It was a surreal morning. Although everything looked the same, from the lights twinkling on the tree to every stocking stuffer meticulously wrapped, the once cozy living room felt empty and cold.

Attempting to affirm this Christmas wouldn’t be different from any other, I ran into my parent’s bedroom, eager to wake my mother up and begin the unwrapping! I swung the door open, flew on my parents bed, and as if I saw Medusa, was frozen by the image of my mother sleeping alone. She was resting for the first time in what seemed like months.

Every other Christmas this didn’t faze me; I poked her repetitively until my father, only half asleep, would order me to leave my mother alone. Then I would poke him, and the cycle continued for about an hour. Finally they would let me open my stocking, in secret, but warned me to not say anything about the knickknacks I received, as Santa gave my sisters similar ones.

Despite this, like clockwork, when my sisters sat down to open their stockings I could never help but blurt out things like, “IT’S A PACK OF CHAPSTICK!” Or, “IT’S PERFUME!” as they opened their little wrapped mysteries. My father would shoot me a look that said something to the effect of “I love you, but you’re annoying.”

He wasn’t there to admonish or entertain me this year. I paused and thought about him, wondering what he’d be having for breakfast while the rest of us would eat our annual Christmas morning Eggs Benedict. I wished I could call.

Instead of being a spoiled badger I slipped under the covers and laid quietly for an hour or two, holding my mother’s hand as she slept, and preparing myself for any other anomalies I might encounter this Christmas.

When I was sufficiently braced I tiptoed out of my mothers room to wake my two older sisters. That, thankfully, was the same. I went back and forth between the two bedrooms, creaking open and noisily closing their doors to “check” if they were awake yet.

When my movements interrupted their slumber I seized the opportunity, “Oh, you’re up? …Weird, it’s early for you… Want to open stockings…?”

They knew my actions were calculated, but they appeased me nonetheless.

When we were all finally awake and waiting under the tree, my mother was in the kitchen making coffee. At this point in the morning my father would warn us not to open a single present until my mom was in the room and comfortably situated. I tore one little piece of wrapping paper, just to take a peak, and my eldest sister acted as though I had sinned in the highest form.

“Don’t,” She snipped.

I rolled my eyes and started nibbling on the chocolate from my stocking with no regard to the fact it was 8:00AM.

Finally, my mother arrived and we started opening gifts. Christmas music was playing in the background and it started to feel normal. This is Christmas; this is our family; look how much for which we have to be grateful.

The phone rang. My father wished us a Merry Christmas one by one, making each of us promise to take pictures opening every gift, memorializing the morning.

I distinctly recall being on the phone when my sister opened a gift she was particularly excited about, and my father asked, “What! What did she open? What is it?” And the normalcy vanished. I couldn’t explain what it was quick enough or well enough for him to be satisfied, and the disappointment was transparent in his voice.

We passed the phone around for a while, but then he told us the other inmates wanted to call their families, too. He ate pancakes that morning.