Emma’s Story
by Tillie Harris
June 4, 2020

Feeling that we are safe in our beds when we sleep and that we can trust the ground we walk on are two of the basic beliefs we need to hold if we are to be able to wave off our loved ones and head out into the world each day.

But when we learn that the people and things that populate our lives can vanish in an instant, we become a different kind of person, one who knows that nothing is certain and that life can be irrevocably changed in in the blink of an eye.

To carry the burden of this knowledge and still thrive, we must discover what is truly precious and how to keep it alive. 

“If I hadn’t walked in on my husband with another woman, I never would have moved to New Zealand, so I guess I should be grateful for that. I was only 23, I’d married my childhood sweetheart. I was a small-town Irish girl and I’d signed up for a small-town Irish life. But within a year, he was cheating on me. I was heartbroken, but also strangely calm. I just thought, ‘Well I guess that’s over then,’ and I started packing up my stuff. Until that moment, I had totally trusted that he was there for me – and then, in that instant, I saw that he was not.

I’d never really travelled, but for some reason I opted for the ‘geographical cure’. I sold up what I owned and bought an around-the-world ticket.

My parents were devastated about my marriage being over. They said they couldn’t understand what I had done to drive him into the arms of another woman. It took them longer to get over it than me. They were also perplexed about my travel plans as they’d never even been on a plane. I remember them saying goodbye with bewildered expressions on their faces, but I literally didn’t look back.

While I was travelling, I met Michael, he’s also Irish, and we became a couple straightaway. He was all the things my first boyfriend wasn’t, and I just knew I’d got it right this time. We have very similar life priorities and we both fell in love with New Zealand as soon as we got there. The lifestyle of the average person is just so much better. It’s beautiful like Ireland, but with more opportunity, more space, more freedom. We decided pretty much immediately that this is where we wanted to be. We managed to get residency because Michael is a mechanic and they had a shortage of his skill set. Property was really affordable then and we bought a house outright in our 20s. It set us on a good path.

You get a better job, you have a baby, you get a better house. There’s just a ladder you get on, and honestly, we enjoyed climbing it. Each year you’ve got more than the last. You get a caravan, you get a boat.  It’s not greed; it’s just what people do. Everyone around us was the same.

I worked in sales, and each time I got a new job it was a step up. We had a really beautiful house in Christchurch. We had lovely holidays and we were always upgrading the car. All the money we had made was tied up in our house, but that felt secure because, like people say, you can’t get safer than bricks and mortar. Although that just shows how wrong you can be.

At 4am, a 7.1 earthquake hit the island, and nothing was ever the same again.

I woke up with our bed flying across the room. This horrific rumbling sound was all around us, like we were in the bowels of something that had swallowed us whole. There were a few moments of silence and then the house started to rock, two or three meters back and forth, like it was on a seesaw. The windows were cracking and splitting. Everything was tearing apart. Trees were crashing, and huge gushes of water where coming from somewhere. It was like we were on the deck of a ship in a storm. Michael went for Charlie, our son, and I threw myself out the double doors onto the patio and lay flat.  My fingers were digging into the cracks between the paving stones as I rode the ground up and down. Apparently the whole thing went on for a couple of minutes, but there was no sense of time. Finally, when I realised that things had stopped moving, I got up. Everything was broken. Just everything. The world was broken. And I couldn’t get back in the house because the door frames were all jammed. My husband had to kick the door down so I could get back in.

I walked through my living room and the carpet was writhing. I didn’t know it at the time, but my house had dropped a meter into the ground, and the land underneath had liquified. All this grey gunk, like a kind of unset concrete had come up through the foundations and vomited up eels. It was disgusting, and so frightening. Like the worst kind of dream.

Thankfully, no one got killed, but my home was destroyed. And so was my peace of mind. That night changed me. It upped my anxiety in a way that never came back down. I’ve never really trusted the world not to break open since. Because before that, whatever happens in life, you can always depend on the ground being beneath your feet. But that night I realised the ground is not solid and I’ve never felt truly safe since. Wherever I go, I’ll look for the exit. I think about the possibility of an earthquake every day.

We had no power or water for weeks. We had no toilets or showers, because the drainage was all smashed. You could run a bath, but you’d have to bucket it out the window when you were done. Everyone dug a hole in their garden to use as a toilet. And this liquefaction stuff was everywhere – the foul-smelling, grey sludge that kept coming up. We did months like that – just trying to get our heads around what had happened, still going to work and trying to keep life going.

It’s not just the horror of the earth opening up and trying to suck you in; all the practical consequences of an earthquake are immense too. The finances are awful because your house can’t be rebuilt, and you don’t know if the insurance companies will pay out. The pressure on your relationship is immense. We got short tempered and snarky with each other and we bickered a lot.

Then, six months later there was a second earthquake while I was at work. I had just popped out from my office for a sandwich. And while I was away from my desk, my entire building collapsed. In under 9 seconds, the 140 people I worked with were instantly killed. Every single one of my colleagues, gone. Only the receptionist lived, because of where she sat. She was able to throw herself out the door.

Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. That was almost immediate for me, and it went on for years, very intensely to start. ‘Why wasn’t I there with them?’, was the main question. I switched back and forth from shame — like I somehow didn’t deserve to survive — to feeling incredibly lucky to have been spared. But even the feeling of luck comes with a pressure that you should do something special with your life to prove that you appreciate having been allowed to live. That feeling really messed with my head.

The strain on our relationship was immense. We were living in the broken house, fighting the insurance companies to get paid out. All the neighbours were depressed — there was a lot of suicides. Marriages were breaking up, and a lot of people went bankrupt. And all the time the ground was still having aftershocks, so there were these waves of ‘It’s happening again’ that come at you over and over. It really opens up the cracks in your relationship and your mental health. To say we went through a rocky patch is a bit of an understatement. I was grieving, and my husband was so, so stressed.

I think I had really gone into myself, stopped talking much, and Michael was very snappy and low. The distance between us was getting bigger and bigger, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything much. Then one day I walked into the kitchen, he was bent over trying to clear up yet more of that putrid gunk that kept coming up through the floors. I looked at his back, I was staring at the shape of him, and instead of feeling gratitude or affection, I felt completely blank. Like I didn’t know him, or even like him much. Then I heard my own thought in my head, like it was being said out loud. I thought. ‘We can’t carry on. Or it will end us. It’s time to cut our losses.’

It wasn’t hard to convince Michael that something had to change. He seemed relieved that I was taking charge, and backed me all the way. Everyone in Ireland said it was time to come home. But my instincts told me that going backwards would feel like defeat, like the life we had built had been a mistake and something we should go back on. For some reason, I just knew that I needed to go forward, and do something new.

We agreed to take whatever pay-out we could get. Too much of our lives had been about stuff, but we’d learnt that you can’t trust stuff. You can lose it all in the blink of an eye anyway, so you might as well not worry about it.

We gave up work, and took Charlie out of school. We bought tickets to go backpacking for a year. All the other mums were shocked.  “You can’t miss a year of education”, they said, but actually, you can. Because you can do anything you damn well please. People forget that. They think you have to do what everyone else is doing.

I actually believe that there’s a part in everyone that knows exactly what they need, how to look after their family’s best interests, but you get bogged down with what’s expected – houses, cars, school terms, repayment plans – until you can’t even hear your own instinct. The earthquake ripped away so much, which was incredibly painful, but it also meant there was nowhere to hide. It made everything quite raw.

All three of us sort of ‘woke up’ while we were travelling. Because we’d been living together, but getting less and less close. Yes, we’d eaten meals together and talked about practical things, but there was less eye contact, less hugs. That’s because after you’ve shared a trauma, you don’t want to see each other’s pain. It’s too much to cope with other people’s distress on top of your own, so you shut down and stop looking into each others faces. We worked through a lot of that while we were travelling, because we had no choice. It’s very intense and you’re forced to depend on each other.

A round-the-world trip sounds really freeing, but in reality, there’s a lot of compromise. Every meal you order, every bus you take, every trip you plan is a decision. You have to negotiate and collaborate every minute of every day to meet everyone’s different needs. And you’re tired and hungry a lot. We had some of our worst arguments in 20 years. But it did bring us closer. All that moving around grounded us. It taught us what mattered: people and experiences. For all of us, material things just seemed ridiculous. It was a relief to be travelling light.

We went all across America, down into South America, took trains across Europe. We visited deserts in North Africa, temples in Asia, and we took Charlie back to Ireland to show him his roots. My husband and I started holding hands again, touching for the sake of it. And Charlie really opened up too. He learnt more on that trip than he ever has in a classroom. He’s seen more than most people have in a lifetime.

Eventually, when we went back to New Zealand, we downsized a fair bit. We moved to the other island, because they don’t have earthquakes there, and because we wanted to be somewhere where people had no real concept of what had happened in Christchurch. We wanted to put that behind us and have a fresh start.

We still have a lovely house, but life is more about living in the moment for me now. Going out biking, walking the dog, being with Michael and Charlie is my focus these days. I’m really aware that many people’s relationships didn’t survive the earthquakes, but for whatever reason, ours did. I am so grateful for that. It’s a hell of a thing to go through together, and it could have pulled us in opposite directions, but in the end, it made us close.”

In midlife, many women discover that they have been retracing the same patterns and coping strategies again and again – each time in a different scenario underpinned by the same beliefs. And there is a general assumption that these beliefs and patterns keep us trapped and hinder growth. But for Emma, the impulse for flight and reinvention that set her on a positive path after the end of her first marriage, was also the one that saved her second.

The lesson she learnt from the painful ending with her childhood sweetheart was that she could cut loses and start again. At 23 she gave up a safe but damaging relationship and all the worldly goods that went with it, to go and find who she was and what she wanted. Through this, she learnt that staying stuck was not obligatory. And that letting go can be the way to keep what matters.

So, two decades later, when the earth opened up and sucked down so much of her life, the part of Emma that wanted to survive circled back to the tactic that had saved her before.

She looked around and saw families being pulled apart by the fight to keep things together. She instinctively knew that if she fought for her belongings, she would lose her relationships.

By letting go and leaving, she created a space and time where her family had no choice but to connect. While they talked about the trip broadening horizons, the sight line that was in fact opened up was their ability to look into each other’s faces, and find ways to understand each other’s needs and how those needs could be met.

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