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Several days after I sprained my ankle, my left foot still hurt. The ankle was swollen, and the bruises looked worse. Some turned greenish. My husband suggested using medicinal wine to reduce swelling. As soon as he kneaded my sprained ankle, I cried out in pain; he had to stop.

My ankle still hurt when my elder sister and her daughters came for a rare visit.

My sister’s 15-year-old daughter, Xing, wanted to go to the zoo, so my sister brought her to visit me in Guangzhou. She also brought her second daughter, Jiayi, who was 14.

We had dinner at home.

After drinking a glass of wine in one gulp, my sister said with a big smile, “After I sell the apartment to pay off the debt, I will begin anew.”

I wanted to yell, “Why make the same mistake?”

We were all against it when she decided to get married in her early twenties. Peng didn’t love her, but she believed he was the one.

Peng idled about while my sister ran three fashion stores to support the family. Although she eventually divorced, they were together again and fought all the time. A few years ago, she had an affair with a man named Chen. “Your father never cared about me, but Chen loves me,” she explained to Xing.

After that, the good-for-nothing Peng started a construction project and earned lots of money. He married a twenty-something college graduate, had a son, and bought an apartment and two cars. However, because of Covid-19, my sister lost her fashion stores. Persuaded by Chen, she ran a fruit store with him, yet they ended up deep in debt, and then they broke up, and she took on all the debts.

I understood why my sister would lower herself into dust; I also thought I had to prove my worth through self-sacrifice.

She drank and drank and started talking nonsense. Xing helped her into her room to rest.

When I was young, I promised my sister, “I will make it to college. You can leave with me.” We grew apart after she left home at 15. I blamed my mother for every misfortune that befell my sister, and I resented my sister for treating her daughters the way our mother had treated us. Seeing her so drunk in bed, I realized why I seldom contacted her; it would remind me of my failure. I thought I could protect her but never did.

Peng called. Xing’s little brother Wei went out with friends at night but was still not home after ten. He didn’t have a cellphone, and only my sister’s phone had his friend’s cellphone number. She slapped my sister hard, but she was too drunk to notice.

“Tell him you can’t wake your mother,” I told her.

“He will still blame me,” Xing replied.

I felt a hand tugging at my heart. It felt so familiar: Xing acted as a caregiver, and I also took on grown-up responsibilities while a child.

Wei came home after half past eleven. Jiayi said his brother was always the favorite; whatever he did, his family would forgive him.

I understood how she felt. When my sister discovered she was pregnant again with a daughter, she wanted an abortion. My mother strongly opposed it, fearing it would harm my sister’s health. She tried to give Jiayi away. When no one wanted the baby, she asked me. I wished I could have adopted Jiayi, but I had just graduated from college and couldn’t afford a baby. My sister gave Jiayi to her mother-in-law to raise.

I comforted her. “Your mother has changed. She realized she must bring you if she took Xing to the zoo.”

Xing said, “Because I always scold her and tell her to care for my sister.”

Jiayi said that once her mother made soup, she put chopsticks into it to see how hot it was. My sister slapped her and shouted, “This is rude!” She picked up a coat hanger and hit her. It was summer, and Jiayi wore shorts. My sister beat her until her arms and legs were stained with purplish-red blood as if they had been burned.

I saw myself in my sister and her two daughters, but I refused to see myself as a victim.

“Your grandmother beat us the same way. Your mother doesn’t hate you; she hates herself for being a daughter.” My eyes pricked with tears, but my voice sounded detached.

“She knows the pain of not being loved by her mother. Why would she inflict that pain on her daughter? I don’t understand.”

Neither did I, when I was young. I locked all the resentments in a dungeon and waged war against them after they transformed into beasts. I thought I had destroyed the beasts, but they returned to life the moment I felt Jiayi’s pain.

I shouldn’t empathize with her, because untouchable memories would come back and haunt me if I looked back. Neither could I save them. I couldn’t even get my sister to see what actually happened. After all, all parents love their children, and we needed this conviction to hold on.

So I didn’t tell her that although I resented my mother for beating us when my daughter knocked over a cup, I wanted to slap her. Whenever this impulse arose, I used all my strength to control it. I despised myself for being a horrible mother.

Breaking the cycle was so hard.

I gave two copies of Why Family Hurts to Xing and Jiayi the day they left. “This book was like salt in a wound when I first read it, but it helped me see through my rage and pain. If you want to discuss the book, I am available.”

Later that day, I asked my husband to rub my swollen ankle with medicinal wine. I told him to rub harder to disperse the blood stains. I clenched my teeth, but tears kept falling.

Pain was inevitable.

Huina Zheng: MA in English, essay coach, published writer (Pushcart Prize nominee), Guangzhou-based with family.