Quake survivor finds solace in music

MUSICIANS: Earthquake survivor Ann Brower and Al Park.
MUSICIANS: Earthquake survivor Ann Brower and Al Park.

Ann Brower, who was badly injured in the February 22, 2011 earthquake has found solace and an aid to healing in music.

As Christchurch heals, there is much talk of hope. I hope the rebuilt city will pay tribute to what we lost in the earthquakes, but also to what we found.

Although we have lost much in Christchurch, we also found a few things for a little while, like kindness, patience, gentleness, empathy and heroism.

Remember the days when we as a city were more kind than angry?

I hope the rebuilt Christchurch will be a testament to all that we have lost, to all that we have found, to all that we will miss and to all that we have to look forward to. I hope we as a city remember our pain, celebrate our heroism, remember our deaths and celebrate our rebirth. May we rise from the ashes, while honouring the souls within those ashes.

In rising from the ashes and honouring the souls, one song keeps popping up. It's the most sublime piece of music ever written, except when I scratch and squeak my way through it. It's the song I found myself listening to over and over in the corner bunk of the Orthopaedics Ward in Christchurch Hospital in the weeks after February 22.

The second movement of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor became a constant yet obsessive, calming yet haunting companion in the dark days of sorrow, terror, confusion, frustration, helplessness, and pain that powered over all.

The song made the world make sense, when it most assuredly did not.

The song is a call and response between two violins who share yet compete for the melody. It starts with a call of overwhelming sorrow, desperately harkening back to a sweeter place which is perpetually just out of reach.

The sorrow can see the place of calm and peace, but can't reach it because she is shoved aside by terror when the second violin intrudes.

This call of sorrow and response of terror tells our story of the earthquakes and healing. We each have our own version, but collectively as a city, we share a story of sorrow and terror.

The story and the song are instinctive, haunting and always, always, always there. The story, and the song, are ours and ours alone. No-one has seen what we have seen. No-one has felt what we have felt. Man lives, as he dies, alone.

On February 22, 2011, I passed through the gates of hell, visited the dark place, shrank from the bright light and was wrenched back to the sunshine by the kindness and bravery of the men of Colombo St.

As I felt myself being crushed kilogram by kilogram, brick by brick, and bone by bone, the dark place and the bright light competed for dominance.

Call and response. Sorrow. Terror. Sorrow. Terror. Sorrow. Terror.

Opposing sides of the same force, pulling, pulling, pulling, down, down, down.

At the end of the first wave of the song, the sorrow and terror fuse to form unadulterated and unrelenting pain. The pain is so steadfast and loyal that it too becomes a haunting companion through the weeks and months of rehabilitation at Christchurch Hospital, Burwood Hospital, Lyttelton Physiotherapy, Merivale Hand Therapy and Lincoln University gym.

By the end of the first wave, in June, I was able to walk just far enough to meet the Dalai Lama. His visit helped us, the injured survivors, make peace with the pain. The first wave ends in a brief moment of calm in early June 2011.

It was hard to avoid taking June 13 personally. I work close to the September 4, 2010, epicentre. I was on the block of Colombo St where 16 died, one was paralysed and several more were injured. But then the June 13, 2011, quake was spot on home, in Sumner.

I might add that Christchurch was not my first major earthquake.

Until June 13, reason had kept the terror at bay. Having already survived a building collapse, the likelihood of recurrence was exceedingly low, until the dust rose from Sumner village and Peacocks Gallop filled with boulders and parts of houses. What do you do when terror is the only rational response?

I started fiddle lessons, under duress. During the brief moment of calm between the Dalai Lama's visit and June 13, I met a man named Al in a Lyttelton cafe called Samo's. We got to chatting, and I mentioned I was looking for a band for a rescue party, to thank the men who dug me out from under the building and took me to hospital in the back of a truck. Al said his band would love to play, but only if I played one fiddle song with them.

At that point, I couldn't bend my left index finger far enough to reach a string, let alone happen to set it down in the exact right spot on the string I was aiming for.

The night of February 22, I met a man named Tom who introduced himself as my hand surgeon.

"Ann, can you tell me if you're left-handed?"

"No, I'm right-handed, but I play the fiddle."

"Ah . . . " the building shook, lights flickered and he looked at my crushed left hand. "We'll do our best."

But Al was having none of that, insisting that my friends and rescuers wouldn't care what notes I hit. Any notes would do. If I didn't start now, I never would, he said.

So he marched me up to Anita's house for fiddle lessons. Let's just say Anita's patience is second only to her musical grace. I played that song at that party, and no-one seemed to notice all the wrong notes or, at least, they pretended not to, and a good time was had by all.

During the long and dark winter of 2011, the terror was ever present, but ever so slightly starting to change. You can hear it in the second wave of the song, after the first respite. The terror is strong and steady in its rhythm and always quick to shove sorrow or calm aside.

It is never far away, but in the second wave, the terror response starts edging higher in pitch, sounding more like anger. Towards the end of the second wave, during the Christmas-New Year's spate of magnitude-5 quakes and a 6, terror re-emerges.

As quickly as the new year's 5s eroded into 4s and 3s, the terror got shoved out of the way by the anger of the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission hearings.

Christchurch City Council engineers and inspectors predicted what befell Colombo St on February 22, yet the city council did nothing to prevent it - not even a fence. The anger in the third wave of the song is repetitive, insistent, haunting and tireless.

They left us there to die. They left us there to die. They left us there to die.

The transition from the third wave to the fourth is a long time coming. The shift is only complete when anger turns to determination, measured in the distance run: 30 seconds on Sumner Beach, 7km on the Harry Ell, 8km on the roller coaster from Sumner to Taylors Mistake, 15km in the City to Surf with the wives of a couple of my rescuers. The third wave closes with 26km along the Queen Charlotte Track.

Running, running, running, through pain, terror, sorrow, anger and week upon week of winter rain. The anger finally lets go out of sheer exhaustion.

The fourth wave begins again with the call of sorrow, but the response is gentler, insistent but not obsessive. It's got shadows of everything - pain, terror, sorrow, anger and determination, but it continues to shift higher, gentler, more hopeful.

Like the song, our story has no rah-rah-sis-boom-bah celebration at the end. It's just a quiet acceptance of loss and discovery, sorrow and terror, grief and anger, hope and determination, pain and healing. There is no cliche happy ending to our song.

Both the call of sorrow and the response of anger are edging from the sad minor key to a more hopeful major key. Neither ever quite arrives, but in the end, the sorrow and anger fuse to form something new entirely.

Peace, grace, calm, quiet, forgiveness perhaps.

In the song, the call is constant and consistent. It's the response that changes through the waves. Although the call dominates, the response compels.

Therein lies our story. We are powerless over the call, of pain and sorrow at lost yesterdays and forever changed tomorrows, but the response is in our hands.

We can't control pain, but we can control our response. Man is born neither a hero nor a coward, but makes himself as such.

Sometimes healing is not about getting over it or moving on. Sometimes healing is about accepting the pain we cannot change and allowing it to become a part of us. Perhaps if we do, the shadows of sorrow, terror, grief and anger will fuse to form the kindness, patience, gentleness, empathy, and heroism that we all experienced in early 2011.

Like the song, healing comes in waves. From sorrow, terror, grief and anger, to a tentative but calming hope. We are entering the wave of grace and hope.

It is time.

The Press