The Siren Song of Summer

Family fun in the sun beckons, but danger lurks in the shadows.

By Dulce Zamora

Normally, around this time, my daughters and I prepare to make the 18-hour flight from Singapore to the U.S. We spend two and a half months in both California and New York, reconnecting with family and friends. My husband joins us for a couple of weeks when he’s on vacation. It was his job that brought us to Southeast Asia. The decision to live here was not an easy one, but was made more bearable knowing we’d get to go home during the 10-week school break.

For the second summer in a row, however, we are not going to see loved ones. Singapore has experienced a resurgence of the virus since May, spurred on by variants. The government quickly announced a slew of restrictions, including sending older students home for virtual learning, having restaurants open only for takeaway, and shutting down fitness facilities. Officials also closed the border to foreigners until further notice. My family and I do not have Singaporean citizenship or permanent residency. This means, if we leave the country, we will likely not get approval for return anytime soon. Since my husband’s job is here right now, leaving for an indefinite period is not an option.

For now, all we can do is cherish the memories. The last summer we spent in the San Francisco Bay Area, we rented a loft cabin in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains with my parents, siblings, and their families. That week, we picked strawberries at a local farm. Harvesting berries has become somewhat of a family tradition. We enjoy meandering through vivid green patches, helping the kids search for ruby fruit. There’s also something magical about being in a field that is nestled between majestic redwood forests and the rugged Pacific Ocean.

After plucking too many strawberries, we placed the yield on the large kitchen island of our cabin. We brainstormed, then simultaneously made dinner and prepared berry-inspired treats. While some people grilled fish, barbecue ribs, and assorted veggies, others made puffed strawberry tarts, berry-pomegranate popsicles, and strawberry sorbet. Sweet and savory scents wafted throughout the house. The jukebox in the corner of the living room blasted classic tunes. Some singing and dancing happened. Hot-tubbing happened. The kids’ nighttime baths happened.

The scene at the cabin repeated itself, except the entrees and activities varied. One morning, my then 10-year-old daughter, Jasmine, whipped up custom-made omelettes for everyone. Another day, we all made pizza and pasta from scratch. There were more strawberries, so my then-12-year-old girl, Sienna, baked berry muffins. We also toasted marshmallows and assembled marvelously messy s’mores. Sometimes, Sienna played the piano. Other times, Jasmine or my brother in law strummed the ukulele. The kids read, drew, and painted. My parents gleefully soaked in all the action.

There were plenty of chances to work off the food. The kids bounced on the trampoline and tried different stunts on the swings. The men had a wood-chopping competition, but they were no match for the cabin’s muscular caretaker. (Sorry, guys!) We all hiked the nearby forest and found sunlit streams, gnarly roots, mossy carpet, and heaps of wildflowers. The landscape had an ethereal quality, boosting all of our moods.

Nothing is magical about family vacations, though. They’re a lot of work! The kids brought in a lot of dirt from outside. There were some fights and tantrums and lots of soiled dishes and laundry. However, we all pitched in, did our best, and came out of it with full hearts, already planning the next year’s gathering.

The reunion never happened.

In the summer of 2020, we were in four different homes, in opposite sides of the globe, sheltering from the coronavirus. Through video calls, we dined together, played games, sang, and danced. Yet, it wasn’t the same. The kids could no longer follow each other around. There was no group sleepover. No smelling and tasting of homemade treats. No wood chopping. No strawberry picking. No kissing and hugging. We could see and hear each other on the screen, but the experience was stripped of smell, taste, and touch.

The circumstances weren’t ideal, but we soldiered on for a year. We each did our part to ease the crush of the pandemic. We mostly stayed home, distanced ourselves from others, masked up, and the adults got vaccinated. We did what was in our power to make getting together happen. It wasn’t enough.

This year’s reunion is not happening. Again.

While the U.S. is easing restrictions, Singapore has tightened them. While stateside friends are posting in-person reunions and graduations on social media, my daughters and I haven’t left the house in the last couple of weeks, except for essentials. Even my daughters’ 5th and 8th grade celebrations were low-key affairs, held online.

We’ve accepted the situation, knowing there’s nothing we can do about it — but, it hasn’t been easy. On the first full day of school vacation, my girls and I fought a lot about how the summer was going to go. Not only did we have to figure out how to fill the next two months, we were also grieving lost moments with family and friends. Two years apart is a long time for kids. We’ve already missed so many milestones. How many more will we lose out on before finally meet up?

Our hearts still yearn for loved ones, but, there is also a hole so vast that it threatens to engulf precious memories. At times, we don’t know whether keeping in touch helps or hurts. We’re happy to see each other online, but when we hang up, the tears flow. It is so heart-wrenching that the kids sometimes refuse to participate.

Personally, I’ve done the ugly crying in the bathroom, even though I’m a 50-year-old woman with years of experience building up resilience muscles. I am used to uncertainty, having lived and traveled in several U.S. cities and other countries where I knew no one at the start.

This pandemic feels more than just another unpredictable period.

I’m also a 9/11 survivor. I recognize trauma, and, as cliché as it sounds, what’s happening now feels more like that. It’s not the initial strike that scorches morale. It’s the slow burn that quietly consumes the spirit. In 2001, the attack on the World Trade Center was horrifying to witness. Just as distressing, however, were the events that followed in the days, months, and years after the disaster. Months later, I continued to wear a face mask inside my apartment to avoid breathing in the soot from the smoldering towers down the street. Years later, I was still trying to regain peace of mind and money lost during that dark, uncertain phase. Even today, I battle with the demons unleashed in that era.

People tell me to lighten up and look at the bright side: At least we are safe. At least Singapore is doing something about the virus. At least, we are immunized. All of that is true. It is also true that we feel grief. It is sorrow that I share with millions, if not billions, of humans around the globe. Many of us are hurting right now. Acknowledging it feels better than dismissing it for the sake of positivity.

It doesn’t help to see news articles and comments stating that the worst of the pandemic is over. It’s not for me or for most people in the world. Right now it’s a real privilege to be able to meet and hug people. And I’m an American living in Singapore. Both of these affiliations are with wealthy countries rolling out robust vaccination drives. What happens to the folks whose nations don’t have as many resources? It may be years before they reconnect with their kin.

During our last summer in California, we went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The kids enjoyed the games, rides, and ice cream. The adults appreciated the sunny beach carnival atmosphere. It was a beautiful day. While there, I noticed a plaque about the boardwalk’s history. Since 1907, locals and tourists have flocked to the area to enjoy the scene. There are long-loved places like this all over the world, where family and friends come to walk, talk, and share treats. How many of these haunts are deserted right now?

I realize that it is important to celebrate blessings. We have all experienced the harrowing effects of the virus. No one should feel bad about being free from it. All the same, there are others left behind who see the same brilliant sunlight but still cannot come out of the shadows of the pandemic.

One day, I too would like to embrace my family, cook with them, laugh with them, commiserate with them, and enjoy the sunshine with them. When I say that, I hear the chorus of a billion wishes. Maybe, one day, our voices will be heard.

© 2021 Windswept Wildflower

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