This essay defies easy description. It is about love. It is about perseverance. It is also about many cruelties—the cruelty of poverty, of terminal illness, of grief, of generational trauma:

What you know of your mother’s childhood can be summarized in a single story that is about not her childhood but her father’s:

There once lived a little boy, the son of impoverished tenant farmers. One day, he was invited to the village fair by the child of his richer neighbor. The neighbor gave the boy a few coins to spend at the fair. Ecstatic, he bought himself the first toy of his life, a wooden pencil, which he hung proudly around his neck the whole day. When he returned home, his parents beat him within an inch of his life. Those coins could have bought rice and grains! Enough to feed the family for a week!

This was the only story your grandfather told your mother of his childhood, and the first time she told it to you, you recognized the echo of every hero tale you were taught as a child. A Communist cadre till the end, your grandfather had run away at age sixteen to join the Party, which had given him the first full belly he had known. Just as important, the Party had taught him how to read, inspired the avidity with which he had marked up Mao’s Little Red Book: his cramped, inky annotations marching up and down the page like so many ants trooping through mountains.

The second time your mother told you the story, you were ten or eleven and she didn’t have to tell it at all. The two of you were at Staples, shopping for school supplies. “back-to-school sale,” the posters all over the store screamed. Four notebooks, four mechanical pencils, your mother had stipulated, but you wanted more. You always wanted more. When you persisted, she had only to look at you and utter the words “You have more than anyone” for you to know exactly whom she was referring to.

The story was growing inside you, just as it had grown in your mother: a cactus whose spines pierced their way through your thoughts.