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  • Published: 30 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9780143776574
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $27.99

Rugby Head




Part Two 




1. The sense that one has suffered a traumatic blow to the chest

2. An inability to breathe accompanied by an assumption of imminent doom

3. Fuck you

4. Fuck you (reprise)

5. The rest of you may as well get fucked also

6. How is this not seven?

7. Intermittent suffocating sadness and guilt, presumably unto death


In April 2016, six months after the All Blacks had won the World Cup for the second successive time, I was woken by the vibration of my phone at 4.30 on a Saturday morning. It was my brother. Angry at him for waking me up so early, I didn’t answer. He called straight back. Again, I didn’t answer. He left a voice message. He sounded very calm. He said: ‘Mum has been taken to hospital. They said I should come in. I asked if I should call other family and they said, “Most definitely”.’

Shortly after 5 am, I walked into Middlemore Hospital’s Resus Room 4 by myself and I saw her lying there surrounded by men and women in a surprisingly wide range of uniforms. The first thing that struck me was that she was conscious, which I took to be a good sign, and the second was that a doctor was standing with her hand on my brother’s shoulder, and he was in the process of collapsing, head in hands, into a chair next to the bed.

I heard the doctor say to him: ‘I didn’t want to tell you that over the phone,’ and I heard my sister-in-law whisper in my ear, ‘It’s not good.’

My first impulse was to vomit. It is my impulse again now, although I have not found nausea to be a big part of grief. The most acute and persistent physical symptom is the sensation of chest trauma, which I’ve learned to manage by pressing my hand against my breastbone, fingers upturned and spread wide, moving the hand up and down, maintaining a firm pressure, as if to restrain whatever it is that’s trying to get out. Recently, I’ve started to think that this feeling, which I’d previously considered to be the physical bulk of grief, might actually be an absence — a vacuum rather than a weight — and the compulsion to press my hand against my chest is not to deal with a presence, but to prevent my own disappearance.

She died just before dawn. It was unexpected, which is to say both that she hadn’t been sick and that nobody expected it to happen before they were able to say a whole host of things to her about what she has done for them over the preceding 39 years, or to apologise for certain things they may have said, or done, or not done, over that period.



Q: Did you love her?

A: Of course!

Q: OK, because I was just thinking about when you were a teenager and you told everyone you weren’t sure what love is and therefore you couldn’t say for sure if you loved your family.

A: That was a period during which I also set fire to my pubes.

Q: OK, but why didn’t you say you loved her as an adult?

A: It never felt like the right time. It felt uncomfortable.

Q: Craig told her, as she was dying. He even recorded it on his phone and can play it to you if you want, so you can hear her saying it back.

A: Wow, you’re a real fuck.

Q: Am I? You’re the one who didn’t tell your mum you loved her.

A: Are you supposed to be helping? What’s your role here?

Q: Do you tell your kids you love them?

A: Listen, guy . . .

Q: Love is the simplest thing there is. Your inability to tell your mum you loved her was less about discomfort and more about you being a no-good person and a failure as a son.

A: I don’t like you.

Q: Feeling is mutual.

My brother told several jokes in his speech at Mum’s funeral. The only one I remember is: ‘For those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Craig and I’m Lynne’s most handsome and intelligent son.’ I didn’t do a speech.

The message on Airbnb read: ‘Lyn would like to book your place.’ That was not how she spelled her name and, by the time of the message, she had been dead nearly four years, and by then, some days I hardly thought of her (terrible, ugh, sickening), but no matter. Grief has no time for logic. First came the physical impact in my upper chest and lower throat, then the constriction of the entire area, the familiar feeling.

I imagined her sitting at her table in the tiny cockroach-infested bedsit in which she was living at the time of her death, thinking about asking me if she could come and stay for a few days, and coming to the sad assumption (surely incorrect) that I would say no, then deciding the only solution was to go through Airbnb. I pictured her putting on her glasses with the chain, moving the computer screen back a few inches to get it in focus, then sitting, staring at it for many minutes, hoping the on-screen elements would resolve themselves into a state of comprehensibility, a look of helplessness on her face, moving the mouse hither and yon, trying her hardest to make things make sense, which they never would. Eventually, she would make a phone call asking for help, probably to Craig.


Would like

To book

Your place

The simplicity of it! The misspelled name and the six subsequent monosyllables, delivered to my inbox four years after her death. Grief is not a process.


I was at work on the weekday afternoon two and a half years after Mum’s death when I received the phone call from North Shore Hospital telling me to come immediately. In the waiting room, the doctor said, ‘I’ve got some bad news: he’s dying.’

