"There is no refuge from memory and remorse in this world. The spirits of our foolish deeds haunt us, with or without repentance." - Gilbert Parker
Tonight I am thinking about Hurricane Isaac and New Orleans and hoping for the best. It has me thinking about Christchurch again. The whole thing haunts me. In the last 18 months of so my mind has wandered countless times to a place I haven't been to in 15 years. Often the significance of many of the things we experience is not hammered home until years later. Can you recall a day that at the time seemed fairly ordinary? It is only months or years after that the significance of it begins to appear. It can either be a moment of quiet elation or perdition. Mine was somewhere in between.
Let's go back to 1997. Not that I always want to but this is where the story begins. It was an overcast spring day in Christchurch, New Zealand. Spring being November in the southern hemisphere. I had arrived the day before with the intention of seeing as much as I could in 2 or 3 days before heading up the east coast. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. The city was laid out with the iconic Cathedral Square as a focal point. If you have been in Adelaide or Philadelphia you will see similarities in the layout. Many of the buildings are of the Gothic Revival time period giving the city a distinctive English feel. Christchurch has earned the name of "The Garden City". Numerous, lush parks dot the landscape and the Avon River meanders across the city. I found myself meandering around the city as well. During my time there I spent much of my time near the Avon and Cathedral Square.
It isn't my intention to tell this story to be dramatic or to seek pity. It does serve as a form of catharsis though. I cannot even begin to comprehend what is is like to survive a devastating earthquakes, tornado, bombing. etc. Losing everything in the process, then picking yourself up dusting yourself off and trying to get your life back to a sense a normal that it will never quite be.
You see there is a more to this story but I am only willing to share so much of it. Some things are never old enough to talk about. Not completely. If you ask me to elaborate I won't. I can't. Sorry, but this is all you get and most days that feels like way too much. Even speaking her name out loud feels like too much sometimes. I started this post in September of last year so you get the picture. Anyways, that dreary day in Christchurch was spent with someone that I had met in Queenstown and was surprised to run into her again 500 km away. It was spontaneous. The Lonely Planet guide was tossed aside for a day of random wandering. Many stops were made at cafes and pubs and shops along Manchester Street. We spent that day not thinking of the future. Not worrying. Just enjoying the moment. That is the part of this that is hauntingly beautiful. We meandered along the Avon, past the Pyne Gould Building where 18 people would die in the earthquake many years later. Then back up Columbo Street with many more stops. Finally, arriving back at Cathedral Square.
Now leap forward to a year and half ago there was an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. My wife saw the news online long before it was on TV. Twitter told me much more than world news agencies did that evening. The news of that quake was quickly eclipsed by the huge earthquake in Japan 3 weeks later. Among the flurry of large, violent quakes in the last few years it might seem like a small one. Less than 200 people were killed. 1000s of buildings were destroyed.It wasn't just the older historic ones that suffered. One building less than 40 years old was the site of over half of the fatalities that day.
The first sights that I saw that dark February night were of the many buildings broken and collapsed into the streets. I had only spent a few days in Christchurch but quickly recognized many of the destroyed buildings. They were pulling bodies out of the YHA hostel on Manchester Street where I had stayed so many years before. The square was surrounded by beautiful examples of historic architecture. Much of it doomed. The Press Building with half of its iconic sign and upper floor missing. Nearby in Latimer Square survivors regrouped, tried to call loved ones and waited amongst white tarps with shoes and sneakers sticking out from under them. Deaths from earthquakes are known in New Zealand but had been a rarity in recent years. Looking back at it now I am surprised that there were not more deaths. Once you see all of the buildings that have now been demolished you would agree. Up to date photos of Christchurch show several blocks of the city completely cleared. People lost family, friends, neighbors, homes, places of worship, local hang outs, entire neighborhoods. Then I saw the Christchurch Cathedral.
The most recognizable icon of the city, the very heart of Christchurch itself for everyone regardless of faith, lay ruined. The spire was gone. The same spire that we stood in all those years ago taking in the sites of Cathedral Square. At the time there were reports that people went down with the spire. This later proved to be false. Luckily no one was found in the rubble. My stomach clenched so hard that I physically gagged. The next thought that popped into my head has occasionally haunted my thoughts ever since. Many of the buildings that Zoe and I saw that day in 1997 would be gone in 13 years or so. Worse to me, less than 5 months after our day in Christchurch, Zoe would be gone too. It would another 5 months or so before I found out. They say that ignorance is bliss. I can honestly say that I wish this were the case.
Maybe I have to think about the day for what is was, not what it would become. When you think of a great meal you don't think about what it looks like, what it becomes after you eat it. If you did you would go around thinking about everything slowly turning to shit.
T.S. Eliot wrote it much more eloquently if a bit more obtusely in his poem The Waste Land.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.