The Day My House Fell Down

After that initial earthquake life carried on as normal. Despite aftershock after earthquake after aftershock.  They seemed never-ending but you got used to them.  We started sleeping through anything less than a 4.0 tremor.  And we began to roll our eyes at anything less than a 5.0.  As if to say, ‘you call that an earthquake?!'

Then Mother Nature decided to let us know she was still in charge.

On February the 22nd, 2011, at 12.51pm I was standing in my lounge about to take my parent’s dog for a walk.  They were away on holiday, over on the West Coast, and I was looking after Jessie.  As I clipped the lead on to her collar a 6.3 quake hit.  While it wasn’t as strong as the first earthquake, it was shallower.  It was only 5km beneath the earth’s surface.  

As everything came crashing down around me I had a sinking feeling that this time things were going to be bad.  I wasn’t to be proved wrong.

My first thought was for my grandparents.  Luckily they lived close by, so I jumped in the car and headed straight there.  The streets were ripped to shreds.  There were either massive holes in the ground, or the road surface had been pushed up above it’s normal height.  While driving I tried to get hold of my family but all phone lines were down.

My grandparents were shaken but fine.  I left Jessie with them and started to head towards the physiotherapy clinic I owned.  I hadn’t been able to get a hold of the girls working that day, and I was becoming worried.  I had heard on the radio that the epicentre of the quake was only kilometres away from where the clinic stood.  

What should have taken 15 minutes to get there took over an hour.  The roads were chaotic, with traffic backed up for miles.  Everyone was trying to locate loved ones, or get home.  News started trickling in that lives had been lost in the city centre.  I remember sitting in a line of cars completely shocked.  This was the kind of nightmare you read about, but think will never happen to you.  I guess you never know.

Out of the blue my phone rang.  It was my ex-husband.  He was trying to get home and wanted to know where I was, as he’d left the dogs inside that day.

When we separated a year earlier we owned a house and a physiotherapy clinic together.  Until we were able to sort things out legally we decided he would take the house, and I would take the business.  And that each of us would be financially responsible for what we would end up with.  In hindsight this was a huge mistake on my part.  And I should have known better.  But hindsight is a grand old thing.

I was only minutes from the clinic so I kept driving.  As I arrived the girls were making their way out of the building.  It was structurally intact, with only surface damage inside.  The businesses either side weren’t so lucky.  With big gapping holes in their buildings it was obvious they weren’t going to be open again anytime soon.  

After locking everything up I headed towards my old house.  Again, although usually 15 minutes away, it took me over an hour to get there.  A block away a row of shops had lay flattened like dominoes.  How anyone in the end shop survived, I have no idea?  But even then it didn’t occur to me that our house might have suffered damage.  It had come through the first earthquake alright, so why not this time?

As I turned into the street I had to manoeuvre around a ute that had fallen into a sink hole.  The back was sticking out of the ground.  The front you couldn’t even see.  As I pulled up to the house my ex-husband had made it before me.  He had both dogs in the car, and was throwing a bag of clothes into the back seat.  

“I’m out of here.  I’m heading to Nelson to stay with my parents.  I will call you when I’m there”.  

And with that he left.

Typical.

I turned, walked through the gate and stopped dead.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  The house was an old, 1930’s villa that rested on a concrete foundation above the ground.  The foundation had cracks all the way through it, large enough for a cat to walk through.  And the house was sunk in the middle.

The back door had been locked when the earthquake hit.  It was still locked.  But the house had moved so much the door had separated from the frame and I could walk straight in.  

The kitchen looked like a disaster zone.  The ceiling had half collapsed (a couple of days later it would completely collapse).  Every drawer was lying on the floor, along with all it's contents.  Bits of plates and crockery lay smashed everywhere.  Hardly anything remained in the pantry.  And the microwave, which had been up on a shelf, was lying on the other side of the room.  The plug was still in the socket, torn from the wall as well.

As I moved down the hallway there were cracks in all the walls.  In the lounge the light fittings had swung so much they had smashed on the ceiling above.  The fireplace was a crumble of bricks.  A breeze swept through the broken windows.  And the porch outside was only holding on by the skin of it’s teeth, most of the bricks lying on the lawn below.

The floor beneath me sunk as I walked through the different rooms, scanning the damage.  As another big aftershock hit I decided it was time to leave.  There was nothing I could do right then.  It was definitely a house that wasn’t going to be lived in for a while, if at all.  

It’s hard to describe how I felt at the time.  I don’t know if it was shock but I didn’t really feel anything.  I’ve always been a ‘there’s no point crying over spilt milk’ kind of girl, so maybe that was it.  But I also didn’t know what was to come.  

My sister and her husband lived around the corner so I headed to there place.  I knew Sarah was working at the hospital that day, but I thought her husband might have been home.  Their street looked like a war zone.  House after house had been completely demolished.  Thank goodness their’s was a wooden home and it was still standing.  But the inside was a complete mess.  I spent the rest of the day helping clean up and look for their dog, who had taken off when the earthquake struck.

Pregnant, frazzled and upset by what she had seen at the hospital, my sister returned home after her shift.  We continued to tidy up as best we could. While hoping her beloved dog would find his way home (for all you dog lovers out there she found him the next day).

Amongst all the chaos my Mum managed to get through to me on the phone.  

“How is everything?"

What do you say?

“Grandma and Grandad are fine.  Jamiie’s fine.  Sarah and Sav are fine but Benson is missing.  And their house is a complete mess.  People have died in the city.  And my house is falling down".

“We’re on our way home”.