He was wearing an oxygen mask and he was unconscious. His face looked white and waxy. I stroked his head, then hugged him and put my cheek against his forehead. I told him I loved him. I kissed him. After a while, I lifted the sheet and found his arm and then his hand, and I held it. I started to cry.

My sister called from Australia and asked me to put the phone to his ear. She had been talking to him for several minutes when the nurse and doctor came in. The doctor was so young and seemed so upset, so shaken by the whole thing that it was hard not to feel sorry for her. The nurse started to take off his oxygen mask. ‘Why are you doing that?’ I asked. She stopped and looked at me, then looked at the doctor. The doctor said, ‘He’s passed.’

I took the phone back and told my sister. She wailed, ‘Ohhhh! Ohhhh my dad!’ She asked if I could stay on the phone with her. ‘You don’t need to talk,’ she said. We didn’t stay on the phone for long. I felt the familiar pain in my chest, the feeling like everything might fly away if not restrained. I made a half fist and rubbed it repeatedly up and down over my breastbone, stopping occasionally to push against it as hard as possible with the flat of my hand. I grieved by moving. I grabbed at everything, the bed frame, the bedding, the bedside table. I kicked my toes hard on the floor. I doubled over. My nephew appeared beside me. I hugged him and sobbed on him and then he went back to the other side of the bed with his parents and I was alone.

I looked at my father lying there and considered how his face and head looked strangely triangular, broad across the chin and narrow at the top. I ran my hand over the vast mound of his belly and chest. Finally, I felt Zanna’s hand on my shoulder. I had been anticipating it, craving it, and I fell into her.

We arrived home in the early evening. She went in first and I heard Tallulah, then five, say, ‘So are we not going to see him again?’ and after that I had to remain inside the garage for a minute or two.

When he first became available for viewing, the funeral director opened the coffin and peeled back the shroud and there he was, with his hat over his belly. He looked good. Zanna, knowing by now the location of grief within my body, compressed my chest for me and then hugged me, her torso pressed hard against mine.

I sat down and she sat next to me. I buried my face in her tummy and opened my mouth enormously wide, which was not a decision I made but something my body did, presumably to leach a little of the pain that otherwise threatened to overwhelm it. Simultaneously, I scraped repeatedly at the floor with my feet, as if the feeling might also be under me, as if I could dig a trench in the floor with my rubber soles, into which some of the feeling might be flushed. Or maybe I was just trying to exert some influence on the world, to make it and myself aware that I was still here. These are just guesses, of course, because my body was no longer under my control.

I told Zanna there was no one left who loved me unconditionally. She said, ‘I do.’

I said, ‘Honey, we know that’s not true.’

She didn’t respond but later she said, ‘If you cheated on me, I would still love you. I’d be angry because I’d still love you.’

On the day of his funeral, when we arrived at the church, Clara, then three, got out of the car, gave me a big smile and said, ‘Daddy, when I die, I want to die next to you.’

At the cemetery, my sister started crying, then I did, and it came heavily and unstoppably. I put my arms around her, the pain flowering in my chest and rising. I bent over and held my knees and hoped the grief would fall out of my face and seep into the ground.

I found myself engaging in spiritual thinking, wondering, for instance, whether the sensations I was experiencing in my chest and the base of my throat might indicate the presence of my parents inside me, or whether they were echoes of the sicknesses that had caused their deaths, and although I don’t believe in those sorts of things, I knew better than to prevent myself believing them. A week or so later, when I was back at work, a friend whose relationship had recently broken down told me heartbreak is a real thing. ‘That’s why you can feel it in your heart,’ she said. ‘It’s like a contraction of the muscles around your heart. That’s why Panadol helps.’

A week after his burial, on my way home from work, I drove to the cemetery. It was his birthday and I thought I had arranged for Zanna to meet me there, but when I arrived she was not there and when I called, she said she’d thought we were meeting at home. I felt sad and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be there alone but the kids needed to have dinner and I knew if I went home now I wouldn’t come back. So I stood there alone, staring at his grave. I said ‘Happy birthday, Dad’ and that got me choked up, then I sang him ‘Happy Birthday’. There was no one around for miles so it was not embarrassing. After that, I sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and ‘Why was He Born so Beautiful’, which was the song he would always sing at birthdays, and that’s when I really fell apart. I patted the grave where his tummy and head are. The earth still had some give. It was not yet packed hard.


Rugby Head Greg Bruce

A man. A game. A life. A shambles.

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