10 Years After the 22 February 2011 Quake

Dust rises from the city of Christchurch moments after the 22 February 2011 earthquake at 12:51 PM
6.3 Magnitude Earthquake Rocks Christchurch by Gillian Needham

Today we woke up to hazy gray skies but a bit of warmth in the air, similar but not the same as that day 10 years ago the earth erupted and shook the dust from our city. Unlike that day a decade ago, though, the sun has come out, and the skies are blue. There’s a very strange mix going on for me today: the warmth, the sunlit sky, the heat permeating my bones when all I feel is sadness, frustration, and resignation.

I should be happy to be alive and mostly in one piece. Happy and thankful. I’ve shared my earthquake story ad nauseum through my writing and a few other media online, and it is one of the tens of thousands in the mediocre category. The building I was in didn’t collapse; I didn’t go dashing out to one of the buildings that did collapse to help; and after I did help those where I was as best as I could, we did what we were told and we went home.

Driving through a high dredge of light gray liquefaction mid-way home, stoplights out, ordinary citizens directing traffic, was insane. The image of all the dust-covered people zombieing their way out of New York City after 9/11 came to mind as we watched people trudge through the muck as they aimed their way homeward.

Once we hit the main intersection leading into our subdivision, the contrast struck us. Life appeared normal. Traffic lights were working. Houses seemed (outwardly at least) undamaged. Very little liquefaction. I keep comparing it to Dorothy going from the black and white of the storm and waking up in the colorful land of Oz. Because that was how it seems to always unfold in my mind. Gray, dreary, destroyed Christchurch and color-filled, normal-looking Northwood.

I’m at a weird point in this journey on more than one front.

Getting to know people at the writing course I am in, we speak about lots of different things, and somehow in the course of the conversation comes the question about, “Were you here during the quakes?”

It’s a bonding experience people in Christchurch shared over the years. Where were you when it struck? What happened? And then what happened next? Things like that. Liquefaction, peak ground acceleration, TCs 1, 2 and 3, all sorts of technical jargon comes out. Technical jargon that people from outside Christchurch kinda slink away from you when you start discussing because, um, it’s like we’re speaking Swahili.

But now? Several of the people I spoke to weren’t here. They didn’t experience it. And the guy who wasn’t born here — me — seems to be the one telling the story, like a scout leader around a campfire at night as the fog rolls in. The story to haunt. The story of gore, and guts, and heroism, and sadness.

This leads me to the feelings behind it. I’ve told the story a lot. I’ve told this story so often that I’m weary of it. I can feel the tiredness aching in my bones.

The earthquake on 22 February 2011 is an anchor point in my life, but the orbit I’m taking is swinging me further and further away. Its gravitational pull weakens every orbit I complete. I’ll never completely escape it — a low rumbling noise still fires up the adrenaline — but I think I can get some distance from it.

It does fuck me off too. When the anniversary comes around — especially a big one like this one — and the media start digging up graves, dusting off corpses, and parading the old bodies around again, I want it to end. I want it over. I think about, and feel sorry for, those I know who lost someone in the quakes and keep trying to move forward, but every year, we’re picking those scabs wide open to bleed out all over again. It’s macabre, and it hurts, and it frustrates me more than anything.

I live with the injuries every day. Sure, I keep discussing the mental ones, but I tore the rotator cuffs in both my shoulders. That’s what happens when the earth gives a good hard shove below you and you accordion into a door frame. (I did have enough time to move my head so I didn’t head butt it. Kudos to quick thinking and even quicker acting.) Physio mostly worked but my doctor vaguely mentioned cortisone shots to help the dull aching in my shoulders that prevent me getting a good night’s sleep most nights. Alas we haven’t ever really got to that point, so I resort to taking ibuprofen on those nights where they ache too much so I can sleep at least a little bit.

The frustrating bit is explaining how I feel. Almost defending myself, and many others, from the chorus of people who didn’t experience the horror of the day, from the repeating stanza, “Why don’t you just get over it?”

You don’t get over it.

You can accept it and try to move on.

But you can’t get over it.

You don’t pat the bear on the head after he’s nearly mauled you to death and say, “Oh, thanks, mate.” That stuff sticks with you forever, and this is no different.

On Saturday, we had an intensive writing session focussing on poetry. Our guest tutor Rose was great.

Stepping back a few moments from that, I want to write about the weather. At home, it was a gloriously sunny late summer’s morning. Sun was out, sky was clear, birds were singing. But over the city hung a fog or even low cloud. At Hagley, the sky was gray, and the sun was a white ball in the haze: somewhat similar weather to 22 February 2011. So that put a mood on my day.

Back to writing: one of the poems was an instructional one. “How to…” Rose suggested we write about something concrete and unfamiliar, like “How to Rig a Sailboat” or “How to Chop Wood”, but my mind went to: “How to Move On”.

Being a stream of consciousness type of exercise, made more complex by writing from the bottom of the page upwards, it came to the conclusion that, actually, there is no way to move on. You only learn to live with it.

That’s the haunting thing about what happened 10 years ago today. All that trauma, all that stress, all that fear, all that sorrow, and everything that happened after?

I have to learn to live with it.