February 22nd began as a very ordinary day, we are after all a very ordinary family. At around 11am I finally got the kids engaged in an activity and had a shower. I remember being really nervous, it was the first time I’d relaxed enough to have a shower since Sept 4th without another adult in the house, just in case. The children and I began tidying up and making lunch. We were expecting my mother in law at 1pm and the children were excited to be seeing their Nana. Maia asked to play cards in her room, while Lachlan, who had a raised temperature was curled up on the couch watching TV. I had a strong sense of wanting us to be in the same room, perhaps because I had aftershocks on my mind from the shower.
We dealt out the cards when out of nowhere Maia was thrown from her chair. I leapt behind her, shoving her along the floorboards to the door frame, screaming at Lachlan to come to me.
It amazes me how much you can think in just 18 seconds, at how fast our thoughts can move through our minds. I knew I had to get to him, but to do so I had to leave Maia, and I had to time it just right to avoid the huge teetering TV or cracking chimney breast that could crash on us at any moment . I was also acutely aware that the floor boards were shifting under Maia, moving apart and back together again. I moved and reached for him, still screaming. I have no idea how I got to him, how I grabbed him or how I got him back to Maia and the doorway, where Maia lay across him and I braced myself over them both. Everything was crashing and smashing around us. I thought I heard the hot water cylinder hit the floor.
It eased. The house kept swaying and swaying. I remembered to breath.
The floor was littered with broken pieces of our lives. Amazingly my shoes were within reach and I pulled them on, scooping up both barefoot children to get us outside. The force had thrown the back door open and I ran to the front gate. The staff of the business next door were climbing over the rubble of the shop fronts, screaming to the people inside, all of whom escaped unharmed. Dust, smoke, wailing and sirens, broken buildings and fallen houses. The absolute terror threatened to overwhelm me. The children were curled up against the fence as small as they could be, staring ahead and trembling. I cuddled them close as a huge aftershock swept over us, causing more bricks to fall and glass to shatter. Hundreds of people started to appear through the dust, some dirty and bleeding, some carrying their shoes in total shock. The horror of their experience etched on their faces.
I don’t think until that day I ever really put together that the way I feel about my children is the same way my parents feel about me. The messages on my phone in the minutes afterwards are filled with fear and longing. What I didn’t know when I heard them was that at the time my mother was moving her staff and clients through their broken building to the chaos outside. My father was frantically messaging while manually operating the water pump outside the hospital’s Emergency Department.
The text ‘I’m coming’ was from my mother in law, who’d just stepped out of the lift from the 6th floor in the Ballantynes car park when the force of the shaking had thrown her to the ground. Minutes earlier she had been catching up with an old friend. Her friend went one way, she the other. My mother in law to me, her friend to her death.
Wave after wave of aftershock, wave after wave of terrified people filed past like zombies in a horror film. Many stopped to report news, many times I cut them off as they talked of severed limbs and body bags in front of my trembling children.
I waited for my husband. We watched the helicopter filling its monsoon bucket over and over, back and forth from the river to the CTV building. Ash and dust filled the air. A friend arrived, and then my mother in law, we kept the children warm, still no news from my husband. After 4 hours he appeared, head down from around the corner, I flew down the street into his arms. We sobbed and held on to each other for dear life. We still had no real idea about the extent of the devastation. We didn’t know then that 78 000 would immediately flee the city, that the 58 000 people with jobs in the CBD wouldn’t be able to go to work, that 10 000 homes would be too broken to live in, or that hundreds of people would be trapped, missing or dead.
Maia and Lachlan consider the central city to be their neighbourhood. It has their pool, their library, their Fire Station and their ducks. They are mourning the loss of the familiar, and are anxious about their present. They have cultivated an intent wide eyed and wary expression. At times I wonder who they are, and how to soothe them.
We have returned to co-sleeping and I often find them entwined in each other’s limbs. Their sleep is restless and often interrupted by nightmares. They whimper and sweat and its difficult to draw them back out of the grip of the dream. They have begun to settle to sleep more easily in their father's arms with the help of a sleepy aromatherapy blend kindly sent to us by a fabulous Wellington practitioner. Thank goodness for the favourite stories and songs that have been so repetitive we can dozily spout them to soothe them back to sleep with new, more pleasant thoughts.
Lachlan was out of day nappies several months ago and I believe the return to day wetting signals his loss of focus, and his sudden pre-occupation with noises, and what makes them. He’ll be 3 in June and I worry and wonder what impact this experience may have on his brain development. I have, perhaps, read too many studies on the effects of adrenaline on the brain and am acutely aware that for him this isn’t a one off event but the continuation of what has been thousands of aftershocks, each as startling to him as the last.
I watch the children’s frustration at their loss of control and marvel at their ability to accept we’re not at home anymore. I wish they were still small enough to carry in their sling, and I can’t stop thinking about how helpful it would be if they hadn’t weaned, although they spend so much time tucked under my arms that at times it still feels as if we are still physically one.
We have visited our old home since the cordon was lifted and they have seen the neighbour’s houses without walls, and the shops on the corner, now rubble. It has been a series of hard decisions about what to allow them to see and what to shield them from. Its times like these that you realise how much the smallest members of our communities do see, how much they absorb, and how many questions it leads them to ask. We have had many conversations about death, about life and about uncertainty and loss. Maia is nearly five and wants to know it all, and she wants to know the truth and will call you on a watered down version of events that she suspects may contain half truths. This is a child that announced the whole concept of Santa as ridiculous.
So this is their reality and while I will continue to shelter them from what I can they have been back to the house, they’ve seen the diggers, the tanks and the men and women in uniform, all of whom have stopped to speak to the children, answer their questions and show off their equipment.
We work hard to bring them back to balance, allowing them choices without responsibility. They feel a great sense of responsibility for others, and expect that others feel the same way about them. They have learnt about basic necessities, and it gives them comfort to check that people have them. They have developed relationships with our neighbours and in the last few weeks seem more at ease in adult company. I worry about their isolation from other children as we all focus on our families and homes and I look forward to making visiting their friends a priority this week.
They have been drawing prolifically, helped immensely by the thoughtful care packages full of clothes, toys, books and treasured art supplies that have arrived almost daily for them. They have drawn their worries, their hopes and their fears. Some reduce to me to tears, others fill me with hope that these resilient little people will come through this unscathed, stronger and more empathetic.
I am aware that I’m failing to provide them with a model of self care. Parenting is exhausting at the best of times, but trying to be effective through crisis while meeting the children’s basic needs, looking for a new home and keeping the business afloat is all consuming. I have 4 contractors, their invoices and the families they support on my mind, thank goodness for the quick and decisive action from the Ministry of Social Welfare and their wage support package. I’m short tempered, frustrated and forgetful. I comfort myself that at least I’m demonstrating how to self correct your own behaviour when I scoop them up and apologise for shouting, again.
Our small, ordinary family is forever changed, and for the most part for the better. A feeling of lightness is settling and I have a far greater sense of clarity. I can’t remember the worries I went to bed with the night of the 21st February and so I can only assume they weren’t important, not important enough to still have an impact only 3 weeks later. I don’t know what will happen next, no-one in Christchurch does. We have been shaken awake and we will rebuild our city, our lives and our dreams, one brick at a time.