reader report

February 22 a 'great teacher'

"Often it takes some calamity to make us live in the present; then suddenly we wake up and see all the mistakes we have made."

Bill Watterson, American cartoonist and author.

February 22 is not one of those globally significant days. It's not my birthday or anniversary.

But it's a day firmly etched in the mind of New Zealanders. A day of mourning, a day of commemoration for those who lost their lives, families, homes, jobs.

This day back in 2011 marked a turning point in my life. A day of solemnity and also of celebration, because I survived.

It was the day Christchurch shook, the day that changed me and my life in more ways than one.

Three years and many shakes thereafter should be enough to cast memories of that day into the dark depths of oblivion.

Yet I seem to remember every intricate detail vividly. From the first rumblings of Mother Earth to the devastation and chaos that followed right up until my colleagues and I stepped out of the green defence aircraft on to the tarmac of Wellington Airport.

We had mixed feelings - relief and gratitude on the one hand and the terrible sense of having betrayed those we had left behind on the other.

It was traumatic, it was terrifying. But that's not what I remember the day for or want to write about today.

The bits of that reel of life that continually replay in my mind are the acts of kindness, humanity and solidarity that encircled me like a protective and comforting ring through the ordeal.

They are little things we either take for granted or become cynical about as we get on with life. Until a calamity like this makes one sit up and appreciate them again.

That day perhaps taught me more about life, people, relationships and situations than all my years at university or at work. It made me look at life through a freshly rain-washed window.

I cannot forget the burly young man who left his position of safety to pick me up from the violently shaking floor of the cafe on to which I had fallen forward, in my bid to run towards the doorway. This man, whose face I didn't see and didn't have time to thank, turned me around and held me firmly to his chest, as we stood under the doorway for what seemed like eternity.

It was only later that I realised that he did this to shield me from the horrific sight of buildings coming down like ninepins around us.

All I can recall after my rescuer released me is the thick haze of dust and my workmates calling my name frantically.

From then onwards, for the next 24 hours, my colleagues and I were almost inseparable. It's strange how 24 hours in crisis can forge ties and understanding that years of togetherness sometimes can't.

I've never seen fairies or angels, but have always believed in them. My experience in Christchurch proved me right. I saw them everywhere that day. They just didn't have haloes and wings.

I saw them in the colleague who never let go of my hand as we trudged for miles through trembling roads and liquefaction.

They were there in the person who tried to drive us out of the chaos in his car and when I was desperate to answer nature's call said I could relieve myself in his car if necessary. And after that finding a toilet for me became the single-minded goal of all my team-mates. It was eventually found in someone's garden where again my colleagues stepped in to apologise profusely to the owner who was a bit bewildered by this sudden onslaught of infiltrators.

Then of course there was our team leader, a Christchurch resident, who opened his heart and his hearth to six visitors when he wasn't yet very sure of where his own near and dear ones were. He laid bare his pantry for us that night when he didn't quite know when he would be able to replenish his stocks.

That day taught me to be grateful for chores, children and pets in our lives.

Putting back the numerous books strewn around on the floor back on to the enormous shelves that had fallen over restored us to normalcy.

The idle chatter of the children and cuddling the dog brought back our smiles and made us breathe again.

When night fell and the remnants of our dinner had been cleared up, three of us huddled together on the floor of our host's lounge. The ground continued to shake and sleep betrayed us.

So we resorted to incessant and mindless banter, and silly games, like telling each other about the worst disease we'd ever had, anything to keep our minds off the horrifying thought of what the next shake would do to the house and us.

Fear and hunger are great levellers I discovered.

A big aftershock brought two of our other mates to the doorway of the lounge, asking us whether we were all right.

We asked them to snuggle in between us and they happily agreed.

We saw the people of Christchurch converge on Civil Defence centres with armfuls of home baking and other delicacies and hearts full of warmth, compassion and love.

The meal we had that day would beat any five-star meal hands-down.

Another thing that struck me was the calm, patience and perfect order that prevailed when I knew that there were people there who had been severely affected in some way or the other.

Our team leader worked tirelessly to put us in touch with our families and make arrangements to get us back to our own homes as soon as possible, even as his own home remained without power and water.

I can't forget the warm green colour of the defence plane as it stood glinting in the brilliant sunshine on that ironically lovely day in Christchurch. And I still can't but feel the guilt of abandoning ship that day. But life's like that.

I bow to the phoenix-like resilience and spirit of Christchurch. And I thank February 22 for being one of my greatest teachers.

It's a day I would like to forget; it's a day I want to remember forever.