them since mom died.

Packing my bags, I waved goodbye to my co-employees and walked towards the basement, where my motorcycle is. I bought it after my first year here in Bakers & McKenzie. They pay well, and I was able to support my brother’s tuition for college. Riding the motorcycle, I sped my way on the busy streets of Chicago.

“Robert! Are you here?” I called out as soon as I entered our house. He answered me with steps thundering the stairs. “Hi Pen, just arrived a few minutes ago. What’s for dinner?” “Dinner, you dog. Come and help me make one,” I laughed as I set the helmet down and proceeded to the kitchen. After he finally decided to help me, I bombarded him with questions about his studies as a doctor.

“So, how’s school?”

“Fine, I guess. The professors only give us a few days to study for upcoming tests. I mean, that’s not fair. But I do get good scores. Very good ones, I bet you’ll cry when you see them.”

“Oh, are you really sure about that?”

“Ah, not exactly cry as in cry. I mean, um, ah…”

Stammers, sputters, nah, same Robert that I know. I only wish how Mom would still be alive so she could be so proud of both of us when she learns about our success right now.

“Say, Penelope, aside from being your brother, why do you still stick with me even after you graduate?”

“Huh? What do you mean, Rob?”

“No, it’s just that, I sometimes get the feeling that you don’t want to move on because of me. I mean, you could’ve followed Aspen when he went to his play. Or you could’ve grabbed that chance to go outside our states. But you didn’t. Why? Is it because I’m holding you back?”

His question seemed to freeze me in my spot. Is he right? Could he be the reason why I’m holding myself? But as fast as that thought crossed my mind, it vanished.

“Rob, listen to me. It’s not because of you that I didn’t go after Aspen. I have to let him go, Rob. He and I aren’t meant to be in the first place. We were too young to know about love, I guess. And that chance to go outside, well, maybe I’ve never really moved on about what happened with Mom. And it’s not just because you’re my brother that I’m sticking with you, buddy. I once promised Mom that I’d do my best to raise you up as an orthopedic doctor. And I will, Rob, I will.”

I hugged him tight and went back to my cooking. That night when we had finished eating dinner, I was doing small household chores after I finished studying the case when the bell rang. Who could be at this hour? Rob was probably already asleep right now. It’s already a few minutes before 12. Cautiously, I opened the door. And there he was. My father.

“You’re quite bold to come ringing my doorbell, considering what you’ve done the past years. Or should I say, have not done.”

I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I’ve never been told to go against my parents or any elderly. But I did. I finally did.

“Look, Penny…”

“Don’t call me that! You don’t even have the right to enter this house unless I say so! Go away before you ruin Robert’s life and mine!”

Tears flowed in both of our eyes. All the pain that I treasured 6 years ago with no one to share it with has taken its toll. I finally had the upper hand here.

“For six long years, you came inside this same door at midnight,” I started, my voice so shaky, trembling and hoarse that I didn’t know it was mine. “You stunk like a boy who had just drunk his first beer and loved it. Then you were staring horribly at something past this door. It wasn’t something though, it was someone. But who? Tell me, who?”

“Your mother.”

“Yes. But who else did you see in her? Who did you see in my mother’s face? Just a girl who you can beat and take money from? Or that girl that you still loved when you married her? Did it pleasure you to see her face in agony? Her hair fallen and her scalp bald? When you saw her in the floor, have you even thought to scoop her up and carry her in your arms, just like what I did? And you still call yourself a dad, let alone a husband? Did it satisfy or irritate you more when her last words were, “Where’s your dad?” Yup, those were her last. Not the “I love you” that you say to your kids but she was asking for you! A man who hasn’t been there when she needed him most.”

All those sorrow that I treasured all these years, I gave them all out. But when I finished what I said, it all seemed, empty, hollow, and something I just can’t pinpoint at that time. Then, he did something I didn’t expect him to do. He hugged me.

