Lost in the quake: The baby boys who never saw their first birthday

Among the 185 names etched into the white marble ofthe Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial are two little boys – baby boys.

Baxtor Warwick Gowland, aged 5-and-a-half months.

Jayden David Harris aged 8 months.

Both babies were asleep and peaceful when their homes began to shake.

Babies whose lives were taken before they even celebrated their first birthdays.

Ten years on from the cruel and brutal quake their mothers speak – for the first time in depth – about that devastating day, their loss, grief and if they will ever heal.

Their stories are raw and some details may be upsetting for some readers. Please take care.

Breanna Gowland only remembers the day in pieces -painful fragments and haunting slivers.

Her wee baby – her first baby – Baxtor sleeping safely and soundly in his cot.

The city shaking and tearing beneath her. Her home shaking and tearing around her.

Fleeting images of Baxtor’s little cot crushed by falling masonry, of the sight of her 5-month-old baby lying helpless and silent beneath the rubble and debris.

It’s been a decade now, and Gowland has done a lot of work to heal, to survive.

But the pain of that day, and every day she has had to live without Bax, is still raw and deep.

“It’s still so hard, I won’t lie – but I have to talk about it sometimes,” she said.

“Otherwise you get stuck, you don’t quite accept it and you get quite angry … I have to learn to deal with it, but it’s still really hard.”

Gowland has flashes of the day in her mind, but her memories are broken.

“I talk about it in bits, that’s how my brain accesses it,” she explained.

“I avoid it as much as possible because I find it so hard to talk about, even with lots of therapy.

“I was at home when it happened, I barely even remember it from start to finish because it was so incredibly quick … all I really get is a flashback of the sound that I heard come out of my own mouth, then the realisation that my child had been injured by masonry and knowing I had to do something.

“That something at the time was to run for help, call 111, but nothing was getting through – that part in itself causes quite a lot of trauma … that I was in that position and there was no help, I still can’t understand that and I can’t explain how it felt … just that helplessness …”

The race to save baby Bax

Gowland ran outside and screamed for help.

Her partner at the time got a group of builders who had been working in the street to come and help, and a police officer who chanced upon the desperate situation also ran in.

“I felt like I was in the middle of an apocalypse – it was so bizarre,” said Gowland.

“They were just doing what they could to get to Bax … a paramedic also appeared from I don’t know where and put oxygen on him.

“We made a makeshift stretcher out of a cupboard door that had fallen off and covered it in towels. I was just thinking ‘where’s the ambulance’.

“I could hear sirens everywhere but we just could not find one.”

Gowland remembers being in the back of a police car trying to get from her St Albans home to the hospital – a short drive that was made excruciatingly long due to gridlocked traffic in a city of terrified and shocked people.

“The roads were completely swarmed with people … I don’t remember much about the ride there apart from that it felt like it took 20 years… I was just there with my wee boy, singing to him and trying to love him, trying to be there for him.

“Someone kept saying to me ‘it’s going to be okay, he’s going to be okay’ and I believed that – the strength of the love that was there in that moment was incredible.”

As they got closer to the hospital cars were “bumper to bumper” and they could barely move.

“I was just devastated and my partner was yelling at people to move … the things that we saw along the way – they were things that no one should ever have to see, it was just horrific.”

The finally got to the hospital and Gowland recalls doctors “swarming” on her baby.

“They took him up to ICU and talked about airlifting him to Starship hospital – so I had hope,” she said.

“I really thought it was going to be okay and that we could deal with whatever happened if we got transferred to Auckland because he would be alright.”

Then Gowland was told there were issues with helicopters landing at the hospital so the chance of getting to Auckland was slim.

“The CT scan machines and a lot of the other equipment was broken, the morgue was full and it was really ‘give up hope’ time then … I didn’t know what to do … they told me they didn’t think Bax was going to make it and my world came crashing down.

“It took me a really long time to accept a lot of what happened though … The life I had was gone, Bax was my firstborn and my life had just begun and I all of a sudden I was looking at an empty pram … I didn’t know what to do with myself, my child was my purpose and he was gone …

“I had incredible survivor guilt.”

Rebuilding, repairing, remembering

Tragically, Baxtor was a twin but his sibling died before birth. So his arrival – just after the September quake, was extra special.

But after he died Gowland couldn’t bear to be in Christchurch, in New Zealand even – so she moved to Australia where no one knew her or her story.

“There was a lot going on in my head for a long time … I went to therapy weekly for two years,” she said.

“Then I got pregnant with my daughter and that was it – I needed to be mentally healthy, I needed to be okay for her.”

Anahera – the Māori word for angel – and her sister Tessa were both born in Australia.

Now 8 and 7 they have helped to heal part of Gowland’s shattered heart.

The little girls know all about Baxtor – they help celebrate his birthday every year with a special cake and they talk about him as often as possible.

When Gowland moved back to Christchurch and had her two youngest children – 3-and-a-half-year-old Britta and Lennox, 2 – her healing continued.

