Maybe you’ll have to think back a little or maybe you’ll have to visualize your future, maybe it’ll be enough to take a look around you, but now, you are young, a youth with your whole life ahead of you.
You are passing school with flying colors. Your whole life, you have tried to do well. You have been working hard whether it’s on your studies or athletics, you have been trying to make your parents proud, and support the friends at your side. Right now, you are on the cusp of taking off and soaring into the sky, your future is unlimited. You can go to the horizon and even farther if you want to. Everything seems possible.
There is this one dream you have. You have been pursuing it all your life and now, it’s almost in reach. You just need to stretch out your hand and you will be able to grasp it. In fact, when you extend your arm, it feels as if your fingertips are already touching it.
But then, your phone rings. The shrill tone sounds discordant as if it is going to shatter your beautiful dreams. You don’t know what this call might be about but you are home alone right now so you get up and walk over. After all, it could be important, right? You stretch out your hand and pick up the receiver, the plastic cold to the touch.
‘Wei?’ you answer the call and an unfamiliar voice answers you.
A few words are spoken and you ask a little bit, unable to believe what you hear. But no matter how much you question, no matter how much you refuse to believe, it will not change what you are being told.
You end the call and stand in front of the phone. Your head is empty, you are unable to form a coherent thought. Your heart is numb and the feelings you should maybe feel won’t come.
With that one phone call, your whole world suddenly breaks down.
What do you think could be the worst that happens? Would it be the message that you have not been accepted into the University of your dreams? Is it that your sweetheart wants to break up with you because they have fallen in love with somebody else? Or maybe there is something even worse?
Imagine if you were suddenly without your family. The people who raised you, the ones who taught you everything they know, who accompanied you on the way through your life from your first day to their last — they are gone. Those two people who spent every single day of your life watching over you, making sure you would not fail, would not hurt, would not stray, they are no longer with you.
You suddenly find yourself without their support, without their encouragement, and without their guidance. Who will you lean on now? Who will you go to ask advice from? How will you get through the challenges that life poses for you? What about the plans you had? What about the new troubles that have been heaped upon your shoulders?
Is it still important?
Even if you think it isn’t, you will still have to go on. You will have to do something. You can’t just lie down and follow them, can you? No, you know you have to live on. It’s what they would have wanted for you and now that they are gone, how could you disappoint them? You didn’t want to do so when they were alive and you definitely would not want to do so now. Continuing on, building a life they would look fondly upon is also your way of honoring them. So you have to find your path.
But how? How are you supposed to go to school if you need to pay your tuition? How are you going to earn the money for rent if you have to study? How are you going to put food on your table?
Even before that: How are you going to bury your family members? Have you thought about that? But maybe everything is still too fresh to be able to handle that. Maybe you don’t even know where to begin. Maybe at your age, you have never thought about that.
Even if you haven’t, these problems aren’t going to go away. You will have to find a way to deal with it. One by one, you will have to tackle them whether you’re ready or not. There are no excuses, no delay possible. From one day to the other, you are responsible for yourself. Every decision needs to be made by you and you alone. Whatever you want to do, you have to walk that path on your own two feet, do the work with your own two hands, without anyone accompanying you or lending you a helping hand.
Now, when you try to think it through, how much will have changed? That grand dream you had, is it still there? Can it still be fulfilled? Or are things already too late? Will you have to give up on your grand aspirations and lead the simplest life you can imagine?
Certainly, that seems like the easiest choice. If you don’t go to school any further, you will not have to pay any tuition. If you start working instead, at least there will be money for rent and food. It is not what you wished for, what you imagined, but none of this is, right?
Maybe after this blow of fate, it’s time to grow up, to put away both childish hopes and fears, to no longer chase after unattainable dreams, and focus on what is right in front of you instead. Take one step after the other. Even if it’s not the future you imagined, it can still be fulfilling.