“Shhh, shhh, it’s alright Penny, dear. Just shout it all out. It’s been a rough 7 years for all of us, even me darling, even me. At first, I was shocked when I heard that your mother had cancer. I was completely clueless at that time. I thought it was my entire fault, that somehow, I had lacked something. Maybe it was because I didn’t graduate. Or I shouldn’t have fought with my boss. Or let everyone down. I didn’t know how to face it. So I drowned all the sorrows in drinks, and sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, even in girls. I know, I know, what I did was entirely wrong, and that was so stupid of me. When I saw your mother lying there, I was like, “God, oh god, this can’t be happening.” And so I ran out. I ran, hoping that when I came back, it was all just a hallucination. But it wasn’t. When you were gone to the hospital, I packed all things that I have and left my wedding ring. I couldn’t be a good husband. But I left in all hopes that I could still be a good father. That one day, you’ll forgive me. So I got myself a job, finished college, and earned enough to take me back to you guys. What I did was irreversible. Hurting. But please, give me just one little chance to prove that I can be a good father.”

We were all crying by then. Robert came down, must be because of my shouting, and was welcomed in an embrace. A family that once had been broken had been made whole again. We only just lack Mom. But we know that now, she’s smiling. Smiling that I have finally learned to forgive, that I have grown up to what I wanted to be now, but most of all, that she finally saw Dad as the same Dad that she married so many, many years ago.

Finally, 9 years later, we were standing in the stage, proud of Robert, as he went up as magna cum laude. I was so proud of my baby brother. I even told him, only to get a reply, “I’m not a baby anymore!” Ha. You still are Robby, you still are.

Robby was still 25 years old, ready to tackle the world with his “girl”. Yeah, that was what he called her. Jessie was also like him, graduated cum laude, and had just turned 24 a week ago. Everyone knew they were planning to get married, we even teased them sometimes, but hopefully, not now. They still have a life planned.

Dad was now 53 years, oh my god, that’s old. But luckily, he showed no signs of aging, except for a few wrinkles in the face and the hands. His health was alright, his memory was clear, and he can take care of himself and Robby, and also Jessie. The couple had decided to stay for a bit, just a month or so, and they would be settled by then. He can’t wait for a grandchild.

Okay, so I was now 34 years old, single, and old. I was still working at the same company, only that I was promoted to the leader board, along with Martha, my manager 9 years ago. She was like a second Mom to me, and everyone in the leader board was my friends. They seemed to treasure me after that case I prosecuted just a month ago. Anyway, we have transferred our branches on different sides 8 years ago, so the family also moved addresses. Good thing that my brother’s school also had a branch nearby, it made it easier for him to transfer schools.

Dad, Robert, Jessie, and I were going on an expensive restaurant near the seashore to celebrate graduation day. Jessie’s parents and 2 little sisters were also coming soon. I was still dressed in my uniform, because I rushed in the office on an urgent meeting before their graduation started, and I took my hair out of its bun. It was a headache, believe me. When we parked our car, dad went out and so did we. Locking it, we headed to the door, not prepared for what would happen.

I saw Aspen. His golden hair was still in the same style as it was 15 years before. His flashing smile almost had me collapsing. His presence alone brought nightmares of my past. The past that I thought had been buried along with my father asking forgiveness. He seemed to notice me, and he turned around and our eyes locked. I would have run and kissed him right there and then, if it hadn’t been for that redhead opposite to him. Martha. And she seemed to notice me.

I turned away, but Robby had noticed. His grip on me seemed to be tighter, as we went to our reserved table. I was all fake smiles the rest of the day. Even Jessie’s family noticed. My phone buzzed 6 o’clock that evening, and I took it, only to be called again in a meeting. Kissing the delegates goodbye, I excused myself. But before I did, Robby pulled my hand and whispered in my ear, “We’ll talk later, okay?” I nodded and got my car. The others can stay with Jessie’s family van.

I drove on and on until I reached the building. The workers were still there, and then I met up with the leader board. “Ms. Penny, you’re finally here. Come, we have to show you something.” They led me to their office and we sat. Martha, then came in, breathless and unkempt, and sat down on her chair. She never even looked at me. The meeting went on for an hour or so, and ended up with me, a few lawyers, and the director agreeing that we have to fire some employees, ASAP.

I walked to the women’s restroom when someone blocked me. Aspen. I looked up at him, eyes full of hurt and understanding. We passed by each other, eyes only locking. That was our thing though. We seemed as if we can communicate with just by looking at each other. “It’s okay. You can go to her. There never was an “us” anyway,” I told him softly. He just handed me two letters that changed my life. He didn’t even fight back.

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Maybe she made the right choice. Maybe not. But she has to live with it, ‘cuz there’s no turning back.

Even when she’s not the bride.

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