I don’t know if I would have stayed in Christchurch if I’d had to live through the events of the past eighteen months, in particular the day that changed everything – today.
People died. History was lost. Livelihoods dissolved. And unlike a sudden passing of a loved one, which hurts like hell but at least gives you a definitive start point for grief and moving on, Christchurch instead developed a cruel form of Parkinson’s disease, continuing to shake at random intervals, often after periods of calm when its people had just begun to remember what life was like on stable soil.
In a conversation with my friend Richard at Bear New Zealand last week, he was asked by an Aucklander why he hasn’t moved, and the answers were pretty basic: home and family. Both those things have very strong foundations, and short of the city sinking under the ocean like a latter-day Atlantis, you’re not going to let them go easily.
My parents-in-law, who have lived in Auckland for decades, chose to move to Christchurch late last year to be closer to family. Their house was on the market and sold just as the September quake hit. They moved anyway, and in their seventies have experienced major disruptions at a time in their lives that should be marked by serenity. They’re sticking it out.
My cousin has experienced panic attacks that have kept her hanging by the phone in case of a quake, lest she need to rush down to the school and bring her children back to safety. Trips out to the shops have become like a perverted episode of Mission: Impossible, where she runs to grab the things she needs, paying and getting out for fear of being trapped in a collapsing building.
My friend Gabe’s house is three doors away from a red zone, and after swearing he’d stick it out, he finally moved north to Auckland for better work prospects and a sense of stability.
“If you’re under 30, just renting and don’t have any responsibilities then there’s not a lot of incentive to stay, even though there is work available,” he told me in an interview for Express last June. “I’ve thought about leaving for a break, but it’s hard when you’ve got your home, your animals – you can’t throw a couple of cats in the back of the car and drive off to the west coast.”
Ironically, that’s exactly what he ended up doing – the cats are now happily ensconced in a central Auckland suburb, but he still misses his home every day.
My friends Ralph and Rob, despite having a fantastic garden that boasts its own Facebook page, have also had their ups and downs. Like my parents-in-law, Rob was a recent migrant to the city when the shaking started.
“He’s been incredible to move his whole life here to New Zealand and not run when his adopted city fell to bits around his ears,” Ralph told me.
My best mate from childhood, Tim, has held onto life with two young children and a determined resolve to keep going. After the first quake, he observed it was “Mother Nature 1, Us 0″, but I think the “Us” team have fared far better since that first shock.
One of the positive things to hear from my colleague Freedom is that people with experience of mental illness were not collapsing under pressure as many people thought we might have, as she noted back in May:
People with experience of mental illness are coping better than others during this time, Freedom believes, because they have learnt how to manage anxiety, know their triggers and realise they don’t have to freak out.
“Some people with experience of mental illness can operate really well under this sort of pressure and it’s fantastic. It’s good for them to see that they can be setting the example – they are the experts on this stuff!”
In Christchurch today, there are at least fifteen riverside sites set up where you can go and do two things: drop a flower into the water and write a message to be pinned on a tree. The first symbolises letting go, the second looking to the future. It’s a beautiful idea, and a great way of bringing people together on a day which is bound to be fraught with emotion.
I wrote in April last year that my feelings about the city had changed forever. The strength of the people, my friends and family, made me see the place in a new light. I’ll be there again this weekend. And in all the ways that matter, I don’t expect anything to have changed.