Sometimes life smashes you in the face. Greg Bruce on the best and worst of times.

My father didn't answer his phone on the Sunday morning last year that I called to tell him my wife had just given birth to our second child.

While she had been in a lovely warm tub of water in shocking pain between 3am and 6am, with me crouching alongside her holding a canister of gas I didn't know how to use, he had been having a massive heart attack, alone in his bed in Te Atatu.

The day was sunny and I was driving home to pick up my mum and older daughter and bring them back to see the new baby when I got the call from Auckland Hospital. My window was down, and I was joyful with the bloom of new life. The joy immediately evaporated, which made me feel angry, which made me feel guilty. Somewhere, off at an angle from all that, I felt horror.

Dad was alive, but the call gave me no sense of whether he would survive. There seemed a grotesquely compelling balancing of the books entailed in the possibility that he might not.


I didn't go straight to the hospital. Through the afternoon and into the early evening, I sat with my wife and our new baby in the warm belly of Birthcare, just across the wide green barrier of Auckland Domain, separating me from the hospital where my father lay some indeterminate distance from death, moving either away or toward.

I wondered if I was a bad son.

Two years before, our first daughter had been born in the morning at Auckland Hospital and we had taken her carefully down to our car and driven her across the Domain to Birthcare. That night, I took that journey in reverse. The look on Dad's face, lying there in his hospital bed, was one of shock. I don't know what the look on my face was.

For the first three days of Clara's life, while Zanna and I stayed with her in that sweet, heated Birthcare cocoon, Mum was staying at our house with Tallulah. Each morning they came up to Birthcare. These were wonderful moments. I will never forget them, because I took a lot of photos.

Not long before Clara was born, my niece had sent me a link to a YouTube video compilation of children meeting their newborn siblings for the first time. It was deeply evocative of the sort of thing Zanna and I had anticipated when we had first discussed having a big family: the criss-crossed interconnections of familial love.

We took a photo - we staged a photo - that represented that ideal. Tallulah held her sister - after we forced her to - and the camera captured her affection for, and protection of, her sister. I cherished that photo in Clara's early days and weeks. I looked at it again recently, in light of subsequent events, and I saw that the photo had, in fact, captured deep antipathy and possibly even hatred.

After a few days, Dad was transferred to North Shore Hospital. I drove over there and found him marooned in a room with an incongruously beautiful view over Lake Pupuke. A friend of his was there and wouldn't stop talking about his own domestic trivialities. I sat there silently, stuck between life and death, feeling both powerless and hopeless. I could feel my control over my own life slipping through my fingers.

I met my wife five years ago in a blaze of dating-driven narcissism and I was subsequently shocked to discover how much I loved her. She came from a family that had clung functionally together and still cared deeply for each other. I came from a family that fell apart, having never really worked in the first place, and was never repaired.
My wife talked, before our first daughter was born, about what it would be like to love someone unconditionally. I told her that I loved her unconditionally and she cocked her head, affectionately, and said, "Oh honey, that's just not true."

I argued with her, without passion, because I was confused. When you meet someone you're attracted to and you first hold that person's hand or touch their face, through that first shock of intimate contact, you have made the admission or confession of belonging to that person, and only that person, at least for the length of that contact, and possibly even longer.

I remember so clearly slipping my hand into Zanna's for the first time as we walked up Ponsonby Terrace one warm afternoon. It feels, in my memory, like that one act was as permanent as anything that came after, public commitment and children, but of course it was also as impermanent as all that.

The events of the last year sometimes feel like the events of 100 years ago, for all I remember of them. This is to some extent understandable, because a lot has happened in my life in that time, but I was recently reading back over some things I wrote last year and I discovered that I had written, even then, about how much I forget. Not remembering things might be a recurring theme in my life. How would I know?

On August 14 last year, a month after Clara was born, and the day before Tallulah's second birthday party, I recorded the following episode:

Zanna said: "I hope Tallulah doesn't have a meltdown tomorrow like she did after her first birthday. Do you remember that?"

I didn't.

"It was a complete meltdown!" she said. "I can't believe you can't remember that! It was like when we came home with Clara. She was inconsolable."

"When we came home with Clara?" I asked.

"Yes!" she said. "Oh my God! We sat in the chair with her - you sat in the chair and I sat beside you - and nothing we could do would stop her crying. And then you had a meltdown and said that everything she did made you want to burst into tears."

I can remember neither this discussion, nor the events it refers to. If I hadn't made a written record of this discussion at the time it took place, I would not have believed it had happened.

My notes from that time record me telling Zanna that I think my memory is so bad in order to protect me from my memories - that if I remembered them all, I wouldn't be able to go on.

This seems a bit over the top now, looking back on it, but how could I say for sure?

Dad languished in North Shore Hospital. Each afternoon, I drove up there to visit him. He seemed to be getting better, but as a relative measure against where he had come from, "better" was basically meaningless.

