I remember there being quite a lot of hype around when Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir, The Last Act of Love, was published in 2015, and I have been keen to read it since. It is focused upon Rentzenbrink’s relationship with her adored younger brother, Matty, and the aftereffects of a tragic accident he was involved in as a teenager.
The Observer calls her memoir ‘life-affirming’, and author and surgeon Henry Marsh deems it ‘profoundly moving’. The book’s own blurb describes The Last Act of Love as ‘a true story of a happy family ambushed by loss, the unknown place between life and death, and how to find love and joy in the world even when you know it will never be the same again.’
When Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her ‘clever, funny and outgoing’ brother, younger than her by a year, was knocked down by a car when returning from a youth club in rural Yorkshire. The family had moved to a village pub just a year before the accident, and it was here that Rentzenbrink was alerted to the fact that her brother had had an accident. At the time, she did not want to disturb her parents, and made her way to the scene in a bystander’s car. She reflects: ‘Matty was lying in the road. He looked so long: his body was covered with coats… I knelt next to him, touched his forehead, stroked his cheek with the back of my fingers. His eyes were closed. There was no damage to his face. I couldn’t see any blood. I felt for a pulse. Found it. Kept my fingers wrapped around his wrist so I could feel the evidence of his life.’
She would soon realise just how serious her brother’s condition was. Matty was placed into an induced coma after having surgery for a traumatic head injury. After his operation, Rentzenbrink thinks: ‘Surely someone this fit and strong couldn’t die? Surely someone who was loved this much couldn’t die?’ Although the family were hopeful at first, he was diagnosed much later as being in a persistent vegetative state, and was unable to walk or speak again. Rentzenbrink charts his very slow rise out of unconsciousness, into periods of ‘sleep and wake’. He was tube fed, and unable to make even yes and no responses. Matty passed away eight years later, in 1998.
During this time, the customers in the pub asked constant questions about Matty, and when he was expected to make a full recovery. The family tried to be open, but this, writes Rentzenbrink, created its own set of problems: ‘Misunderstanding abounded. Because we always talked positively and hopefully about Matty, people tended to think he was doing better than he was and were then shocked if they visited him to find that his gaze was either vacant or his eyes looked over to the right…’.
Rentzenbrink begins her memoir with such honesty. She has gone back, as an adult, to visit the memorial chapel in the hospital which Matty was cared in. After his passing, she reflects: ‘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 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 words than death. That is what separates the me standing here now by the prayer tree from the girl kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago. She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know now that far worse was to come.’
The tone of the narrative feels fitting for such a memoir. Rentzenbrink’s writing has clarity and is emotive, but is not so suffused with emotion that anything else is overshadowed. Despite the heartbreaking nature of the story, I found The Last Act of Love highly readable. Throughout, Rentzenbrink offers her deepest thoughts, and it does not feel as though she holds anything back. After Matty contracts his first infection, and then recovers from it, she remembers the following: ‘This was the first time I caught myself wondering if it might have been better if he’d died. Would Matty have wanted this life? Unable to do anything except open his eyes, have epileptic fits, occasionally make noises when in pain? I didn’t allow these thoughts to develop, nor did I see how I could ever voice these to my parents, but they were there.’ She goes on to voice her belief that she should have been injured instead of her brother, and the extreme guilt which she felt in not making the most her life due to the overwhelming waves of grief which filled her.
In less than 250 pages, Rentzenbrink has written a deeply visceral, frank, and poignant memoir, about something which shaped both herself and her family. She never speaks of herself, or her brother, with pity; rather, she examines the effects of his accident, and some impossible decisions which the family had to make. She talks quite openly about the way in which she turned to alcohol and sex in order to help herself cope with the situation, and the effects which moving away to attend University had.
One cannot help but be moved by the beautifully written The Last Act of Love. I shall end my review with this incredibly wise, and profound, comment which Rentzenbrink makes toward the end of her memoir: ‘Sometimes an absence can become as significant in our lives as a presence.’