From 9/11 to the Pandemic: Trauma & Seedlings of Hope

When my 13 year old was tagged with a tracking device, I experienced the same sinking feeling that I did on the morning of September 11: I knew the world would never be the same.

By Dulce Zamora

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a 30-year-old single woman and journalist living in Lower Manhattan, a five minute walk from the World Trade Center. I witnessed the second plane ram into the South Tower firsthand, feeling the heat of the explosion on my face. It was at that moment that a part of me left my body. In my mind, I saw myself as a character in a disaster movie. Surely, none of it was real. The people jumping out of the burning buildings weren’t real. The collapsing skyscrapers and ensuing colossal smoke that enveloped the structures around me weren’t real. The uneasy feeling that we had entered a different world wasn’t real. Of course, the detachment was my body’s way of dealing with shock and anguish. I applied it in the equally surreal years that followed. Yet, people who’ve experienced trauma know that the aftermath can be a minefield. Everything is fine and then boom! The buried wounds burst at the seams of normality.

For me, the hauntings used to come in middle-of-the night screams that woke up friends during group vacations. Then, nighttime drives through tranquil streets sometimes began to evoke fear. I imagined cars careening from blind corners, violently slamming into mine. Before the pandemic, when I traveled to places like Australia or Vietnam, strangers caught me off guard with their 9/11 stories, particularly if they found out I lived in New York.

At times, I still cry when my husband, Noel, leaves the house. The voices of 9/11 widows that I interviewed for news stories continue to echo in my ear. Their words have affected so much of my thoughts and actions the last few years. The women said things like, “He walked out the door as he did every morning, but I didn’t know it would be the last time,” “I’ll never get to hold him again,” and “My child won’t know what it’s like to have his father around.”

In the recovery process, I learned to drum up courage, to honor my authentic self, and to cease the day. Each of these things were muscles that I trained to flex. It’s been a constant practice to keep them in top shape, but knowing that I own them always helps me get back on track when I stray from my dreams or get too busy. As a result, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks, my life has been filled with love, joy, prosperity, and adventure. Yet, it is misleading to say this is a happy ever after story, especially when I’m currently in the middle of a trying time.

I am now a 50-year-old expat mother of two under official quarantine in Singapore during the coronavirus pandemic. My 13-year-old daughter, Sienna, received an official government order to isolate herself after one of her high school teachers got COVID. The quarantine order (QO) said: “Non-compliance is a serious offense under the Infectious Diseases Act, carrying a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to 6 months’ jail.”

We have been in Singapore long enough to know this is serious. In 2007, Noel’s company assigned him to a post here. It was only supposed to be a two year gig, but we enjoyed our time in the Lion City and loved the ease of travel around the region. So, we signed up for another few years. We started a family here: I gave birth to Sienna and Jasmine even before the doors opened at the nation’s most iconic sites such as Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands, The Singapore Flyer, and Resorts World in Sentosa. We left the country for three years to live in my hometown of Alameda, California, but we returned to the city-state in 2018. Noel secured another job in the region.

We’ve weathered the pandemic here, always wearing masks and curtailing our social activities even when restrictions eased to permit groups of up to eight people. We did not want to get the virus and especially feared the prospect of quarantine. Without our closest family and friends around, we were afraid of being separated. What would happen if Noel and I got sick? Who would take care of the kids? Here, COVID cases and their close contacts have either been taken to the hospital or to a dedicated facility. Some people generously agreed to house them after they cleared the 14-day exposure period, but, still, it’s an unnerving thought for kids to be separated from their parents.

When we first received Sienna’s quarantine order, we did not know whether she could isolate in a room of our house or if she would be sent to a facility. We did not know for sure whether a parent could accompany her — although I had read news stories about parents isolating with their small children at dedicated facilities. Sienna is 13 years old. When it was time for her to get vaccinated, I had heard from other parents of teens that some vaccination centers do not allow companions to reduce crowds. I combed the forums to find out which centers to avoid and scheduled her appointment at a place that I had hoped would allow me inside. The place I chose did let me enter and witness the injection, but I had to wait outside during the mandatory 30-minute monitoring period.