Later that evening I sat in the darkness and sipped a glass of red wine.  My close friends had all checked in to say they were safe.  But Facebook updates showed people were still missing (six people I knew lost their life that day).  I had no power and no water.  I couldn’t get through to my ex-husband to see if he and the dogs had made it to Nelson.  

There was nothing I could do but sit there.

A few hours later the power came on. I turned on the television and watched the footage that was rolling in.  Scenes of people frantically digging through rubble, trying to save anyone they could.  People caught on camera racing for their lives as buildings collapsed behind them.  And hundreds of rescue workers and dogs searching for people still trapped.  Not knowing whether they would find survivors or bodies.

It was like watching a terrible movie, except knowing it was playing out in real life only blocks away.  I had never understood what surreal meant until that day.

I went to bed with a heavy heart and the dread of what tomorrow would bring.

What it brought was a phone call.  A phone call from my ex-husband with news that didn’t surprise me at all.  He wasn’t coming back to Christchurch.  He was moving to Auckland to be with some chick that he'd met online dating.  He didn’t want anything to do with the house.  He couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage anymore. I could do with it what I wanted.

Oh, and he needed to drop the dogs back.  And he didn't want to come back into the city so could I pack up his belongings and meet him halfway to do a swap?

This was the only time I completely lost my shit at him.

And this was also the time when I realised there was a good reason why we weren’t married anymore.

I spent the next few days at the house trying to salvage what I could.  The clinic still didn’t have power or water so we couldn’t open.  Tidying up was my way of keeping my mind off things.  

One morning I came across a pile of unopened bank statements.  They were addressed to both of us.  So I opened them.  

“You have to be f*&king kidding me”?  

If there was ever an appropriate time to use that word this was it.

The mortgage on the house was $12,000 in arrears!  I couldn’t understand it.  My ex-husband had been renting the spare rooms since we separated.  I knew what rent he had been getting.  It was more than enough to cover the mortgage.  

As I dug through the rest of the paperwork it got worse.  The rates were $2000 in arrears. His car was about to be repossessed. And there were TAB statements everywhere.

No wonder he had upped and walked away.  

To be honest, at this point I was more upset and angry with myself than him.  I should have known better.  I shouldn’t have trusted him with the house.  

A day later he dropped the dogs off on the outskirts of town, where my sister and her husband were staying.  Little did he know what he was in for.  By the time he left my sister had ripped him to shreds.  She was the better person to do it than me at the time.  But it made little difference.  To this day I have not received a cent from him.  I haven’t even had an apology.

The next year was tough.  The bank manager I dealt with was lovely though. I was given a year’s mortgage reprieve while I tried to pay back the $12,000.  The government also paid my rent for the next six months.  Which all helped but wasn’t enough.

Before the earthquake the clinic had been struggling to survive for a while.  My ex-husband had made some financial decisions which had us on the back foot (is anyone surprised by that at this point?!).  Then a change in government legislation meant people had to part-pay for treatments.  Our patient numbers dropped to less than 25% within a 24 hour period.  We had only started to rebuild when the earthquake struck.

The clinic was located near the epicentre of the earthquake, in a low socio-economic area.  Many of the local people had lost either their house, their job or both.  The clinic was hit hard again.  

On top of trying to keep the business afloat I had a multitude of personal debt. There were weeks where I wondered how I was going to buy food for the dogs.

It was a hard time.  And I will be the first to admit that I didn’t handle it as well as I could.  It didn’t help that my two best friends were going through difficult times too.  So together we drunk and danced away our sorrows on far too many nights out.  But I needed that little bit of fun in my life right then.  Because without it life would have been a very dark place.

In time the financial strain began to take a toll.  I stopped sleeping.  I stopped eating.  I lost a lot of weight.  And I began to look like death warmed up.  I knew I needed to make some tough decisions, but I was scared of making them.  In time I let the business go.  To be honest I don’t talk about it a lot.  And I’m not going to here either.  I still struggle with the fact that it failed.  And while I know a lot of it was outside of my control I still feel like a failure.  That feeling is getting better but I still have a long way to go.

Over the next few months life continued to have it's ups and downs.  I took a break from physiotherapy and started working as a gymnastics coach.  It was one of the best decisions I made.  When I coach my mind doesn't wander. It was the only time I got where I was living in the present. Without going back over the past, or worrying about the future. It gave me some rest.

But life was still a struggle. And there were many nights when I would cry myself to sleep (which was about the only way I could get to sleep).  I also wasn’t living life the way I wanted to, and I knew something had to change.  I just wasn’t sure how to go about changing it.  

Then one day I came across the book ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne.  I curled up on my couch one Sunday afternoon and read it cover to cover.  The chapter that resonated with me the most was that of gratitude.  As I closed the book I looked down at my two dogs lying either side of me, their heads in my lap.  For the fist time, in a long time, I felt grateful. Grateful that, no matter what else was going on, Meg and Toddy would always be there for me.  Happy to see me.  Tails wagging.  Keen to enjoy the small things like swimming at the beach or chasing a ball at the park.

It had become obvious that happiness wasn't to be found at the bottom of a wine bottle, so I decided to gratitude a go.

In time it did make me feel better.  Life seems less dark when you are thankful for the sun shining. Or a beautiful sunrise, or the laughter of kids at the park.  And things slowly started to improve.  Not much.  But enough to make me feel like there was a dim light at the end of the tunnel.

Little did I know that that light would come in the form of a shaven-headed, tattooed builder. Who would fly in on a silver-winged aeroplane to sweep me off my feet only a few weeks later.   

This person is special enough to get his own story, which I will tell you about next week.


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