The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize (read more about that here), Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book about her and her brother is the kind of memoir that hits you with a wallop. Once started, it won’t let go – I read it in one sitting, going from shock to being very emotional, yet ended I up being uplifted by Cathy’s love for her brother and decision to get on with life knowing the love would never go.
The prologue sees Cathy return twenty years later to a hospital chapel, where she sees a prayer tree. What would she have asked for?
“Please don’t let him die, please don’t let him die, please, I’ll do anything, only please don’t let him die.”
What strikes me now as it never has before is that I can’t say my prayers went unanswered. I was given what I asked for. My brother did not die. But I did not know then that I was praying for the wrong thing. I did not know then that there is a world between the certainties of life and death, that it is not simply a case of one or the other, and that there are many and various fates worse than death. […] It would have been better for everyone if as she knelt here, begging for his life, his heart had ceased to beat, if the LED spikes on the monitors had turned into a flat line, if death had been pronounced, accepted, dealt with. It would have been so much better if Matty had died then.
She was praying for the wrong thing.
I was praying for the wrong thing.
The Mintern family ran a pub in a Yorkshire village; Cathy, who was at sixth form college, often helped serve behind the bar, but some nights they she and her sixteen year old brother Matthew would go to the disco at the snooker club a mile up the road. Cathy got a lift home early, leaving motorbike mad Matty to walk home. The phone-call came to tell them there had been an accident – Matty had been the victim of a hit and run car accident, he had major head trauma. At the hospital they operate to remove a clot from his brain and deal with the swelling. The surgeon comes to tell them:
‘I’ve saved your son’s life, Mr Mintern,’ the surgeon said. ‘We don’t know yet whether that was the right thing to do.’ (p22)
That was the night that everything changed for the Minterns. Life became a cycle of visiting the hospital to visit Matty and days blurred into weeks, months – Matty didn’t die, but neither did he make any progress. After nine months the Minterns had to take him home to care for him there as the hospital ‘needed the bed for more hopeful cases.’ The caring for Matty cycle continued; when Cathy went off to university, her parents converted an outbuilding into a special bungalow for Matty. One day when Cathy comes home:
As I walked into the bungalow, Matty was propped in seated position on the sofa, pillows under his spastic arms and one of the people who looked after him was massaging his feet. There was something biblical about it, and I realized in that moment that we’d constructed a crazy world around a wounded messiah. I didn’t think it should go on. I didn’t think Matty should go on.
I thought, ‘He is fucked and this is fucked-up.’ (p107)
This scene, which occurs around the middle of the book, is the turning point for Cathy and her family, but there’s still a long journey ahead.
This memoir is told with real candour; it’s a brave book and Cathy is not afraid to turn the spotlight on herself. What I hadn’t expected though was that it would be so funny, but having met Cathy at the Wellcome Bloggers Brunch, in real life she is just as straight-talking and witty as she is on the page. This book did make me cry, but it also made me giggle – a lot – she has a way of making you laugh, and then the realization sets in – but she wants you to laugh with her – it’s allowed. When I told her the book had made me cry, she was concerned that it hadn’t made me smile – I was able to reassure her that I laughed too and yes, it does ultimately find a happy place.
I’ve just read and reviewed Mend the Living by Maylis De Kerangal for Shiny (see here), a novel in which a young man is injured in a car crash and becomes a donor after quickly being diagnosed to be brain dead – in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ (PVS) as Matty was but no-one admitted it. Medicine has come a long way since Matty’s awful accident. They still wouldn’t have been able to bring him back, but our understanding of the brain and better communication by doctors these days will surely not prolong the agony in so many cases.
I would be delighted if The Last Act of Love did win the Wellcome Book Prize (although any of the other shortlisted books would be an equally good winner too). That Cathy and her family weren’t torn apart by these events shows how strong and full of love they all are. This book is a fitting tribute to her brother; brave, moving and a gripping read. (10/10)
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Source: Wellcome Book Prize – thank you!
Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (Picador, 2015) Hardback 256 pages. (paperback in May)