“Hey Mommy, is this our bomb shelter?” asked my five year old daughter as we toured our newly rented house in San Francisco’s East Bay. “It’s really cool, we don’t even have to run down the steps when the sirens go off”, she continued. My three sons, then aged 13, 12 and 10, laughed as I told her, “no honey, this is the garage and the laundry room – here in America we don’t need bomb shelters because there are no bombs and no sirens”.
Well, that was sort of true. Less than a week later, on August 6, 2012, the sirens sounded. They pierced the air with an identical magnitude and pitch as their counterparts in the northern Negev town where we live. The kids jumped, as did I. Luckily, my stepmother hurried to phone us about the fire at the Chevron Refinery, informing us that the sirens were a signal to stay indoors. For the next several hours, the sirens sounded every three minutes. Despite understanding their lack of connection to Grad rockets or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we were quite jittery and uncomfortable, especially my five year old who was convinced that we tricked her.
Eventually, the sirens ceased and life in the East Bay continued. Camp started, school registration was complete and our adventure began. The first electric coffee pot that I purchased ended up in the trash because the whistle sent us all running to the laundry room. My 10-year old son has a congenital orthopedic impairment and can only walk with a brace. Without his brace he can hop on one foot or crawl. Since his last surgery in 2010, he experienced twice-weekly night terrors that we attributed to the numerous times he had to be carried to the basement bomb shelter – sometimes casted from the hip down and sometimes in an inquisition-style Ilizarov frame with bolts and wires coming through his bones and skin. In California, his night terrors gradually eased and within four months ceased altogether.
The sirens were behind us, waiting for our eventual return home to Israel. Similarly, fears of impending terror dwindled and our engagement in the Israeli national pastime of eyeing suspicious objects and people became less commonplace. Driving next to or behind a bus (especially at a red light) no longer reminded me of extreme sports. Nonetheless, in contrast to my children, as someone who lived in Israel during the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s, I still feel unsettled in crowds, even at an event in the Oakland Museum or at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Then came the Boston bombings.
We live a couple of houses from my kids’ school. On most days, the three boys linger in the schoolyard playing soccer or they walk to the local grocery for a snack. On the afternoon of the Boston bombings, my 14-year old son was anxiously ringing our doorbell within seconds of dismissal. When I opened the door he agitatedly asked if I had heard about what happened in Boston. I answered “yes”. He nervously responded, “Mom, it’s dangerous here, we gotta’ go back to Israel”. At first, I thought he was either joking or that I misunderstood. He is usually even-tempered and logical. We are thousands of miles from Boston and Israel is generally known to be a more dangerous place in terms of terror or war. But, after a short conversation, I realized that he is indeed genuinely affected in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.
My kids were never injured by or direct witnesses to the horrors of terror or war and thus, I consider their exposure as quite minimal and incomparable to that of the children in countless venues throughout the world including Sderot, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, Syria or the urban ghettos of US inner cities.
Could minimal but extended exposure to violence trigger post-trauma? Was my son’s post-trauma reactivated by the Boston bombings coupled with his Israeli identity-inspired assumption that danger lurks everywhere? Today, I believe so.