At first he was recovering, then he was waiting for a heart bypass. Every day he asked me when he could meet his new granddaughter and every day I told him I wouldn't be bringing a newborn into a hospital.

He became increasingly insistent, almost demanding it. I always said no. After a couple of weeks, he was moved to Auckland Hospital for his bypass. I went up there with Tallulah the night before the operation. He was upbeat.

The operation was a success but the following week was a mess. He was in cardiac intensive care, which is a place rich with illustrations of the thinness of the line between life and death. You ring a bell outside the ward to let the receptionist know you're there, and then you wait, sometimes for long periods, to be paged. Your father is plugged into a whole bevy of shit and he's a shambles. Alarms are going off constantly. There are more medical staff than you have ever seen in one place. Your father looks as bad as you have ever seen him.

For a week or more, nothing Dad said made sense. Over a few days, he developed an intricate and growing conspiracy world, spoken about only in whispers, in which he told me how his nurses had flown him overnight to a small town in outback Australia and then brought him back on a ferry, via Dunedin.

He made trouble, made constant unreasonable demands of the nurses, behaved petulantly, refused to take his medicine or do anything he was asked without a fight. He was awful to be around. Every day I dreaded seeing him. I wanted to be at home with my baby, but instead I felt compelled to be here with this arsehole.

One of the nurses told me this kind of thing was very common, that it was called something like ICU psychosis, and that I shouldn't worry about it, but as the days passed, it became increasingly hard to believe that. Things gain permanence so quickly.

Anyway, she was right. After a week or so, he was fine. Looking back, it's as if it never happened.

Around this time, late one night, Zanna and I were lying in bed when she held out her phone to show me a note she had written. It read: "I just watched the most heartbreaking video on Facebook and it's making me want to cry. I can't even understand why someone would post something like that."

I looked over at her and could see by the blue light of her phone that she was crying. I wrote a note back asking what it was.

"A video of a baby Tallulah's age hearing her mother's voice for the first time since she died a year before."

"Can I watch it?" I wrote.

"No," she replied. "It's too terrible."

I didn't watch it, because I trusted her judgement, but I couldn't get the thought of it out of my head. Did hearing the voice make the little girl in the video happy or sad? And which would be more heartbreaking to see?

Now, I think that she must have felt both, and that the real horror of that clip must lie in seeing someone so young coming to the understanding that the two are basically inseparable.

At Zanna's parents' house for dinner last year, I asked her dad if he thought he was a good father. He laughed and said, "I think Marita was a very good mother, but I don't think I was especially good as a father, no. I wasn't there very much."

"But you're making up for it now," I said.

"Am I?" he said.

I said to Zanna and her sister: "You must have some nice memories of your dad growing up." Zanna said to him: "I always remember you sitting at the table, working." Then she added, 'And you would make us go out and pick up guavas."

My phone was set to vibrate when my brother rang at 4.30am on the Saturday after Easter this year, so it didn't wake me up until just before my voicemail kicked in. He called straight back and I felt a brief, righteous anger that he thought it was okay to call so early on the weekend, when I had two small children, one of whom was asleep in my room so, again, I didn't answer.

He left a calm message, which I listened to before I called him back. All I can remember of it now is his plain declaration that Mum had been taken to hospital and that he had been told to call immediate family and tell them to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

Grief is simultaneously massive and trivial.

You are not special in your grief. It doesn't entitle you to anything. A death in Middlemore Hospital's resuscitation room four is a particular exercise in death's mundanity.

A doctor asks you and your brother if he can talk to you outside, and then he explains in a forceful way that your mother's death, which at bedtime a few hours earlier had not even been a remote likelihood, is now likely imminent, then your brother, an engineer, trying to comprehend, asks some comparative questions about blood flow and the principles of basic hydraulics.

Then you aren't really sure whether she's alive or dead, but the sudden absence of everybody in the room who was there just a minute or two ago trying to save her, suggests to you that she's probably dead.

There's the vast outpouring of sympathy in the form of texts, emails, Facebook messages, and the occasional call, then there's the funeral. After a couple of weeks, you are left alone, or as alone as you've allowed yourself to become.

Why did I have kids? I took it as an article of faith in the end. I tried to reason my way toward it for many years but I couldn't make any progress that way. After I was committed, I told myself that much of my life was spent not doing much anyway. What was reading all those books and watching all that television doing for me? What was it preparing me for?

What I told myself before I was committed, I can't remember.

One morning, two months after Mum died, Zanna knocked on the door of the bathroom and said she had something to tell me. I came out, terrified, and was comforted only by the fact that she appeared to be even more terrified. "I'm pregnant," she said.

At the moment Mum died, Zanna was at home with our two sleeping daughters. The only people in the room were me, my brother, sister-in-law and my dad. After Mum died, my brother and sister-in-law left the room. Then it was just me and my dad.