When I was only six and my younger brother was two, our father passed away. Since then, my mother and we were dependent upon each other. Our days were difficult. My mother had to work very hard to keep our family together. The income was just enough to cover basic expenses.
Until one day, my mother ushered a man into our home. She asked us to call him - FATHER. No, he was just our stepfather. I was nine that year. My stepfather became the economic backbone of the entire family. The impression of my childhood, that he was an extremely industrious man. He also adored my mother very much. Moreover, he took full responsibility for the family and never let my mother worry too much. He was kind of reticent and relaxed, but very spiritual. He had long lanky head and deep small eyes on his brown face. He had a pair of rough big hands and was in his early forties. He also had a wont to carry an ancient tobacco pipe with a brown smooth body around. He would suck a few mouthfuls of it whenever he was free. I had always been against smoking. I called him behind his back – A TOBACCO FIEND.
I remembered that he had moved in with us about a year later. I secretly hid his beloved pipe one day. It was like he had ants in his pants and his eyes were red over the next few days. My mother had questioned harshly several times, so I handed it over to my stepfather very reluctantly. He took it in his lightly trembling hands. His eyes were full of tears of pain. Surprisingly, he gave me a good slap on my face because of that tobacco pipe. I was too frightened to cry, my mother held me in her arms and said, ‘Never ever touch his pipe again. This is his life!’ Henceforward, that tobacco pipe was a great mystery to me. I always wondered if it could make my stepfather to shed a tear, was there a concealed story in that pipe? Perhaps, that slap had brought out my hatred to my stepfather. It was like something had stuck in my throat. No matter how much he had done for us, that had never moved me. As a child, I always believed that a stepfather was as bad as the stepmother of Snow White. I was very cool and ignored him. Let alone to call him – FATHER.
However, one thing let me begin to have a good impression of him. I came home after school one day. I found my mother screaming painfully and rolling on the floor as soon as I entered the house, big drops of cold sweat dripping from her pale face. The stomach sickness took her down again. My younger brother and I cried to find my stepfather. He stopped his work at once. He even forgot his shoes and ran home barefoot. He madly carried my mother to rush to the hospital after he walked in the door. They returned home at midnight. My mother fell asleep on his back. When he saw us waiting in the doorway, he breathed heavily and smiled, ‘It’s alright now! Go to bed! You have to go to school tomorrow, kids!’ I noticed that the sweat was like a broken string of big beads dropping to his big feet, which were full of soil.
The unfortunate experience of my childhood, which had made me understand the hardship of life. I focused all my hopes on the university entrance exams for the first time, but failed. I requested to my mother, ‘I’d like to try for one more year.’ My mother sighed, ‘My son, you understand the family situation. My health is not good and your brother also studies in high school. The whole family relies on your father only. How many people can go to university in our village? You’re better to give your father a hand.’
‘Mom, the only way to improve our family situation is to get a better education and seek for a prospective career in the future. I won’t give up.’ My stepfather smoked his beloved pipe in the backyard and did not say a word that night. My mother said to me next day, ‘Your father agrees to let you try for one more year. You must study hard!’
My stepfather shouted loudly as he entered the house one day. He had collected an acceptance letter from university in the post office. He said excitedly, ‘Our son is going to the university!’ When my mother and I rushed from the kitchen, she took the letter in her hands. Although she was an illiterate person, she looked at it from top to bottom again and again. My stepfather was unusually very happy and he spoke a bit more that night. It was the very first time for me to pour a glass of wine for him humbly. Or said, I wanted to express my gratitude to him. My stepfather stared at me amazedly with joy. He drank it up and said, ‘It’s all worth! It’s all worth it!’
I had to face a major problem next day. Where could I get the 4,000 dollars to pay the annual tuition fee? My mother had taken out all her savings and borrowed the money here and there. It was still short of 500 dollars one day before the school began. My mother moped as she prepared the dinner. My stepfather was clam as usual. He bit his beloved pipe when he repaired the tools. Of course, no one had an appetite at mealtime. ‘Right, I don’t go to school. Are you satisfied now?’ I said piqued and ran into my room. I bent over my desk and wept. A strong hand patted on my shoulder a few minutes later. He said, ‘Don’t cry. You’re grown up now. You have to continue your education. I surely will fix it up for you.’ He stayed in the backyard until very late that night. My stepfather was lost in thought with his beloved pipe. The small gleam of flame shone upon his face on and off, that witnessed the difficulties of life. His face looked dignified when he narrowed his eyes. The smoke scattered gently in front of his face, it made him look fuzzy. Certainly, no one knew what he was thinking. I guessed that he surely was not calm in mind.
Next morning, my mother told me that he had gone to visit a friend in town. Perhaps he could borrow some money from him. I had a flash of hope cross my mind. I asked, ‘What does his friend do?’ My mother shook her head. I spent all that afternoon waiting for my stepfather at the entrance to our village. I sat on a big rock and looked engrossingly at the long and winding path. It was the very first time that I had an impulse to see him. It was also the very first time that I felt my stepfather was the most important and greatest person in my life. Yes, my future was truly in his hands. He came back finally with a smile on his face. My hanging heart was settled down eventually.