She gave birth to Britta and Lennox at the same hospital where Baxtor died, and said that in itself was a traumatic but helpful experience.

“As I have had more children, as I have seen them grow, as I have seen some of them with the same attributes their sibling Baxtor had – that’s been healing,” she said.

“We celebrate Baxtor all the time, it’s just our normal now.”

Gowland said over the last 10 years she had worked extremely hard to navigate her way out of the darkest corners of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She’s studied the conditions, read for countless hours about trauma, triggering and how the brain deals and heals in a bid to give herself a fighting chance for any kind of happiness.

“It’s been a lot of hard work and I still do the work, and I’ll do the work for the rest of my life,” she said.

“I am here, I am living and I owe it to Bax, I owe it to all of my kids.”

Gowland thinks about her baby a lot – his photo sits front and centre in the family dining room and little Lennox even got some of his baby clothes.

And while the loss of her first baby, her first boy will never be easy and she will never completely heal, she’s found comfort and a degree of peace.

Precious memories and lost dreams

“I picture Bax as a 10-year-old, but then he’s a baby again … he’s eternally 5-and-a-half-months old.

“It’s important to keep his memory alive – it’s so important that he was here and that he was who he was.

“I have this little video of him eating solids for the first time and that is the most precious thing because it shows the personality he had as a 5-and-a-half-month-old – his little eyes looking around, him being so interested in his food, he was really enjoying it,

“My memories of Baxtor are super precious.

“Ten years is really nothing – every year I think it should feel a little bit easier but on the other hand, the more time that goes by is more time that your child would have had to grow and do things in life.

“It’s a Catch-22.”

Gowland said she “chases help” when she needs it and is no longer afraid to sit in her trauma when she is triggered.

She has accepted what happened 10 years ago and does her best to survive every day.

“I don’t know if you ever fully heal from something like this – I’d love to say it’s all wonderful and lovely now but it’s a challenge,” she said.

“My kids have helped me in a huge way – they have helped me see the joy in life and moments and how precious time is.

“You just have to get as many of those moments in as you can.”

That day basically ruined my life

Tracey Harris has photos of her baby boy all around her modest Christchurch home.

Jayden smiling, his big blue eyes staring into the camera.

When she lost him, she lost part of herself that she has never been able to get back.

And she feels that every day.

She’s desperate to be a mum, but her grief is so deep it has destroyed her to the core – and robbed her of any chance of parenting her surviving kids.

“That day basically ruined my life,” she said.

“Then losing my other kids was a second hell.”

Jayden was Harris’ third child, and her first son. She had a hard childhood, a troubled youth and when she had her first two kids she was far from ready to raise a family.

She almost died having Jayden and then said she fought to stay with him every single day – until she lost him in the quake.

“He was awesome from day one,” she said.

“For most of my pregnancy thought he was another girl so I was surprised to have a son.

“It was a really long labour – Jayden was stubborn, joked he didn’t want to come out and meet his sisters because they were so loud.

“I was very sick after he was born, couldn’t hold him, that was hard, I could only put my hand out and touch him.

“When they were finally able to put him in the bed with me it was love at first sight, and I knew I would do absolutely everything for him. From that moment on everything was about Jayden.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love all of my kids, but Jayden was my fresh start.”

A new life and a life ended

Harris has had – and continues to have a hard life.

She’s been in trouble with the law, and for many years her personal life has been punctuated by abuse and violence with little to no stability.

After she had Jayden she moved into Holly House -a residential home for young women and their babies, who had no family and had been referred by Child Youth and Family.

The home – now closed – did wonders for Harris.

“It changed my life, turned my life around,” she said.

“I was struggling, I didn’t know the basics. But I went there with Jayden and I worked hard to prove I could be his mum.”

She smiles when she remembers her baby boy – a rosy-cheeked little man with a glint in his eye.

“Jayden was easygoing, the cruisiest of my three eldest kids – he was one of a kind.

“He had this certain look, he was really sensitive to emotions and if I was having a crappy day he would just give me this look and I’d start laughing and he’d laugh and give me this beaming smile.

“He was definitely a mummy’s boy.

“As he got older I had this bond with him that was just so incredible. He had these big blue eyes and absolutely beautiful lashes … I would have done anything for him … I almost died having him and I would have died to keep him.

Harris remembered her son’s first word was “bubba” and he could say “mum”.

She also remembers the day of his death – she had an appointment with her mentor from Holly House but was not feeling well so she stayed home.

Had she gone to that appointment her day could have been so, so different.

“It started off as a typical Tuesday … just before the quake I put him under his play gym on the floor. I was going to the mall with a friend and we got organised to leave – and when we went to go Jayden had fallen asleep.

“I was standing in the kitchen washing his bottles and talking to my friend about our plans and then all of a sudden I was thrown against the cupboards.

“My first instinct was to grab Jayden.”

