End of a fairytale romance

Last updated 16:32 17/02/2012
Brett Chambers

SHIFT OF FOCUS: Brett Chambers and sons George, 13, left, and Will, 15, with dog Toby. Priorities have changed since the death of wife and mother Helen.

Helen Chambers
Helen Chambers died when the Pyne Gould Corporation building collpased.

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Brett Chambers had the perfect life. Overachieving children, dream home, successful career and his childhood sweetheart and "unbelievably awesome" wife, Helen.

That was until the magnitude-6.3 earthquake shattered everything.

Now, one year on, his children are hurting, his dream home is only a house and he has lost the love of his life, the woman he had known since he was 10 years old.

Helen Chambers, 44, was one of 18 people killed in the Pyne Gould Corporation building on February 22.

The shear wall behind her office at Perpetual Trust crumbled.

Her colleagues yelled out to her after the quake, but their calls went unanswered.

Helen was strong-willed, a survivor, and on the day of the quake, Brett told his children she would know what to do.

"I told them if anyone was going to be coming out of there, it was Helen. If she could find a way to survive, she would."

But Helen was facing something she could do nothing about.

And, in just a few seconds, a city's heart was stolen and a fairytale romance was lost.

"Whenever anybody loses a loved one, they will tell you they were special, a special person, but Helen really was, " Brett says from his Fendalton home.

The managing partner of Deloitte's Christchurch office sounds like a true businessman when he explains how he copes with his grief: "I just have a different set of priorities now."

Instead of looking toward an early retirement, grandchildren and family holidays, he now focuses on getting through each day and keeping his children, Will, 15, and George, 13, positive.

After 25 years together, Brett and Helen had shaped one another's lives.

They were both from big families, Helen was one of 10 children and Brett one of seven. They grew up around the corner from one another.

Together their families "ruled Redwood" and the St Joseph's Primary School playground.

Brett first met Helen when she was 8, but it wasn't until they were at university that he stopped resisting the "not- very-subtle matchmaking attempts" of his friends.

He recalls the early years of their romance fondly, including the first time he told Helen he loved her.

After that she "bundled" an intoxicated 23-year-old Brett into her Toyota Corolla and drove home slowly as he threw up out the window.

While she was helping him into bed he whispered: "I love you" and she said: "You're drunk."

"I thought I had blown it, but she forgave me, " he says.

The couple worked together at Deloitte for a few years in their early 20s.

Brett laughs about how "Lovey", her pet name for him, slipped out on the odd occasion and stuck fast with his colleagues.

On December 21, 1991, Helen and Brett were married at St Joseph's Church, where they had both been baptised and confirmed. Their first son, Will, was born on their fifth wedding anniversary and their second son, George, was born almost exactly two years later.

Helen was "put on this Earth to be a mother", Brett says. He is grateful she lived long enough to see both her sons earn the title of head boy at Christ the King Primary School.

The boys got to run the match ball out for the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park last October, in memory of their mother.

Now they are at St Bede's College where they have not "dropped the ball at all", Brett says.

Will just recently passed NCEA Level One mathematics with excellence.

Brett had been afraid his sons would lose their motivation to excel.

"There is a risk that the boys and I just go through the motions without much direction or purpose, " he says.

"And sometimes it feels just like that."

But, they have "got on with things just as she would have wanted".

"They hurt. No doubt about that, but we often talk about Helen and remember her.

"The time she did this, said that or drove into this, " he says laughing.

"The boys have been very cathartic for me. I'm lucky they are around."

In the past year, much has changed in the Chambers household.

Helen's remains are interred at the Avonhead Park Cemetery - although her belongings remain where she left them.

The scent trapped in the fabric of her clothes serves as a painful reminder to Brett.

In December, he celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary alone.

He used to work up to 80 hours a week, but finds himself home a lot more now.

Helen's dog, Toby, has lost his boisterous, fearless nature and is now timid and terrified of earthquakes.

The dream home they built together to raise a family in is now a shell of memories.

"The logistics of running the household aren't hard, " Brett says. "Nobody gets upset if the lawns don't get mowed or the washing doesn't get put away."

Dreams of matching armchairs, watching the boys graduate and growing old with Helen have vanished.

"I used to think my life was pretty bloody good, " Brett says.

"An amazing wife, great kids. Maybe I was just too complacent when things just seemed to fall into place for us."

He misses "everything" about her - making her a cup of tea, answering her unnecessary phone calls and just talking to her at night.

"I miss doing things as a family. I look at other families and at retired couples and think: 'That can never be us'."

He used to consider himself a strong person, but has since changed his mind: "Clearly, I'm not, without Helen beside me".

She has left a void in more than just her husband and children's lives.

Brett says he has since learnt things about his wife that "even I didn't fully appreciate - like the way she touched other people's lives and the depth of her friendships".

The road ahead for the Christchurch father of two is unclear at the moment, but he is not bitter.

He does not deny he is heartbroken, and the loneliness is at times unbearable, but he believes his family is "a lot better off than others in Christchurch".

"As dark as things have been in the last 12 months, we know that the passing of time will eventually dull our pain and that things will get easier, " he says.

"It's a case of small steps forward."

A poem Brett wrote for Helen

Helen, I miss making your cup of tea.
I miss your phone calls in the middle of the day for no reason at all.
I miss our late night glass of wine.
I miss solving the world's problems with you.
I miss turning everything into a competition.
I miss your laughter at the dinner table.
I miss your cramp attacks in the middle of the night.
I miss taking Toby for a walk.
I miss enlightening the boys about 1980s classical music.
I miss leg-wrestling challenges.
Actually, I don't miss the cramp attacks in the middle of the night.
Most of all, I simply miss you.

- The Press

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