With my daughter’s QO, I steeled myself, ready to battle in case they told us I wasn’t able to come with her to a facility. I hadn’t heard of any teens having to quarantine by themselves, but there has been so much uncertainty and hearsay lately that I mentally prepared myself for whatever came ahead.

Fortunately, Singapore just rolled out a home pilot program, which meant Sienna, who is fully vaccinated, could serve her QO in a dedicated room of our house. The isolation period also just decreased from 14 days to 10, which was a real blessing because, otherwise, she’d be looking at spending her 14th birthday in quarantine. We also breathed a sigh of relief when we found out that I, as her designated caregiver, could accompany her inside. I signed a stay order, which meant I couldn’t leave the room either, effectively physically cutting Sienna and me off from Noel and Jasmine.

To make sure we follow the rules, a Ministry of Health (MOH) official fastened a monitoring bracelet on Sienna’s wrist. The bracelet is tethered to a device that’s plugged into an electric outlet in the room. My assigned task: to keep a phone app running on my phone at all times. I use the app to submit required selfies of us and to record Sienna’s temperature and symptoms, if any, three times a day. On top of that, we also receive random video calls and phone calls from the Ministry. They check our surroundings and our GPS location.

At the beginning of the quarantine, medical personnel also came in full PPE to administer the ART (Antigen Rapid Test) on Sienna. The result was negative, meaning she was COVID free. She also took a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test, but those results are still pending. It usually only takes a day or two to get results, but the system is overloaded because of the surge in cases. Last week, there were 20-30 new cases a day. This week, the new case load is between 700-800 per day. Until we get a negative PCR test for Sienna, Jasmine cannot go back to school. I’ve been on the phone a lot with MOH and various Ministry contractors to get the PCR results. Everyone has been nice and say they will escalate the case, but we’re still waiting.

So far so good, though, for I’ve tested Sienna with ART kits every morning, as instructed, and all of the results have been negative. I think the good news is that Sienna’s PCR is likely negative. If it was positive, I’m sure MOH officials would be here right away.

It’s hard to say when a part of me left my body this time, because there have been so many instances in the last year and a half when it felt like we had entered a different dimension. The wounds do burst out more freely now. I flinched when I saw my sweet girl tagged with a tracking device. Even though it was not my idea to do it and I understand why it’s done, I am so furious at myself for acting like it’s fine. I act okay because I would like to spare my daughter from any possible trauma. I would like to assure her that Mama is here to take care of her. Yet, even as I say that, I taste the hypocrisy of the words in my mouth and feel powerless to change the situation. I’m torn between the need to do our part for public safety and my gut feeling that this isn’t right. Why do I feel so conflicted about something that is basically a modern day digital babysitter? I guess one could say having a monitoring device is better than being at a dedicated quarantine facility. I wonder, though, if she’d still have to wear the bracelet if we were not at home. I don’t want to find out.

I feel equally anguished that I cannot hug Jasmine as she misses her sister and me. We, her immediate family, have been her constant companions during the pandemic, especially when friends have not been readily available for play dates and loved ones are no longer an easy plane ride away due to border restrictions. We have alleviated the circumstances by video calling with each other all the time. Thank goodness for technology! Of course this has meant forgoing screen time limits and restrictions of devices in rooms. Every night, we’ve said our virtual good nights and I love yous. I stay on the call with her until she is asleep. This soothes the loss of physical contact a little bit. Noel then removes the phone and checks in on her throughout the night.

Of course, Jasmine has Daddy. He keeps her company and does his best to make her laugh. He offers ice cream and other treats. He also tucks her into bed. He has been a wonderful father and partner. On some days, he cooks and bakes delicious meals for us. Plus, he fetches what Sienna and I need and leaves it at our door. He does all this while also working from home.

