“Mama, why are those shoes up there?” Bob asked his mom.
“Maybe some kid who’s too lazy to go to school threw them up there in protest,” his mom, Elizabeth, answered.
There would not be a day when the pair of shoes loosely decked on top of the roof of the waiting shed along Fung Yuen Road would not figure in their conversations during their daily commute from their home in Lo Fai Road to Bob’s school located near the Tai Po Hui Market.
Bob would ask all sorts of questions.
“How old is the kid now, mom?” “Maybe he’s now rich like Jack Ma? Or Steve Jobs?” “What would his name be?” “Boo! He’s probably a monster now ready to snap at whoever would dare steal those shoes.”
To all questions, his mom would creatively find a way to answer. “Maybe he’s just a little older than you.” “Well, if he did not study and finish school, let us hope that he is not among those poor people begging for money.” “Bond! His name is James Bond!” “Haha! Smart kid. Or he could have turned into The Guardian of the Shoes, if not Galaxy!”
Of all the questions that Bob would ask, there was always one that made Elizabeth silent.
“So, mom, how long have those shoes been there?”
Almost instantaneously, this question would put Elizabeth in one corner. Her facial reaction would turn bland and she would look out of the window, following the line of trees on the side as the bus makes a left away onto the next stop.
Moments later though, she would capture a memory or two. Her eyes would turn bright and she would start to wear a hearty smile. Quickly, skipping the question, she would gamely tickle Bob.
“You ask a lot of questions, my little Bob! Let us now review for class while we still have some 10 minutes or so left. … So spell pho-to-syn-the-sis.”
It was always an effective way for Elizabeth to evade the question. Bob would forget about the pair of shoes and gamely respond to his mom as if she were his teacher.
This was a routine that Bob and his mom shared every weekday until Bob finished secondary school. And every weekday, they would always take the 74K bus, pass by the waiting shed at Fung Yuen Road, talk about the shoes, and change topic.
Years passed by and Bob finished college. He moved to Hong Kong Island closer to work. He left his mom in their apartment in Lo Fai Road in Tai Po. From time to time, during weekends, he would pay her a visit.
Every time Bob would make a visit to his mom, he would always see the pair of shoes in the same location. They appeared worn out from the change of weather though. And like when he was still a little boy, he was always curious why they were there.
Elizabeth lived alone with a helper. When Bob was still living with her, there were three of them.
Bob lost his father to an accident while he was still barely a year old. What Bob knew about his father was based on how his mom described him. That he was a most loving dad who wanted him to grow into a nice guy and pursue a profession that would make him happy.
While Bob had a picture of his dad as a father, he didn’t know him as a husband to his mom. Elizabeth had been sparingly sharing details about how she and her husband met, how they were as a couple. Bob knew though that as parents, they made sure he had everything he would need.
One mid-autumn festival, Bob received a call from the helper.
“Bob, we brought your mom to the hospital. She was unconscious in her room,” the helper said, panicking.
Bob rushed to the hospital. But he didn’t reach his mom alive. His mom was still in the emergency room, lying lifeless on a stretcher. He hugged his mom, kissed him on her cheeks.
“Mama, I love you.”
As Bob was touching his mom’s face, he noticed that she was smiling. Elizabeth appeared at peace. She didn’t look like she struggled or experienced any pain before she died. Her appearance on the stretcher kept afresh Bob’s memory of his mom — angelic, charming and endearing.
Minutes later, the doctor approached Bob.
“Sir, we regret that we could no longer revive your mother. We did all that we could,” the doctor said.
Bob kept quiet. His tears started to flow on his face as he continued to touch the face of his mother.
The doctor got an envelope and handed it to Bob.
“When your mother was brought here, she was holding this against her chest. It appears to be a letter with a note a photo.”
Bob got the envelope and slowly left the hospital. He drove back to their house in Lo Fai Road. On his way to their house, Bob managed to take a glance at the waiting shed. And instantaneously, memories of his conversations with his mom about the shoes on the waiting shed flooded him.
He recalled though that of all that questions he ever asked his mom, there was one that made his mom quiet: “So, mom, how long have those shoes been there?”
Upon reaching home, Bob remembered the envelope that the doctor handed to him. He opened it. Inside the envelope were a letter, a note, and a photo.
The letter was by Elizabeth to her son, Bob.
My child, you have grown to be a fine young man. You have made me proud and your dad prouder. There is nothing in this world that could ever make parents happy than seeing their children live their own lives and breathing life to their dreams.
I have been keeping it from you since your dad passed on. His death was the most painful experience I went through. I hurt until this time. He loved me like no one else did. And I pray to God you will be the same man your dad was to me, the same man your dad was and would have been to you until today.
You will remember that every time we passed by the waiting shed in, and you would ask me ‘Mom, how long do you think have those shoes been there?’ I would just keep quiet and change the topic. It was for a reason. I have been selfish. I did not like to share memories that made your dad alive in my heart each day. I was protecting myself from losing him to more questions.
Here is a note that your dad wrote to me when we were still in college.
Bob, my child, my life — Mama loves you. Chase your dreams. Build a happy family. And be the best husband and dad you could ever be.
Bob could not control his emotions. In the bosom of his mom’s memories, he cried his heart out. He then reached out for the note that his mom wrote was penned by his dad.
Elizabeth, my love:
We are like a pair of shoes. I am left; you are right (And you are always right!). Without one, the other serves no purpose. As a pair, we are one — we give happiness, we can make magic, we can walk and journey together to wherever our hearts desire.
Today, let me mark my promise. You will remain that right shoe that completes the pair with mine. I will forever love you. One day, I will marry you. One day, we will have our own family. One day, I will give you a son.
As we celebrate our anniversary today, I decided to buy a pair of shoes for that little boy we always see walking barefooted right behind the waiting shed at Fung Yuen Road. I could not dare approach him as I feared his parents might feel insulted I personally handed him the shoes. So as the bus stopped, I threw the shoes towards him. They landed on the roof of the waiting shed though. I hope that little boy managed to get them. They’re a gift that would help change his life — as you have immensely changed mine. I want that boy to wear those shoes, as I want our son to wear “us” — where I am left and you are right, and together we carry, support and inspire him to be the best that he could ever be.
More each day, I love you.
Then Bob looked at the photo. He was surprised to see it’s the same pair he always saw on roof of the same waiting shed.