Protection, The Ultimate Love Language

It's in short supply.

Protection, The Ultimate Love Language
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

My daughter's birthday is coming up.

So I've been thinking a lot about family. I've been thinking about the family who won't take disease precautions, no matter how many times we ask them. It's the same family who stayed with a sick, anti-vaxxer uncle on the way to the last birthday party. It's the family who made fun of my Corsi-Rosenthal box. (My mother-in-law called it "cute.") They share food and drink with each other. They tried to donate the air purifier I gave them to their church. They lost the N95 masks I sent them one year. Some of them said they would never get an mRNA shot, but they didn't get Novavax when it came out either. They soft peddle widely debunked myths like immunity debt. Finally, they gave me Covid, which resulted in a fungal infection and a $1,000 hospital bill.

This is the family my spouse can't quit. Every six months, he feels compelled to drag us across the country to visit them. For the last three years, we've watched them get more and more careless. Last winter, my mother-in-law told us she thinks I have anxiety issues, and we should trust God more.

"Science will always fail you," she said.

Those were the words she used, after giving her entire family Covid. Then she ran to her doctor for a Paxlovid prescription for herself, conveniently forgetting the rest of us weren't eligible.

Science didn't fail her.

It saved her.

Science has always been there for my mother-in-law. It gave her air conditioning. It gave her the freezer section at her grocery store. It gave her roads and bridges to drive on. It gave her the hospitals that cared for her family during everything from heart attacks to C-sections. It gave her the phones and tablets she uses to stay in touch with her loved ones. She takes it all for granted. She spent most of her life voting against it, secretly crying at night because her family wasn't godly enough. (Yes, she really said that.) Now science and public health are falling apart, and she posts memes about doomers.

That's the family my spouse wants us to visit, in the middle of another Covid wave, during an unprecedented global resurgence of other diseases, on the eve of a bird flu pandemic that could start next year or next week. None of this is imagined. It's happening, widely documented, widely minimized. If that weren't enough, we now have to drive through an entire state that has made it legal for anyone to ask us to remove our medical masks for "identification."

This is the worst summer yet to plan a family gathering. Every year, precautions become more important. Ironically, everyone we know wants to cooperate less and less.

I'm trying to find a way to say no.

It's not okay.

It might be okay if we could trust our family to wear respirators, do tests upon arrival, and follow basic instructions. Time and again, they've demonstrated they won't. They politely disregard most of our requests, even when they pretend to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. It shreds my mental health.

My mother-in-law is right about one thing. I have anxiety. My anxiety has nothing to do with a virus. It has everything to do with human behavior. I've been trying to spoonfeed grown adults science and public health for more than four years. During that time, they've gone to movie theaters and restaurants during the worst surges. They've gotten sick and spread disease.

They've watched friends die.

It changes nothing.

Maybe you know what it's like to make endless accommodations for a family who frames your needs as an afterthought. Maybe you get it, even if you're not among the Covid cautious. In the before times, it was possible to tolerate your intolerant family. You could steer around topics that triggered their bigotry. When they flaunted their ignorance and hate, you could remain silent. If it became overwhelming, you could excuse yourself.

Millions of sons and daughters out there have sacrificed jobs, careers, relationships, and even their own dietary habits in order to please and accommodate their families.

When is it enough?

There's a story about my spouse's grandmother. One holiday, she shoved a relative's pregnant girlfriend into a back hallway to keep her out of the family photo. She did it because they weren't married yet. For my extended family, it's all about photographs and perfect memories.

It doesn't matter how you get there.

It doesn't matter who you hurt.

These mementos only declare their selfishness. When they weren't smiling for photographs, my spouse's grandmother was often shaming everyone in her family for not visiting her enough. When my sister-in-law moved in with her, to take care of her in her final months, she spent most of the day complaining about feminism and wokeness. She criticized my sister-in-law's parenting.

And her cooking.

My extended family has a long, long tradition of disregarding and transgressing boundaries, showing up at your house or even letting themselves inside unannounced. My sister-in-law often found her aunt and cousin just sitting at the kitchen table some mornings, as if they lived there. When she complained, everyone told her she would just have to deal with it. The house once belonged to her grandmother, the one she spent a full year providing free hospice care for, so they felt entitled. You were supposed to understand where they were coming from. You were supposed to cut them some slack.

My sister-in-law gave up.

She moved.

In the age of resurgent disease, with vaccine rates plummeting and public health officials constantly shirking their duties, I'm not sure I can tolerate my family's intolerance any longer. There's more at stake than a difference of opinion. You can't just get up and walk away offended.

You might walk away infected.

For the last two years, we've tried to find ways to plan safe events without "asking too much" from our relatives. We've gone out of our way to ensure they were comfortable and happy.

I've paid the price.

I've learned something. Mitigations don't work if nobody follows them. It doesn't matter how many air purifiers and UV lights you have if the people there don't care about protecting each other. You can't even make them swab their nose properly if they don't see the point in doing it.

You can't idiot proof a pandemic.

My dad didn't give up smoking until severe coughing fits forced him to quit. By then, his habit had caused untold amounts of damage to his lungs and probably sabotaged my immune system.

My spouse still won't stay in my dad's house overnight, especially not with our child. Decades of cigarette smoke have turned it into a biohazard. Our first stay, the lingering tobacco gave him a sore throat and clogged his sinuses. I can't blame him. Since then, a pandemic has only underscored the need for clean air and ventilation. If we can't stay at my dad's house because of the lingering smoke, then I don't see how we can spend time with a family at large who will always treat our precautions as an overreaction.

My dad also used to believe climate change was a hoax.

Now he doesn't even talk about it.

My family says they care about us and our mental health. I'm not sure they do. Caring about someone doesn't mean engineering photos and perfect memories while shoving things you don't like into a hallway. It doesn't mean pressuring someone into making you happy, and it doesn't mean doing things just to make them happy. It means doing things to keep them healthy and safe, even if it's thankless, even if they despise you for it.

Almost everyone knows about Gary Chapman's five love languages. I wonder where he would include protection, maybe as an act of service. Lately, I think of it as a separate love language, worthy of its own special category.

My family has often smirked or rolled their eyes at me for storing water, investing in a solar backup system, building Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, and putting together bugout bags. Over the last two years, we've wound up needing them all.

Protecting someone is a love language.

It's the most important one.

This love language is the most thankless one. It often gets us ridiculed or excluded. It's also the one where our friends and family often fail us the most. We don't feel loved or cared for when our families say kind words of affirmation when those words carry pathogens that can disable or kill us.

We live in a strange world, one where saying "I love you" can ruin someone's life. In that world, it's far more important to say that through a mask, or even a screen.

Like millions of others, I've struggled to understand my relationship with my family, especially over the last few years. Now I get it. No matter what else they've done, my family has always failed to make me feel safe and protected.

That's the problem.

Our cultural and political institutions are now conditioning us to do the opposite of protecting each other, putting each other in harm's way in order to enjoy each other's company. It's not working, either, because you can't feel close to someone who doesn't care about you.

You can only pretend.

You don't have to pretend to love someone in order to escape the terror of solitude. You don't have to love the family you were born with. You don't owe them anything if they won't bother to protect you.

You don't have to tolerate relatives who see your love language, those acts of service and protection, as a burden.

You can make a new family.

Some of us are making families out of shared ideas. Those families can exist across time and space, through social media or even just newsletters and discussion boards. We're learning something important. You don't have to spend time with anyone who doesn't care about you.

I'm not going to let my old family threaten my new one.

I'm going to protect them.

We protect each other.

That's love.

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