Surviving Hard Times

These are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures. Worldwide, more than 200 million people have fallen ill with COVID-19 and more than four and a half million people have died. All countries have struggled to contain the virus, to live with it and to balance public safety with other considerations. There is no easy victory in this war against the virus and its variants. If governments are too strict with pandemic measures, businesses suffer and people lose their livelihoods. Their mental health suffers too. If economies are prioritized, public safety takes a hit, which affects mental health as well. I’d like to think most leaders are trying their best to balance various factors. Their jobs aren’t easy. It’s hard to please everyone.

At the same time, I wonder what policies and measures will stay with people. Our minds may want to forget uncomfortable things but our hearts and bodies will make it hard to forget. I learned that from my 9/11 experience.

Sienna tells her friends on a video chat that she is being watched. She jokes that she has a tracking device just like Antman did when he was under house arrest in the eponymous movie. How much of that will stay with her? What lesson will she learn from this?

What about Jasmine? How will this affect her? Before this, we worked so hard to ease the girls’ sense of loss during the pandemic. They have sorely missed cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles in the States. We normally see them every summer or winter break, but we have not visited in nearly two years because of border restrictions. Without family here, we turn to friends to fill the void. With many of those folks refusing playdates because of the pandemic, we’ve had to rely on each other for company.

When we share this QO experience with some family and friends, there are people who say we are lucky that authorities in Singapore have prioritized public health matters. They express feeling unsafe where they are because there are not enough protections in place. Others say we are lucky that the government does not send the sick and those exposed to military camps, as other countries have done.

We know our good fortune. In Singapore, 81% of the population has been fully vaccinated. As of September 15, the Ministry of Health reports that there are 809 COVID-19 cases warded in the hospital, 75 cases of serious illness requiring oxygen supplementation, and 9 cases in the ICU. In a country of 5.7 million people, 58 people have died of the virus. Those are remarkable stats. Singapore has been spared the worst of the pandemic, thanks to policies and measures implemented by government officials during the crisis. However, there is also a real cost to mental health and quality of life. I don’t think any country is getting out of this ordeal unscathed.

Despite all that has happened, I will do everything in my power to support my family. We’ve all helped each other the best we can. Noel and Jasmine have been helping Sienna and me get things we need around the house. They prepare snacks and treats for us and leave surprises at our door. Jasmine makes us laugh with funny videos and silly screen filters. The girls also do their schoolwork independently, keeping in touch with their teachers, which is a big relief for me.

Once, I shared the story of the September 11 Survivor Tree with the girls. One month after the 2001 disaster, rescue workers at Ground Zero found a callery pear tree buried underneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. Even though the tree suffered bad burns and lacerations, there were some signs of life. Arborists at the Parks Department in the Bronx adopted it and nursed it back health. Now, the tree stands tall, albeit scarred and mangled, in its old grounds, surrounded by tributes to the September 11 victims and emergency workers. According to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the tree has grown from eight feet to 30 feet tall. It has continued to sprout new branches and flowers in the spring. Not only that, its seedlings have been planted in different places in the U.S. and around the world, particularly in places where tragedies have occurred. The Survivor Tree has become a symbol of resilience and hope.

In 2019, when I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York, I brought back a pendant of the Survivor Tree for my daughters. I told them I was just like the Survivor tree, bruised and beaten, but still standing, full of promise and zest for life. I see Sienna and Jasmine as my branches — strong and resilient. Despite the wounds, we are still alive. We still do our best. We still choose love. We also try to extend our grace to the world around us. We are all trying our best.

I pray that our words and actions in trying times will propagate seedlings of love, respect, compassion, peace, and hope. Perhaps twenty years from now, when we reflect on the pandemic, we will recall not only the hardships but also our valiant efforts to make this world a better place.

© 2021 Windswept Wildflower

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