When Harris got to her baby he was crushed under a large television that had fallen when the city began to shake.

He sustained serious injuries.

“I don’t remember grabbing the TV off him … I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

“I had him in my arms and my friend tried to call an ambulance but it wasn’t going through … I went running to the neighbours to see if their landline was working, the whole time I was just talking to Jayden, praying – I’m not really religious but I was praying and praying.”

Losing Jayden – a mother torn apart

Harris ran from house to house trying to find someone to help her call for help and someone eventually offered to drive her straight to hospital.

“I was begging and pleading the whole way … I was saying ‘hang in there, I love you.

“We got to Deans Ave and traffic was stopped, we couldn’t get through … There was a nurse and she asked what happened then started trying to resuscitate Jayden. I was a mess.

“A ute pulled up and we all got on the back with the nurse still working and a cop came and helped us get up the road.

“I lost it, I was just begging, I was praying, I was telling Jayden how much I needed him.

“When we got into the hospital I think they knew pretty much straight away it was pointless … But they kept trying and they tried for a while … then someone came and said ‘sorry, there is nothing we can do’.

“I screamed … I yelled, I couldn’t walk.”

They wrapped Jayden in a blanket and put him back in his mother’s arms.

Due to the intensive CPR his little chest had air in it and as she cradled him, it expelled and looked like he was sighing which got Harris’ hopes up.

But then, she knew he was gone.

“I kissed him, I held him, I kept dabbing the blood away from his mouth,” she recalled.

She managed to get hold of her partner who confirmed their daughters were safe, and her mother who walked about 5km to the hospital.

They moved Harris to a ward with her dead baby so she and her family could say goodbye.

She refused food, water, to use the bathroom, because she didn’t want to let go of her boy.

“I was completely numb … I could still feel his spirit in the room.

“Then they came and said it was time to take him … I carried him, I needed to walk with him down to the morgue – I swear that walk was one of the longest I’d ever had.

“I said goodbye and as much as I didn’t want to, I had to let him go, and I had to walk away.”

February 23 – the nightmare is real

That night Harris managed to sleep.

When she woke the next day her daughter had climbed into bed with her and for a moment she thought it was Jayden’s little body snuggled next to her.

“Before I opened my eyes I had this moment where I thought it was all a dream, a horrible nightmare – but then I woke up properly,” she said.

“Then we had the formal identification and I wanted to see Jayden again, to hold him, but I didn’t want to see him like that.

“I wasn’t allowed to pick him up, I couldn’t kiss him, I couldn’t touch him …”

Since Jayden died Harris’ life has been punctuated by depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, self-harm.

“I did whatever it took to try and not feel anything … I self-harmed because physical pain was easier to deal with … it was hell,” she said.

“It’s not just that Jayden died, it’s that I fought every single day of his life to keep him and I had just made it, we were happy, we were doing really well and we had a plan, a future.

“That was all destroyed in a second.”

She went on to have five more children who were all taken from her care and now live with family or permanent foster parents because she simply could not cope or find the right support.

Harris loves them all dearly and hopes to one day have closer relationships with them but her grief has been too consuming for her to be their mum full time.

Blame, pain, grief and the saddest goodbye

She blames herself for Jayden’s death and 10 years on the pain of losing him has not eased for her at all.

“It’s like I don’t know who I am without Jayden …I remember a cop saying to me ‘there’s no one to blame, this was an accident, no one could have predicted what was going to happen’ – but that didn’t matter to me.

“I was Jayden’s mum and it was my job to protect him … If I am not his mum, who am I?”

Harris still remembers every detail about her son’s funeral – choosing his last outfit, filling his coffin with glitter and stars and toys and the blue and white balloons that were released to the heavens as he was lifted into the hearse.

A bag of the leftover balloons sits at his gravesite along with a weathered plastic truck and faded plastic baby bottle.

Harris used to come here a lot at first, now she gets there when she can.

There’s not a day – often an hour – that goes by when she does not think about her son.

She still struggles with her grief and it – still – takes her to some dark places.

The worst time, the hardest time, is around the anniversary.

The weeks leading up to February 22 are happy and Harris smiles remembering. But the memory of that day and every one after it are devastating.

“The quake destroyed my life … one minute we were so happy and the next minute he was gone,” she said.

“I watch my friend’s kids growing up and I am reminded every day of what I am missing with Jayden, what I won’t get to see with him.

“It’s not easy … I wonder what he would have been like – would he still have been mum’s boy?

“I think he would have been independent, strong-willed, he would have loved his sisters and brother – the boys would have been close, he would have looked up to his older sisters and been protective of the younger ones…

“I think he would have been a sensitive kid, I would have always worried about him and someone breaking his heart … I think he would have been kind and generous and clever and creative.

“I used to think he would make a difference – I don’t know how and I don’t know where but Jayden was going to make a difference in this world.

“Jayden was content, he was secure, he was just awesome and I think he knew how much I loved him.”

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