My mother hurried and presented him a basin of hot water. She said heartily, ‘Come to soak your feet. You must be very exhausted after walked some forty miles back and forth today.’ I took a good look at his face and realized that he was no longer a strong man as he used to be. The big hands were gone, the veins were exposed. His forehead was filled with wrinkles and his straight short hair was messy. I did not understand why he looked so pale, his lips were colorless. My stepfather was an old man indeed. He was extremely tired that night. My mother took off his nearly broken shoes carefully. A big blood blister was found on his toe under the dim light. My heart sank. I turned my face away, but the tears slipped quietly.
I was ready to leave for university that early morning. My stepfather stayed in bed unprecedented. My mother said he did not feel well. She saw me off at the train station. She said, ‘You’re a big boy now. You have to rely on your own. Your father always loves you very much. He dearly expected you could call him – FATHER, but, you…’ She was a bit choked up. I nipped my lips slightly and whispered, ‘Next time!’
My stepfather would go to borrow the money from his friend in town every time when I needed to pay for the tuition fee. I returned home every summer and winter break. Though I rarely talked with him, he rarely asked after me. But, the pleasure that everyone could feel. When I left home, my stepfather would always see me off at the train station. He still smoked his beloved pipe. We walked along silently. There had too much I would like to tell him, but I did not know where to begin. As a matter of fact, I had already accepted him as my father. LOVE – Why was it too hard to say sometimes? In that way, I had never fulfilled my promise to my mother.
My family was very lively at the New Year’s Eve night. My stepfather sat next to my mother, he pounded the tobacco leaves and plugged it into the pipe. His face was full of happiness. I was a third year student in university that year. My brother asked how the life was in the city and the new things. I mentioned about many students in university who would have cell phones, computers… My brother’s eyes filled with curiousity as he listened attentively. Until I said that I even did not have a watch, I glanced at my stepfather’s face twitching lightly. I felt sorry for that speech instantly.
It was about time for me to go back to school. My stepfather did the same as usual. I was so used to that way. He called my name several times on the way. When I responded, he seemed to swallow his words. He looked to have a heavy heart. I really hoped that my stepfather would be the first to break the ice. I could have a good talk with him, then. I disappointed at last.
When we said goodbye at the train station, he said, ‘I don’t have much skill to make you all happy. Remember to respect and take good care of your mother in the future.’ I saw his eyes gleaming with tears as he passed the baggage to me. Suddenly, I wanted to call him gently on an impulse – FATHER. That word had been sitting in my heart for many years. I swallowed it up again while it had almost come to my lips. I looked back through a window after the train had gone a long way. My stepfather was still standing there motionlessly like a rock. I secretly swore that I should sincerely call him – FATHER when I returned home next time.
However, that day would never come. The last goodbye was a farewell forever. I got a message of a sudden death of my stepfather two months later. It was like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. I was in a daze as though the entire world had halted.
Greeting me home was that lonely tobacco pipe hanging on the wall. ‘His last regret was he shouldn’t give you a slap that year. He always wanted to say sorry to you, but he couldn’t make it. In fact, you can’t blame him. You never understand that pipe was the pain in his entire life,' said my mother as she looked at the hanging pipe. I took it down gently from the wall.
Then, a heartbreaking story was revealed for the first time. My mother and my stepfather were the sweethearts in the village some thirty years ago. The great affection for each other got stronger after they grew up. But, my grandpa was very against their romance. The only reason was my stepfather’s family was virtually penniless. Seeing the pair were inseparable, my grandpa asked for a big betrothal gift from my stepfather. He believed that was an easy way to break them up. My stepfather lived with his father who started to work in a coal mine in order to earn some more money for his only son. His father and some seventy miners had been trapped underground in an accident. No one could be seen again after that day. That tobacco pipe was his only remains. He was overwhelmed with sorrow on the death of his father. The guilt and self-blame which he had would live forever with him. He left the village with that tobacco pipe one day. No one knew his whereabouts!
My stepfather came back two years later. My mother was already forced to marry my father one year earlier. He had always been single. His only company was that tobacco pipe. He bravely took the responsibility for his adored lady and her two kids after the death of her husband. He never wanted to have his own children. He said, ‘These kids are my own flesh and blood.’ It was not just a circuitous love story in that pipe. It was also a heavy memory of his entire life. My eyes were brimmed in tears after my mother had completed their heartbreaking story.
She handed me a wooden box, ‘Your father had a sudden stroke. He was unable to speak before he died. He stared at me and pointed toward that wooden box. I assumed that he wanted to give it to you. There are some debts in it. Maybe, he hoped you to manage it. He never wanted to owe anyone anything.’ I gently opened the box with my tearful eyes. I collapsed in the chair impotently. The eight papers were simply not the IOU. These all were the blood sold receipts. A brand new watch was dropped when the box fell on the floor.
‘Father, father!’ I knelt in front of his grave. No matter how loudly I wailed, I could never ever wail his life back again. When I was away, I took that brown tobacco pipe with me. I would cherish the memory of my unforgettable stepfather forever and ever. The love of his selflessly given sacrifice, I could never ever pay him back. But, I would live with regrets to the end due to my self-centered ignorance.
Such two speeches cannot wait:
I LOVE YOU and I AM SORRY.
Elsewise, you may live with regrets to the end.