My story is a very small one, of being a refugee in my own country. I am not from Christchurch now, but it was my home for some special years in my life and many of my lovely family have lived there many years and, thank heavens, still do.
On the day of the February earthquake I set off from Wellington to meet my team and colleagues in Christchurch. They had worked so hard and achieved so much since September. I was so happy for the manager of the team there, that she had had a ‘holiday’ volunteering to help in a third world environment. She and I went into a meeting room to talk about the places she’d been and the things she’d seen that put September 2010 in a global perspective. We started to talk about how lucky Christchurch had been to have upheaval, but no loss of life. The irony as I write this over a year later still almost makes me cry.
I won’t and can’t describe the moment that conversation ended. So many people had a bigger experience than me.
After the two first quakes ended, all my team needed to find their families. I asked to be left at the airport, knowing that wouldn’t be working, but it was a place to start from. From there I walked toward town, where my nearest relative lived. I had already texted my family saying ‘I am Ok’. My husband texted back saying ‘So am I’. My daughter said ‘Mummy, people have died’. My husband phoned, but we were cut off. I walked down Memorial Avenue passing people streaming out of the city. They looked so shocked and sad. Aftershocks kept happening, and we’d sit down on the ground, look around, and get up and keep walking. The traffic on Fendalton Road was at a standstill.
I know Christchurch so well, this was the part of Christchruch I had lived in. I rang my cousin – she and a lovely builder, there to fix things that happened in September, had been standing in her bathroom, he had helped her get heavy things safe before going how to his own family. I said I was twenty minutes away. Somewhere, in the city I lived in and loved to live in more than anywhere I had lived, I got lost. I have always been so scornful of those who couldn’t find their way around Christchurch and I got lost on Fendalton Road. I found myself in Hagley Park with no idea of how I got there. The water in the river by Helmores Lane was bubbling and boiling and muddy. People were walking past flowing out of town. Helicopters overhead, sirens all the time. Enormous cracks in the road and aftershocks kept going. I felt like I was in a documentary about war and loss.
I walked down Winchester St towards my cousin, and some people standing by their house asked me if I was ok. That was when I nearly burst into tears but I said I am fine, I’ll be home soon.
I found my cousin’s house, and we had a sad evening clearing all the broken things that were the memories of her happy life with her husband who had died a few years ago – the mugs and glasses they had bought together and used together, the things which had belonged to our family who brought them from Scotland more than 100 years ago. We preserved the Dunkirk spirit, despite the fact I had no lipstick with me! We called family to make sure they were ok. The night, with endless aftershocks was horror – Kim Hill on National Radio provided the ideal distraction. Every time I thought, now, it will be now. We watched the television, and saw that Knox Church, where so much of my family’s life had been driven from, was fallen. So many places I loved were.
We drove to Blenheim the next day. I flew home in perfect perfect weather, into a still and tranquil Wellington. I travel most weeks and, for the first time ever, my daughter met me at the bottom of the path when I got home. We hugged and hugged.
I will never forget the feeling of being a person with nowhere to go, and miles to walk in my own home, the noise of the helicopters and sirens, the kindness of others, the sense of losing trust in the ground under my feet.