United we stand as our tragedy unfolds

The first anniversary of Christchurch's killer earthquake on February 22 has come and gone, and with it the anniversary of a seismic shift in our own household.

One the day before the quake, my husband Bill was diagnosed with a neurological illness with a long name and a cruel outcome. It is progressive, there is no treatment, it has no known cause, and the specialist described Bill as being at the young end of the scale for this to happen. She described him as being "very unlucky" as she gently broke the news.

That night, we had a makeshift dinner with one or two hastily assembled people and after a couple of glasses of wine I began to think-hope that things might not be so bad after all.

The next morning it sank in again, and we sat numbly at home trying to absorb what this might mean for us. At about 1pm I heard a radio news flash about the devastation in Christchurch, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in front of the television watching a disaster unfold on a much bigger scale from ours.

The two events are unrelated, utterly different, but forever linked in my mind. As thousands of lives unravelled in Christchurch, ours began to as well, with everything we've held dear as a couple changing rapidly and irrevocably.

The best advice I received in the first month or so was from a Fairfax NZ colleague in Christchurch, who had been through two earthquakes and was also helping to support a seriously ill member of her family. "Just keep putting one foot in front of the other," she said, "it's all you can do."

I've said these words in my head many times since, almost like a mantra; they've got a steady rhythm which has helped keep me on an even keel when I've come close to tipping over.

I've also asked out loud, most days, "how the hell did this happen to us?" To which question there is no answer, but it helps to put it out there. I ache to have our old life back.

Typically, we all think-hope that bad things are the preserve of mythical "other people", not us.

When the specialist delivered the results of Bill's tests I had the irrational thought that I've spent a chunk of my career covering stories of "other people's" tragedies, and somehow I'd conveniently glossed over the possibility that one day we might be on the receiving end.

But this is not written to be bleak. It is more to describe the strength that we've drawn from our immediate community, our family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and health professionals, to get through this first year.

Again, our experience has mirrored the many stories out of Christchurch, where time and again people have talked about the support and courage they've taken from their personal networks.

For us, it's highlighted the beauty of living in one place for such a long time. We're both Waikato born and bred, we've raised our kids here, we've kept close to our respective siblings and their families, we've developed a circle of loved and trusted friends.

Any kindness or good deed that Bill or I may have done for others in the past decades has been repaid many times over this year. We've had untold phone calls and visits, flowers, cards, meals and homegrown vegetables delivered, our busted letterbox has been fixed, a vintage mezzaluna knife restored, the hedge trimmed, rubbish taken to the dump, a few issues with my car have been sorted, a precious artwork has been given to us by some precious friends.

Big things, little things. Lots of stuff just happening spontaneously; people who've shared the good times with us now sharing the not-so-good times. Not asking too many questions, just being there for us. We've also made new friends this year, meeting other families who are dealing with the difficulties of neurological illness. I've been lucky to join a support group of women in a similar situation to myself, and our monthly get-togethers are a huge source of comfort and camaraderie.

What have I learned from this year? Mostly that life is fragile, it can change in an instant and the people and things you love most should never be taken for granted. I've also learned – despite some reports to the contrary – that we have a decent health service, which has provided us with kindness and skilled care when we've needed it. And I've learned that work helps; it gives some structure to my life, an opportunity to put on my professional persona and briefly blot out other things that are happening.

I've learned about changing roles within our family, seen our sons providing us with strength and practical support, when up until now it has been the other way around. It has been a hard year for them and our daughters-in-law. But they've risen to this absolutely undreamed of challenge, they help keep us grounded, keep us going. They've also provided us with great pleasure, in the form of two beautiful grandchildren, and a third happily awaited in May.

I guess I've learned there are many reasons to put one foot in front of the other. And it helps enormously when you've got a few other people to walk the path with you.