Deciding on this, you make up your resolve. When the letter arrives telling you that you were accepted into that dream school of yours, you shed some tears, wishing that you were still able to share this with your family before you go and decline. You continue to look at that letter and then silently fold it up, putting it away in a place where you will likely not see it again for the next few years.
In any case, it would hurt to do, wouldn’t it? Who likes to bury their dreams? If you had another choice, if things had turned out differently, if that accident had not happened, this day would have been different. Instead of the silence that now fills the apartment and makes your ears ring, you might have celebrated and lit some firecrackers, looking into the future hopefully.
Now, that future is gone.
You go out and get a newspaper, looking for some simple job where you can start without experience. It doesn’t matter anymore what it is as long as you can live. It would be good if you could keep this apartment you’ve lived in your whole life. At the very least, you won’t fear any longer that those memories might slip away. You want to hold onto that, at the very least.
Finally, you find something that might be suitable. You could call that a stroke of luck, maybe, if only it wouldn’t make you smile so wryly. This was not what you wanted and you are still unreconciled. But, finally, you can only walk over to that old phone, staring at it for half a day, reluctant to actually pick up the receiver and press the buttons to call. If you do this, it is really final. There will be no going back.
You hesitate but, in the end, what can you do? You pick it up, the free-line signal sounds, and you can’t help but close your eyes for a moment. You raise your hand to dial the number after all but just then, the doorbell rings. You look over, the sound from the telephone still audible. Finally, you sigh, put the phone back down, throw the newspaper next to it that you got the number from, and go to the door.
When you open it, you see two familiar faces. Child, did you forget? Even if your family can’t be with you anymore, there are still your friends. There is still hope. Before you abandon everything, why not try for a last time? At the very least, all those years from now, you will be able to look back and tell yourself ‘I tried my best’. Even if it doesn’t work out, you will not have to ask: ‘What if?’ And if you succeed after all … then isn’t that all the better?
For the first time since the moment you picked up the phone the other day, there is a faint trace of hope in your heart and eyes. Yes, it might not be the same anymore with your family gone but there is still somebody there to support you when you can’t go on alone. There is still somebody there who is willing to believe in you and your dreams, to try and make them possible, to struggle at your side even if it will be harder than expected.
You hug them and cry for the first time since everything happened, those feelings finally catching up with you. And when you finally calm down again, the two of them show you a lease agreement. It’s not for the place you’ve been living in but it’s still big enough for the three of you and they tell you that with three people pouring resources together, you’ll be able to do it.
What more is there to say? You pack up your things. Your personal belongings, those cherished mementos of your family, everything from the apartment you’ll be able to use in your day-to-day life. The two of them do the same and, finally, you set off together.
You take a last look at this place that you will likely never be able to return to, your heart hurting when you think of what you are leaving behind, while you are also afraid of what the future might bring. But this is your only chance, the one opportunity to turn things around. How could you let it go?
So you turn the other way, burying those feelings at the bottom of your heart. Step by step, you put more distance between you and that place, you and your past, to finally arrive at the place you will call your home from now on.
Going forward. It isn’t easy but it is a perspective. And now that you are not alone anymore, you feel like some of that burden has lifted, even if the pain will never disappear completely, even if those happy memories will be tinged with sadness from now on, even if your future will hold hardships.
So holding your head high, you march forward and you do everything you can to achieve that dream after all, no matter how difficult. All of that in the hope that one day, you can look back and say: ‘It was worth it. This struggle, I do not regret it. If they could still be at my side, they would be proud.’ And then, when grave-sweeping day comes, you could finally smile a little, feeling like you did not let them down.]
Xiao Ming’s face had paled more the further he read. When he reached the middle of the text, his throat had already constricted. He didn’t know what to say or what to even think. He just knew that he could not bear to see the rest. He quietly got up and left the kitchen, returning to his own room as if in a trance, closing the door behind him, and sitting down on the bed. He stared off into space before slowly opening the upper drawer of the bedside table and pulling out an old book. Opening the first page, there was a folded-up letter inside and a grayed-out photo behind it. Taking it out, he stared at it, not sure what to think.