It was Christmas morning, not the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, that broke me. My husband, Eric, his sister and I gathered around the fire in our home in Illinois, coffees in hand and cookies within arm’s reach. It had been the deadliest, most infectious month of the Covid-19 pandemic yet, as patients struggled to breathe in their hospital beds and raspily said goodbye to families through phone screens and window panes. Eric had suddenly lost his uncle to the virus a few weeks ago. So it was decided: We would spend Christmas away from the extended family, nestled in our tiny, tested bubble, and call into the celebrations while the rest of the family gathered with one another as they did most weekends, pandemic be damned.
I knew the routine from the past few years. On Christmas morning, Eric’s parents’ quiet country home became a cacophony of dogs barking, children yelling and footsteps reverberating on the hardwood floors. One of the kids would “accidentally” let a chicken or a goat into the house, and the adults would be speaking to one another in the only two modes that got the job done: loud or louder.
Sure enough, as we crowded around the phone screen, a tapestry of voices met us. The kids were opening presents ― baby Yodas and coloring books this year. Henry, our sweet rapscallion of a nephew, stood near the camera and alternately narrated the bounty and made faces at us. We made faces back. I told him I loved him and missed him. It was always easier to be tender with the children than with the grown-ups in Eric’s family. For the adults, growing up in a chaotic family of seven meant that each of them carried a history of not being heard or seen. It made them insist they were right without listening, react strongly to the smallest triggers and point fingers at one another in blame. I always braced myself before a visit.
It was the grown-ups’ turn for presents. Tradition was to do a swap-or-steal gift exchange. I watched as my...