Gary Morton is a broken man. It’s been almost a year since he cradled his partner Jo-Anne Mackinnon’s body in his arms following the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake.
Now, only a few days away from the first anniversary of the tragedy that wreaked havoc on the small coastal settlement and changed his life forever, Gary has been dealt another blow. He has bowel cancer.
Jo-Anne (55) died after she fell and hit her head during the November 14 quake. Gary remembers that day as if it was yesterday. Sleep has been impossible – he has relived the event over and over, dreaming the same dream every night since.
He remembers Jo-Anne slamming into his back and falling when the quake struck, smashing into the couple’s log cabin in the foothills of Mt Lyford just after midnight.
He recalls scrabbling around in the dark among splintered wood and upturned furniture trying to find her and, when he did, realising the woman he loved – his “forever partner” – was unresponsive.
Attempts at CPR were futile. Her autopsy report said Jo-Anne died of a blunt force head injury.
“It’s been very, very hard trying to deal with it. I know there were a lot of people killed in the Christchurch earthquake, and they’ve had to cope with all sorts of things, but you know the way it happened – she hit me on the way down. I couldn’t find her – and the helicopter not coming for 14 hours. That’s what’s been doing my head in.”
Along with post-traumatic stress disorder, Gary has been told he also has survivor’s guilt and blames himself. He built the house they lived in, which was near the epicentre of the quake. It was thrust 2.5 metres upwards and suffered substantial damage.
And now there’s the cancer. He was given the news on October 12, just a month before the anniversary of the quake.
“I knew something was up,” he tells. “It was the look on the doctor’s face – and yeah, he said there was a 20mm tumour in my bowel.”
Now facing more tests, including a chest X-ray, MRI and CT scan to see whether the cancer has spread, Gary’s not sure of his prognosis.
“If it hasn’t spread, then there’s a chance I can fight it. But you know, it’s just really hard coming to terms with everything. I’m having a bloody awful time. There’s been too much trauma.”
Strangely, he says the night he received the diagnosis was the first night he didn’t dream about Jo-Anne and the earthquake.
Jo-Anne, a mum-of-two, worked as Correction’s South Island high risk advisor. She died not knowing she was about to become a grandmother. Her first grandchild, Asher, was born on June 22.
Jo-Anne was buried alongside her grandparents in a family plot in Kaikoura, her hometown, following an emotional service in Christchurch last November.
In a touching tribute to the woman described by friends as a wonderful mum and a fabulous friend, the Hurunui Council has planted a native garden on reserve land at Mt Lyford and, on November 25, the mayor will unveil a plaque in her memory.
“The Lyford community didn’t want a memorial feature,” explains Gary.
“They didn’t want anything to remind them of the earthquake, but they thought remembering Jo would be a nice tribute.”