It's a tragedy that evokes a queasy stomach in me to recall: A gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, and slaughtered 20 first-graders and six educators.

Just as with 9/11, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news: I started my late-morning routine of checking my text messages before even getting out of bed. I had a message from a news service that was the initial bearer of bad news. I saw it had happened in Connecticut, and something told me I probably would be traveling there to assist in coverage of the tragedy.

I arrived at The Eagle on the morning of Dec. 14, a Friday, and hadn't even dropped my computer bag when Managing Editor Kevin Moran asked if I could spend the weekend reporting to the New Haven Register, one of our sister papers.

I knew it was something I had to do. My initial weekend plans of spirits and shopping and concert-going in Boston quickly dissolved. My journalistic mindset kicked in. Reporter Jenn Smith and I packed our bags and headed south to cover the story.

Only when I saw the "Welcome to Newtown" sign did it all seem real. This actually happened. Someone really murdered these innocent people. I no longer saw the coverage plastered across websites and TV monitors. I was face to tear-stained face with the friends and families of the victims. People lost sight of who they were in their grief and became vessels for the rawest of human emotions: sadness.

I covered a candlelight vigil for Victoria Soto, the teacher who died protecting her students. Her pal from high school mustered the voice to recall their days together at Stratford High School in Connecticut. I heard the Soto family's howls of sadness from the other side of the vigil, their faces buried in each other's coats doing little to muffle their hurt.

I had a roommate the first two nights at a hotel in New Haven. Most of the staff was then moved to Southbury, about 10 minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary. There, we all were assigned our own rooms. That night was the first time I was alone and was forced to deflate with my thoughts.

I saw a tight-knit community stand behind families in shambles. I thought of my own family and friends in my hometown of Greenwood, Ind., a growing little city just south of Indianapolis.

I hadn't talked with most of my family, especially my mother, for almost all year for reasons too personal to get into. But I superimposed my parents and grandparents into the image I conjured in my head of the families waiting to hear from their children, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

The fact that my mother had lost her eyesight 10 years ago when I was 14 made the image of her waiting for her three boys so much more heartbreaking for me. What if something happened where I hadn't talked to my mother again?

I returned to the Berkshires from Southbury three days later to find out that I had an upcoming four-day holiday that encompassed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I booked my flight, and for the first time since August, I was back in central Indiana.

I made everyone stay mum about my homecoming as to surprise my brothers and mother. I saw many of my Greenwood friends at a dinner party I hosted, regaling each other with stories of where life had taken us in our early 20s. That's where I surprised my younger brother, Dustin.

I stayed with my grandparents until the extended family Christmas dinner that Sunday, where I surprised Mom as soon as she walked in, my grandfather helping to guide her in. She had no idea her oldest son was returning home for Christmas. She didn't even recognize my voice at first. After a year of not talking, any animosity or hurt feelings between us went away the second I heard her excitement.

Christmas morning I was cocooned in my blanket as I sat with my family on the living-room floor of their apartment. Dustin and his girlfriend exchanged their gifts. Jay, my youngest brother, unfurled a new Xbox. The family dogs were delighted to play with their new favorite toys: tennis balls tied inside old socks.

And I thought of the Newtown community that I had become part of during the tragedy. I thought of 6-year-old Jessica Rekos, who asked Santa Claus to bring her a new pair of cowgirl boots and a cowgirl hat. I thought of Rachel D'Avino, a 29-year-old teacher's aide at Sandy Hook, whose best friend was going to propose to her on Christmas Eve. After a year of contention with my family, I have grown to realize that no Christmas miracle is sweeter than having family with you.

Unspeakable horrors visited Newtown on Dec. 14, and they could have happened anywhere. That could have been my mother, my father, my brothers, my grandparents or my friends. I realized how lucky I was to hug them and laugh with them that day - and I'll never take them for granted again.

To reach Adam Poulisse: (413) 496-6214, or apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com. On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse