"Clean your room. You know my rule."
The children bowed their heads, forlorn as a result of their mother's scowl. "Yes, mum. There must always be a clear path from the door to the bed."
It wasn't much to ask for as far as the mother was concerned. It really was just for a matter of safety. But the children went about their chores, knowing the consequences if they didn't. Their mother's wrath was not something anyone wanted to wage war with—and she knew it. Smiling to herself, she left her children to tidy the messes that they called bedrooms.
Sunday afternoon bounded along and it was time for inspection. The son had everything in its place: books on the shelves, desk clear, laundry in the hamper, and the bed made. He had even vacuumed. The daughter… Well… The mess had been carefully stowed away in the cupboards and stacked in unstable piles. The laundry was pushed under the bed and the covers were pulled back to give the false impression of a made bed. The mother shook her head in dismay.
"What?" the daughter protested. "There's a clear path to the bed from the door."
Unable to respond, the mother just walked away. The young girl was only six. Perhaps she would understand when she was nine like her brother. Perhaps the mother was just being delusional and wishing her daughter would understand.
The start of the work week began and the mother sent her children dutifully off to school. All was well. Tuesday came… The son had been throwing up the night before—no real reason why, but it was just the way his body reacted to illness. One projectile bodily function and he was fine. However, the school had a policy: a child was not allowed to attend school until 48 hours after the last violent body motion. She could lie and send him to school anyway, but her children were too honest for their own good. Instead, the mother made plans to work from home. Thank goodness they had hi-speed Internet. So the son played on the N64, while the daughter went to school and the mother sat in front of the laptop, pounding on the keys.
The blinds on the windows began to rattle, gently to start with, then with a bang. The roar of the earth filled the ears and the ground shook violently. She dove under the dining room table. She had no idea where her son went. The heart raced out of control as the table that the mother clung to was bucking across the dining room. Books cascaded from the shelves and tumbled in a heap by her head. All she could do was scream, praying that it would soon end.
Only seconds later, but it felt much longer, the roaring stopped and the ground-shake subsided. However, the mother refused to move from the shelter of the table. "Are you okay?" she called out to her son.
"Yes, mum. I'm in the doorway to the hall."
"Just stay there. You know it's not—"
The world around them jumped up and down again. Then again. And again. The time lapses between each quake grew longer, eventually giving the mother the confidence to leave her hiding spot.
"Grab the camera," she ordered her son. "You know the drill. We need to take lots of photos for the insurance."
The young boy just nodded and dug through the pile of books by the door for the camera. Together, they walked through the house, turning off power switches at the walls and taking snapshots of the state of affairs.
They stood in the doorway of the son's room. "I thought I told you to clean your room on the weekend," the mother said.
"I did. It's not my fault that my room's a mess. An earthquake did it."
The mother just shook her head in false dismay and tsked. "Now I've heard every excuse there is. An earthquake did it, indeed."
The little joke helped them remain calm as the next aftershock came and they clung to each other in the doorway of the son's room.
On February 22, 2011, so many things changed for residents of Christchurch. Five years on, and we're still recovering. However, for my little family, humour has become one of our coping mechanisms.
My son was 9 years old at the time; my daughter was 6. Earthquakes are frightening things, but for children, it's also confusing. They don't understand what is going on. They don't have the emotional maturity to cope.
In seeing how my two children reacted to the constant shaking, I honestly believe it was even harder on my 9-year-old son. He was old enough to understand the science behind what was happening to our city, but still too young to process it. Even months after the February quake, every time we had an aftershock, he'd be under the table or bolting for the doorway. He was a mess. Our daughter, still too young to understand any of it, would just look at her brother like he was weird.
So many told my husband and I that we should leave Christchurch permanently, and some said that we should send our son to live with someone else until Christchurch settled. No-one could give me any real advice—except my mother, the only person I knew who had lived through similar experiences. (I was born in California, USA, where the ground shook almost every day.)
Her advice to me is something that I will never forget, and I will share it with ALL parents now:
"The earthquakes will eventually settle down, unfortunately it will take years. When your son bolts, just offer him a hand out from under the table and give him a big hug so he knows that he's okay. Eventually that little shake won't be so scary."
Five years on, my son still gets nervous with the little shakes. His high school backs onto a railway line and even the passing of the trains has been known to get his heart racing again. But he no longer bolts for the door or under tables and desks. Instead, he takes a deep breath and just carries on. And on those occasions when we have a good jolt, he casually walks over to me and gives me a hug. Occasionally, he'll even quip that his room is only a mess because an earthquake did it.
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