A writer from Jerusalem describes how her life has changed now that she must be on constant alert for sirens.
It’s 9.30 p.m. I’m lying on my bed, fully dressed, talking to my husband.
We weren’t supposed to be here, tonight. We were supposed to be in the Galil, 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 try and escape there once a year, without the kids. It’s an oasis of calm and relaxation and peacefulness.
We have our two days per year there down to a fine art. We know what food to take with us. We buy fine cheeses to eat at lunchtime after we’ve swum in the pool; prep marinades for the proteins we’ll be grilling on our barbecue as the sun descends into the valley below us. We pack DVDs of the movies we’d like to watch each evening, or maybe at 6 a.m., like last year, when we were so sleep-deprived from living with a four-month-old that we were asleep each night by 9 p.m.
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 been attacked yet. But there’s always the first time, so how can we leave our boys? What if it happens while we’re away?
My mother-in-law is babysitting, and competent as she is, she’s never lived here through sirens. And how can one person get two kids to a shelter downstairs within 90 seconds if they’re asleep when the siren goes off? We live in an older apartment, so we don’t have a secure room. 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 and Gilad and Naftali were alive, and through the grieving when we found out that they weren’t. We kept on planning after Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered so brutally and riots began spreading 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 so we’ve had quite a few interrupted nights of sleep — but I’m scared to sleep because I worry I might not hear the siren. Usually we keep our window closed against the din that assails us from noisy neighbors, but now we have it open so we can hear better.
A siren wails.
We fall silent, look at each other, spring into action. My husband reminds me, "Don’t worry, we have 90 seconds."
I run to the baby’s room, opening the door softly, as though I don’t want to disturb him, 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. One of the families who enter the shelter are strangers, a family who, it turns out, are staying in their friends’ rental apartment upstairs. She’s Finnish, a dentist, volunteering here for a week. I hear an accent I recognize from him. When I inquire, it turns out I’m right — 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. She 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. I wish I was up there, though, with the pool, and the silence, and the serenity.
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.
"How are they stronger?" my ever-curious son wants to know.
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 should also watch over his children and bless them. Please, please, I think.
I’m still exhausted, more exhausted, but I feel like I can’t give myself permission to sleep. Usually, I’m a light sleeper — when the baby cries in the night, I hear him immediately. But sometimes, when I’m really, really tired, I hear nothing. I wake up in the morning convinced the baby slept through and find out my husband went to him when he cried.
I’m so tired now I know I’d sleep through a siren. Part of me thinks, "We’ve been through it, this is our one for tonight, I can let go." The other part thinks, "But what if there’s another?"
It is past midnight before I can allow myself to sleep, more clothed than I’d normally be in this heat, with a lamp on so that we can see easily if another siren sounds and we have to move fast while drowsy. I sleep fitfully, toss and turn, and am awake before 6 a.m.
There are little things that change. I’m a freelancer, working from home, so most days my husband drops both kids off at kindergarten and daycare so I don’t have to leave the house. Before this round of rocket attacks, I could often be found at the computer, still wearing my pajamas. Sometimes I wouldn't get dressed until after midday, when it’s time to pick up my little one. 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 else has to be alert to hear the siren.
My older son is in a kindergarten that has a shelter, so he’s OK. But my younger son is in a daycare at someone’s house. I doubt his metapelet 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 him.
I have to keep working, after all, or I won’t meet deadlines, won’t get paid. It’s not easy to concentrate, though. There is a constant low-grade anxiety thrumming through me, which 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 my children. When I have so much more to lose.
Deborah Meghnagi Bailey is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.