1997 Singapore – 6 september
I was frantic. The rapid beating in my chest drowned out sound. In a matter of seconds Zhoe’s fingers had slipped from mine. She was gone.
I had arrived in Singapore with my three daughters four months ago, in June of 1997. My husband, Miguel, had recently accepted the position of general manager at Stars Restaurant.
Singapore, the Lion City, is an island of multi- faceted beauty with a population of over two and a half million. Immigrants from China, Malaysia, India, and more recently Europe and North America call the island home. This mixture of cultures is like a bouquet of spring flowers; each lily, rose or daffodil contributing its own unique presence and scent. Each ethnic group preserves its identity while forming a multi-cultural whole that embraces diversity and flourishes as an economic power.
For us it was day 106 as residents of this tiny country located north of the equator in the South China Sea. I was enjoying a few hours of reprieve from my maternal duties because Tina, the pastry chef at Stars Restaurant, and Jason, the chef, had taken my daughters to see the movie Hercules. I was to meet them back at the restaurant at six-thirty.
As I arrived, I was greeted by three familiar, smiling faces. I could identify the girls’ dinners by the various stains on their faces. Their milky-white mustaches told me that they had devoured their desserts. Sierra, who was five, was the firecracker in the family. She strutted around giving orders, was task-oriented and explosive if interrupted or confronted.
Zhoe, also five, was calm with an innate wisdom that flowed with the tides, and aimed to please. She had a contagious smile and a heart that expanded to incorporate the needs of others. Havana, four, contributed the humor to the clan. The twinkle in her eyes betrayed the mischief that brewed in her little mind. She possessed a quick wit and a free spirit, flitting around enjoying the treasures life offered her. All three were beaming with stories about their escapades.
Miguel walked over to say his good-byes. “Lee, the MRT is going to be crammed with commuters, take a taxi.” Miguel and I juggled one car between us – a 1981 rust-colored Mitsubishi Colt, that housed a few crawling creatures. I decided to leave the car for Miguel as he usually worked until midnight. I hugged him. “OK, I’ll take a taxi, see you later.”
The late evening air was warm. The last traces of daylight vanished; a few twinkling stars dotted the night sky. We crossed North Bridge Road to Raffles City, where taxis were usually a common sight. Today, the taxi queue ran ten people deep. Due to a lull in the appearance of our “Comfort” cabbies, I decided to avoid the wait and join the commuters on the subway. At seven-thirty at night the crowds made me nervous. I wanted to keep the three girls close to me. Sierra and Zhoe curled their hands into mine and I told Havana to grab the hem of my dress. We stopped at the trusty ticket machine, that had Milo and Kit Kat ads plastered on the front, to purchase our passes. People crammed every tile in the station. I nervously made my way down the escalator to the platform with my girls.
The train arrived filled with people. I pushed toward the doors trying to carve a hole through this block of humans for our quartet. Sierra found a corner, Zhoe slid over to the left. I placed my foot on the train; Havana’s fingers were tightly wrapped around the material of my dress. At that moment the automatic doors started to close on my hand; they moved before I could open my lips. I yanked Sierra out, but Zhoe was too far over. The doors closed faster than I had time to react. I was forced to release my grasp on Zhoe. Panic flashed over me as I saw her face flat against the glass, her dark, innocent eyes wide with confusion. Her eyes filled with tears as I pounded on the doors. Seconds later the train sped away – with my little girl.
The stale breeze from the train blew across my face; my fists flailed in the empty air.
Until that moment, the last time I had witnessed fear in that child’s dark eyes, was in Zhaoqing, China, in 1993 – three years ago.