Mothers on the Front Lines
In Jerusalem Bomb Shelter, ‘Our Eyes Express Silently How Scared We Are for Our Children.’
Here’s a scene from my life last week: It’s 9:30 pm. I’m lying on my bed, fully dressed, talking to my husband, who is ready for bed. We weren’t supposed to be here tonight; we were supposed to be in the Galilee, in a beautiful cabin with its own private pool and Jacuzzi, with a massage chair in the bedroom and a hammock rocking gently in the garden outside. We escape there once a year, without the kids. It’s an oasis of calm and relaxation and peacefulness.
We’ve been looking forward to our getaway for a year. We were supposed to leave this morning, but last night rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv. We live in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, and we haven’t yet been
attacked, but there’s always a first time, so how can we leave our boys? What if it happens while we’re away? My mother-in-law is baby-sitting, and competent as she is, she’s never lived here through sirens. The building’s shelter is not far, just eight steps down, and across the hallway, but still.
We kept on planning our trip through the waiting and praying to find out if Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel — the three teens kidnapped in the West Bank — were alive, and through the grieving when we found out that they were murdered. We kept on planning after Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian, was brutally murdered, in an alleged revenge attack by Israelis. We kept planning even as riots spread through our city.
But once the rockets started falling, we had to cancel. It’s not just the actual danger; it’s the trauma. We can’t leave our 5-year-old to process having to run to a shelter without us around. So we’re lying here, talking.
I’m on edge. We know what the plan is: I’ll grab the baby; my husband will grab our 5-year-old. I’m desperately tired — our little one has been teething, and our big one has been having nightmares and we’ve had quite a few interrupted nights of sleep — but I’m scared to go to sleep, because I worry I might not hear the siren. Usually we keep our window closed against the din from noisy neighbors, but now we have it open so that we can hear better.
A siren wails. We fall silent, look at each other and spring into action. My husband reminds me not to worry — we have 90 seconds. I run to the baby’s room, open the door softly and gently pick him up. He stirs, wakes. I soothe him while hurrying for the front door. My husband is carrying our groggy 5-year-old, reassuring him. We grab our phones and head for the shelter. The last time I had to do this, I was seven months pregnant with the toddler I am now carrying in my arms.
We’re not the first family into the shelter; one neighbor is there already. I sit down on a couch, still holding my son, who is calm. I’m shaking. I’m also glad I’m still dressed. More neighbors turn up. I hear a distant boom. I don’t recognize one of the families entering the shelter. It turns out they are staying in their friends’ rental apartment upstairs. The mom is Finnish, a dentist, volunteering here for a week. The dad speaks and I hear a familiar accent. It turns out he’s a fellow Brit. Their three blond kids seem calm, sitting on chairs in their underwear, clearly having been roused from their beds. Not quite the vacation they had been expecting. The mom and I exchange reassuring words, while our eyes express, silently, how scared we are for our children.
Once I stop shaking, the camaraderie is reassuring, enjoyable. I’m actually sort of glad there was a siren, so I can know I was right not to go on our vacation.
When we go back upstairs after the requisite 10 minutes, the baby goes back to sleep almost immediately, but our 5-year-old takes longer. I have to explain to him why we went downstairs — because the walls there are stronger. My ever-curious son wants to know why they are stronger. I start describing engineering details I’m really not clear about. I sing him another round of our goodnight song, in which Jacob, our forefather, prays that the angels who watch over him and guard him from evil also watch over his children and bless them. Please, please, I think.
It is after midnight before I can allow myself to sleep. I have on more clothing than I’d normally wear in this heat, and I keep a lamp on so that we can see our way around the apartment if another siren goes off and we have to move fast while drowsy. I sleep fitfully, tossing and turning. I am awake before 6 a.m.
There are little things that change. I’m a freelancer who works from home. Most days my husband drops both kids at kindergarten and day care so that I don’t have to leave the house. I am often at the computer, working, still wearing my pajamas. Not now; now I need to be dressed in case I have to go to the shelter. I won’t take a shower if I’m the only adult in the house; someone has to be around to hear the siren. My older son is in a kindergarten that has a shelter, so he’s okay, but my younger son is in a day care at someone’s house; I doubt his
his caretaker, could get him and five other toddlers down three flights of stairs to the shelter in time. She tells me her adult son is home on vacation; between that and the fact that I’m irrationally convinced that they won’t send rockets to Jerusalem during the day, I decide to keep sending my son. I have to keep working, after all, or I won’t meet deadlines, won’t get paid.
There is a constant low-grade anxiety thrumming through me that spikes when I hear something I think is a siren, or read some opinion piece on where the war is headed, on where Israel is headed. During the intifada, I survived psychologically by disengaging, by not reading the news, not listening to the radio. I need to do that now, but it’s harder when the danger is in our homes, when I have to remain alert to protect not just myself, but also my children. When I have so much more to lose.
Israeli Parents on Red Alert:
A mother and son head for shelter in Ashkelon, in Southern Israel.