Greg Bruce: Life in a spin

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A split second is all it takes for life to change direction. Greg Bruce finds taking all the care in the world to avoid risk is sometimes just not enough.
Greg Bruce and his daughter, Tallulah. Photo / Michael Craig
Greg Bruce and his daughter, Tallulah. Photo / Michael Craig

My mother's 69th birthday party, at Cornwall Park Cafe on a Saturday lunchtime in December, started well. It was a warm day and, although there was no parking anywhere near the cafe, the walk was well-grassed and my children were happy. We had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a table, but there is no cafe in Auckland where that experience is more enjoyable. Our children played in the shade while my wife and I sat alongside them on beanbags in the grass and the sun shone flawlessly on, unblemished by clouds, the start of a promising summer. On the horizon, clouds gathered, metaphorically.

I have a complexion of such whiteness that a doctor once described me as "not designed for this country" and told me to avoid going outside. I married a woman as white as me, so much so that when we were out in Newmarket one day a few years back, a stranger walked past us, laughed and loudly said, "You need to get a tan!"

We subsequently had two children. We went to get a free skin cancer check from internationally renowned skin doctor Sharad Paul, with whom my wife joked, "Two people as white as us probably shouldn't be having babies!" He nodded and did not smile.

I'm a careful person and I'm extremely risk-averse so, in Cornwall Park, we maintained heavy shade cover. When a table came free, my teenage nephew and I brought over an ominously heavy umbrella from an adjacent table. Everybody chatted happily around the table and life felt endless. Birds sang, as if life was endless.

Cornwall Park Cafe is a delightful, modern white block, the front of which opens to draw the park in, an outside-inside space, a confusion of the accepted boundaries of park-space. We sat out the front of that block, on the tectonic boundary between nature and the built environment. We didn't think of it tectonically at that point.

The umbrella was up and my 2-year-old daughter was drawing next to me. "Draw a cat!" she extolled my brother. He wrote CAT in big letters on a page of her notebook. "No, no, no, that not a cat!" she said. He argued with her. I internalised some thoughts about how this argument was shaping her attitudes: to my brother, to men, to her sense of control over her world. In the end, I said nothing.

We took a long time to order. Diagonally across the table, my wife fed our 5-month-old baby.

The realisation that the large umbrella was no longer sitting securely in its base but was in the air, came to me without emotional charge. I was an interested observer of a strange phenomenon. The umbrella was above our table now, and was spinning around, as if gripped by God. It was picking up steam. I was still looking on in curiosity, rather than fear, as it smashed into the bony ridge just above my right eye.

Everything rushed inward. I didn't black out but I do remember a sort of physical shutting-down. I made no sound, but my hands rushed to cup my eye, which was already swelling shut as the skin around it bulged and split. "Oh my God!" Mum said, and it felt like the whole cafe folded in on me. The umbrella fell heavily to the ground. A youngish woman appeared, clearly panicked, and told me her mother was a nurse and would be over shortly.

"Okay," I said calmly. She said something else, panicked. "Thank you," I said, calmly. I had never been so calm. It was because I didn't know what to do. When the nurse arrived and I took my hands from my face, everybody gasped. Mum was panicking.

"Oh my God!" she said again. My wife appeared to be in shock. My brother hissed at my mother to calm down.

Drama is such a temporary thing. Within a few minutes, with my face still mangled but my life apparently not extinguished, the world started easing out of that tight-wound moment, back to its usual looseness. Everybody started to move on. Our food arrived and everybody ate except me. I had not moved on.

My brother started telling a story about recently seeing a girl nearly die in a bike accident. I couldn't pay it any attention. The only thing that mattered to me was my injury and its permutations. I knew head injuries could affect the mind and the personality. That would be so upsetting, so meaningless, I thought. Here I am at a cafe, having a lovely lunch, being totally sunsmart and, as I sit here having these thoughts, I could be having a brain bleed or something of that ilk.

Should I be at A&E? I thought. Can we talk about what just happened? I nearly died! I might still die! Craig's story went on.

I could, of course, have changed the subject, gone straight to A&E, gone to the toilet to take toll and check my injuries, or I could have just had a lie down in the grass. Those were choices that were open to me. But were they? From where would my decision ultimately come? In the end I did nothing. The more I thought about that freakish, spinning umbrella in the hands of some ambivalent, uncaring force, the more I started to think free will is not everything self-help books proclaim it to be.

I would survive the accident - with the only readily apparent physical effects being a cracked tooth and a possible hairline fracture in the bony margin around my eye - but I didn't know that at the time. I was worried.

For days afterwards, I was fixated. Two months later, I still think about it. We go about our lives making decisions and plans, then an umbrella is spun hatefully through the air and into our bony margins. What decision, what plan, invited that into our lives or could legislate for its possible effects?

In the waiting room at A&E, there was a savoury smell. I asked my daughter if she had done a poo, which was a rhetorical question. "No, I did a wee-wee fart," she said, dishonestly. She had been sitting next to me at the cafe, just a god-like margin of error away from being hit by that spinning umbrella of probable death. Mum took her out and changed her nappy as if none of that had happened. Which it hadn't.

- Canvas

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