XINGFU, CHINA — On Sunday, Liu Li received a simple Mother's Day present from her only child: a basket of red, pink and white carnations wrapped in purple rice paper. That afternoon, her 15-year-old boy returned to boarding school knowing he had made his mother the happiest woman in their village.
Liu and her husband never thought about defying China's one-child policy. They already had everything they could hope for in a son. Meng Hao was not only a good student and star athlete, he was even the tallest kid around.
On Wednesday, the Mother's Day flowers were still fresh in the family's living room, next to rows of certificates of merit from Hao's school years. But Liu's beloved boy was dead.
"When I heard he was gone, my whole body went numb," she said. "I felt the sky falling."
As the death toll rises from the worst earthquake to hit China in 30 years, Sichuan province has become a valley of sadness. Schools were among the most badly damaged buildings, and some of the most grief-stricken residents are parents who lost an only child.
Liu, 38, slumped Wednesday in a chair in a makeshift tent among the wheat fields here. Not only are parents mourning the loss of a cherished child; the next generation is expected to look after their parents in old age in a society where the safety net is disappearing. And many in Chinese society regard people in their late 30s and early 40s as too old to have another child.
In Sichuan, one of China's most populous provinces, the government's one-child policy is strictly enforced among poor farmers.
"I'd say 90% of the people around here have only one child," said Wang Xia, hugging her 5-year-old daughter close after finding the girl with big, round eyes and two long braids alive at her kindergarten. "It takes a lot of money to raise children -- we farmers have a hard time even supporting ourselves; how can we afford to pay fines to have more?"
The name of this town, Xingfu, means Happiness. But it has become a hell for parents who at first thought they had escaped the tragedy. When disaster struck Monday, Hao's parents raced to the nearby school and helped dig through the rubble.
First there was good news.
After being trapped under broken concrete for eight hours, Hao was rescued.
"He kept saying, 'I am OK, I want to go home,' " said his father, Meng Daoling, 44.
"When he was buried under all that debris, he told me he kept thinking of his parents. He held on for eight hours so he could see us again," said his mother, tears streaming down her face.
To their shock, a few hours after that brief reunion, their son died about an hour away at a hospital in Chengdu, where he had been rushed for treatment.
Like so many people here, Hao's parents had done everything they could to give him a good education. His father drives a tractor.
In addition to toiling in the family field, his mother works long hours at a factory making bottle caps.
Boarding school costs a bit more than regular school, but for many rural children, schools are too far for daily travel, so they live there.
"Everybody knew him," a villager said of Hao. "He was nearly 6 feet tall. He wanted to go to college and be a pilot."
One of Hao's schoolmates who escaped the falling building said he survived because his teacher told the students to run from the first-floor classroom when the magnitude 7.9 quake rocked the country.
"There were 66 students in our class. All but seven or eight made it out alive," said Ba Cong, 14.
He thinks he probably survived because he was in the second row. "I sat in the front because I am nearsighted. The people who didn't make it sat in the back."
Hao was in a third-floor classroom. Most of the students there were trapped.
"He told me his teacher told them, 'Don't run, duck,' " his mother said.
Parents say the school was built in the early 1990s -- old by Chinese standards -- and that students were to move into a new building next year.
Bitter villagers suspect shoddy construction is partly to blame for the catastrophe.
"Even our humble rural homes built by hand didn't collapse completely," said villager Gong Fuzhong. "How can a big school building collapse? Something is definitely wrong here."
Across an open field filled with makeshift shelters, another mother, Zheng Hongqun, 40, was so paralyzed by grief that she hadn't been able to get out of bed.
The body of her 15-year-old son, Wen Zheng, was pulled from the rubble about 24 hours after the earthquake.
"His father is a migrant worker far away in northeastern China so his son can have money to go to school," said neighbor Wang Xia. "We only told him he is still being rescued. We don't dare tell him the truth."
Outside their temporary shelter, a plastic tarp wrapped over sticks, Zheng's grandparents were surrounded by neighbors trying to distract them from the tragedy. It wasn't working.
"The child is gone. We can never see him again," Wen's silver-haired grandmother sobbed. "It should have been us."