I’ve just returned home now from a week Christchurch, where I was invited for a series of educational events.
Christchurch - a place I hadn't been before, but knew simply as the place where an earthquake took the life of my friend Carey Bird.
I came to know Carey playing music at church - he was the sort of friend you gain not by making an effort, but through the natural sharing of time and space in a weekly activity. He was quiet, very kind, confident but gently spoken, and had a sort of wry observed humour.
He loved his music and enjoyed his solitude, and after church would stay nested in the corner playing blues-y electric guitar with creative combinations of pedal-effects. But Carey was no loner. He was a family man and rich with longstanding friends.
We grew close to both Carey and Jan Bird. My wife Rachel gave piano lessons to their daughter Lauren, and in the meantime Carey and I would crack out a morning beer (while lovely Jan tut-tutted & tried to fill us up with cheese) & jammed in their backyard, sometimes seeing in passing their son Andrew, who loved his computer games and seemed very much like his dad.
Carey was noticeably peaceful and centred. He oozed out a bubble of calm space. There was never an agenda. As an anxious, wired-up person I found this reassuring.
He loved nature and photography, and at an exhibition of his work we purchased a deep & ambiguous image which found a home on the wall of our bedroom. To me it spoke to the melancholy and mysteries of life, capturing my ever-growing feeling that I didn’t really know anything at all, or if I did, it was lurking in the shadows.
I’ve just now learned that Carey had a degree in philosophy. I’d never have guessed, but now I know, it makes sense, and it was like Carey not to mention it.
Carey worked in insurance and travelled to Christchurch in February 2011 to do work connected to the previous earthquake.
On February 22, as Carey lay pinned under a beam on the fourth floor of a collapsed building, a stranger who had himself just crawled to safety climbed up and found him. His name was Tony McCormick. He stayed with Carey through his final hours, even as the tremors and peril continued, and critically relayed messages to and from his family.
So it was that word came to a friend Dave Nash, who called me, and soon after I spoke with friend Dean Tregenza, and so on, and so all of us knew his situation, and were comforted that he wasn’t alone, and then later, we learned through Tony that Carey had passed, well before such news was official.
In the grief that accrues in my life, by chapters making me both sadder and wiser, the loss of Carey has had its own special space. Now - almost 5 years later to the day - I’m less anxious, mellower, and I feel a measure of peace that was largely missing in my life in the days when Carey was around. In that strange sense, it is possible I know him better now. Like everyone, my identity is woven with potentials I experienced first through others and thereafter pursued.
Thanks for that, Carey.
When I touched down in Christchurch late last Tuesday afternoon, I have to confess I was suppressing thoughts of Carey.
Because I had to navigate meetings, run training, buy materials, be interviewed on film, and play front man and presenter for a big event. I steeled myself to push through. I rationalised that I could think about Carey on Saturday before my flight home – and maybe find the place he died, and… I didn’t know what.
So Wednesday afternoon quite blindsided me.
I was meeting with colleagues from CORE Education preparing for the following day. When I mentioned I had a friend who had died in the earthquake, they gestured to the wall behind me where a poster was on display. The poster was specific to the CORE Ed building, to commemorate lives lost in the adjacent building that used to stand on what was now a pristine green lawn metres away from our room’s glass walls.
I twisted around to see this poster. Although my colleagues kept speaking I lost concentration, for I saw there were faces printed. On a whim I stood up and walked over, knowing I had to check, because who knows, and just because.
And there was Carey, and there I was, unprepared to meet him.
Politely I revealed this to the team at the meeting, and politely we all worked hard not to melt into little puddles.
It came home to me during my visit that most everyone in Christchurch has a story - has stories. I glimpsed these gradually through conversations. And that the stories have no bookend – because after everything happened, and everything changed, still the ground trembles, and still the buildings shake.
edit: and even since I've returned a much larger quake hit, injuring no one apparently, but rattling everyone. Poor old Christchurch! I really had no idea until my visit.
They shook the next day – Thursday - even as I spoke at a microphone in a big hall to fellow teachers. One person sweetly tweeted about it in jest.
I decided to briefly share the story of Carey Bird, knowing the tears they had for his story would be for other stories too, grieving from a well of grief, where all the waters mix together, and a bucket brought to the surface lifts bits of everything, and you can’t say exactly who or why or where.
In contrast, on the Wednesday at the small meeting we all held our composure, just. Ange pointed to the three trees outside the CORE Education building and said they were known as “the witness trees”. She said the lawn was a sacred site, and on the far side there was a little memorial – one of many around the city.
So when the Wednesday meeting finished I took my leave and went to find the tiny memorial. A little sign there invited people to place their own memorials: either flowers, to be eventually composted, or something more durable, which would be left a while then saved for a museum, and I knew I had to return and leave something.
I stood there in the late afternoon rain and opened myself up, and for a time for me it was all limbic system and no frontal cortex.
On Thursday and Friday the big event ran – successful and all-consuming. I awoke late Saturday morning in a post-adrenaline crash, bereft of clarity or willpower. There was little time left before my flight. I saw a café with a florist in it and decided it was the best I could do.
I felt truly disappointed, because I wanted to leave something more durable than flowers!
The very instant I pushed on the door of the café my eyes fell on two little birds made from metal, and my disappointment changed to a feeling I just can’t describe.
The café staff humoured me as I borrowed a marker from them & worked in the corner with poster board, cutting board and a razor from the car. I felt embarrassed and intense.
I tried to write not just for me but hopefully on behalf of others who knew Carey, and are grateful to Tony McCormick, and were affected by the story of that day, and saw what it means for life, and for hope in a world still full of peril and of apparent strangers.