Agony From Afar

The world is a mess right now, but love endures.

by Dulce Zamora

August 29, 2020 — How do you go about the day when the world seems to be spinning out of control? In the U.S. alone, it’s been one doozy of a year. If you’ve ever binged on an action/drama T.V. show, you know what it’s like to take in several hours of disasters all at once. Lately, it feels like following the news has involved the same type of teeth clenching. This time, however, the killings, riots, protests, boycotts, and international power plays are not made up. Neither are the empty classrooms, long food lines, mass evictions, and swamped hospitals. This time, too, there don’t appear to be any Jack Bauers or Marvel Agents of Shield to save the day.

This week, a category 4 hurricane bore down on Louisiana and Texas, leaving a path of destruction. When I hear this, I think about a woman I met earlier this year. She and her entire family lost their homes when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast in 2005. That was a category 3 event with wind speeds as high as 120 mph (193 kmh). She said the experience taught her that material things don’t matter. People matter. That’s why, when she was leaving our Singapore neighborhood, she gave me most of her plants instead of selling them, even though she didn’t know me that well.

In California, the second and third biggest fires in state history have also upended lives of millions. A record-breaking dry storm with about 12,000 lightning strikes in three days sparked at least 600 different wildfires. The current toll of the almost two-week disaster: 7 dead, more than 2,500 scorched structures, around 500,000 people evacuated from their homes, and 1.6 million acres of torched land. Evacuees and people in neighboring towns have had to decide whether or not to shelter in, away from the hazardous air and falling ash; Or, to leave windows open coronavirus transmission. To make matters worse, rolling blackouts have plagued the state, with some people saying the electric power grid can’t meet the demand stemming from one of the worst heat wave in years. Other people say there’s no shortage of power — that something else is going on in the country’s most populous state.

The recent events in California have troubled me as it is where I grew up, and many of my close family and friends are there. How can I go merrily go about my day in Singapore when loved ones are suffering? It seems wrong to enjoy the fresh air, and to notice the cotton-like fluffiness of the clouds set against the azure sky. (The colors of the sky this year have been the most vibrant I have seen here.) It feels like a betrayal to my home state to walk my daughters to school with confidence that this Southeast Asian nation’s government and our school are doing their best to keep everyone safe. And, when my husband, Noel, and I toasted our 15th wedding anniversary last week, I felt a pang of guilt. How could we celebrate at time like this?

What absolutely gutted me was the recent conversation I had with my parents. Ever since the pandemic, Mom and Dad have been staying mostly at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. My brother, my sister, and their families regularly visit them, but their meetings have involved masks and social distancing outdoors. My parents remain on their patio while the rest of the family hangs out in the backyard. Since my brother and brother in law engage in frontline work, they’re careful about possibly exposing our parents, who belong to a vulnerable population. My parents also worry about possibly infecting their kids and grandkids after their appointments with different health care providers. Even though they’ve all seen each other, they haven’t had physical contact. Mom says she longs to kiss and hug her grandkids again. As it is, my daughters (which make up half of her grandkids) are halfway around the world in Singapore. We haven’t been able to visit our family because of travel restrictions.

I’ve been doing my best to hold down the fort. I have stayed strong to help my family manage the pandemic roller coaster. At times, though, when I’m all alone in the shower, the gravity of it all hits me. Then, the ugly crying starts. It happened when my other home, New York City, became the epicenter of the virus in March. It happened when Singapore went into lockdown (“circuit breaker”) mode in April, and I became a full-time instructional aide and tech support for my girls as they did virtual schooling. It happened when my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in May, and we couldn’t be there to wish them well in person. It happened in June, when I realized the kids would be home full time during the summer. (As much as I love them, the idea of being indoors with everyone for most of the day and night felt overwhelming. But, we all survived. )

I also wept when my niece got married in California in July. I always thought I’d be there for her wedding. In the same month, I sobbed when COVID cases spiked in the Bay Area again, and my friends and family had to go back to sheltering in place. That’s a lot of tears. And I’m not one to normally sob at weddings or at sad movies.

I wondered if this is what my parents felt during our first few years in the U.S., when political and economic turmoil rocked the Philippines. We left the islands in 1981. Two years later, in 1983, opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was gunned down upon his return to the Philippines following an exile in America. Government and military officials were widely considered to be suspects in the killing, sparking nationwide protests. To quell the unrest, longtime autocrat, President Ferdinand Marcos, called for a snap election, which he won against Ninoy’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino. Marcos’ victory was tainted by accusations of cheating, violence, and intimidation. Highly influential groups turned against him, including the Catholic church, the middle class, his own ministers, and the military. Then-U.S.-president Ronald Reagan convinced Marcos to leave his post peacefully. American helicopters transported the two-decade-ruler to Hawaii for exile.

I remember the day that Cory Aquino became the first female president of the Philippines. It was February 25, 1986 – the day I turned 15. We were living in Alameda, California. My parents woke us up when it was still dark outside. They were jubilant and loud, so relieved that the transfer of power had happened with little violence. I didn’t know it then, but the events following Ninoy’s death were challenging for them. They worried about the safety of loved ones. Plus, the peso had tanked with the chaos, and they saw the value of their savings dwindle.

It isn’t easy to love from afar. When things happen in the U.S., I worry. The country is far from perfect, but it is still my home. I care deeply about its wellbeing. But the Philippines is my home, too. And so is Singapore. Some people may think it’s absurd to have allegiance to so many nations, but, actually, for people who’ve moved around or who have loved ones in different places, they might just have an inkling of what it’s like to have your heart exposed and hung out to dry.

Right now, I wish we could hop on a plane and hug our families and friends in the U.S. I wish my parents could feel the sweet hugs and (slightly messy) kisses of their grandkids. I wish all countries would pool their collective brains and resources to beat the pandemic and all of the other natural disasters. It may be wishful thinking to tidy things up just like a made-for-TV movie, but I’ll gladly trade the depressing news with more optimism and a real effort to make humanity better again.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

Until we see each other again…. We love you!

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