The chapel is not how I remember it. All these years I’ve imagined a simple wooden room buried deep in the hospital. Instead, light shines through a splendid stained-glass window onto an altar with an embroidered cloth and large brass candlesticks. It feels like a church.
I ask the chaplain if everything looks the same as it would have done when I was here over twenty years ago.
‘We’ve had a new carpet,’ she tells me, ‘and pink covers for the seats. Though soot blows down from the roof so I’m always out here with a little hoover.’
There is a smallish tree to one side of the room with a blue-and-white cuddly elephant propped against the base and bits of coloured paper clipped among its leaves.
‘That’s newer,’ the chaplain says. ‘A prayer tree. Th at won’t
have been here when you were.’
I walk over to it and gently take one of the leaves between my thumb and forefinger. Plastic, but convincing from a distance. I read the messages written on the bits of paper. This must make it easier for atheists, I think. Far easier as an atheist in extremis to write something down and attach it to a tree than to kneel in front of an altar and try to work out how to make a deity you don’t believe in listen to what you have to say. Some of the messages are addressed to God, some to the living, some to the dead. There is a
range of handwriting styles, diff ering levels of ease with grammar and spelling. It is the badly punctuated ones that I find most poignant: I imagine they demanded the most effort. Some are in a spindly, elderly hand, others in childish rounded letters.
I hope the baby is alright when you have it.
15 years and I miss you like yesterday.
Dear God, thank you for listening.
Please pray for my little brother. Love you loads, little buddy.
For my dearest, greatly missed daughter. She died 25.10.83. I have never got over it.
Pray for us all.
I pause, lost in these hints and echoes of other people’s stories, other people’s love, and then wonder what I would have written if this tree had been in place when I stumbled in here on my way from intensive care to the relative’s overnight room. I know what I wanted then, but how would I have found the words? To whom would I have addressed my plea?
Please don’t let my brother die.
Dear God, please don’t let my brother die.
Please pray for my brother. I don’t want him to die.
Don’t die, Matty, please don’t die.
The years collapse, and I see myself kneeling and crying and begging, with my hands clasped together in prayer, talking to some unknown force.
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. 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 thing she feared was that her brother would die, but I know now it would have been better for everyone if he had. 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 fl at 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.
Cathy Rentzenbrink grew up in Yorkshire and now lives in London. A former Waterstones bookseller, she is now Project Director of the charity Quick Reads and Associate Editor of The Bookseller magazine. Rentzenbrink's memoir The Last Act of Love concerns the life and death of her brother. She is currently writing A Manual for Heartache which will be published in January 2017, and a novel which will be published in Spring 2018.
What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a non-fiction book about loss and a novel about the impact of a terrible event on the members of a large family.
You work within publishing, did you anticipate the reception for The Last Act of Love? This is a much-loved book.
The main thing about working in publishing is that I know how many books there are so that helps me be grateful for anything good that happens and not have high expectations. Of course, I hoped that the book would find readers but it is such a relief that it actually has.
... and reader responses, any in particular?
I hear from bereaved siblings a lot and have been moved and interested to see how much of my own experience is fairly universal. I also hear from people whose relatives are in a persistent vegetative state and from people who have witnessed a long and complex death. I’m even surer than I was when I finished the book that we have gone very awry with our attitudes to death.
Was there a sense of necessity, timeliness, in coming to write this?
Yes, I’d tried to write about it before and had given up because it was too hard. One of the things that motivated me to do it was this huge desire to try to get over the feeling of ‘stuckness’ - I wanted to feel less trapped in the past.
Any sense that you shouldn't or couldn't write this? What were the barriers?
Huge barriers! At first I didn’t expect it to be a book - my plan was to try to write it out of myself and then put it in a drawer. I thought I could never share it with anyone because it I couldn’t admit to people I know professionally how crazy I am. I also didn’t want my parents to know how sad I was and continue to be, as I’ve always wanted them to feel I’m ok. There were times when I worried about what I was putting them through by making them remember. One of the things that kept me going was realising that if I didn’t do it, if I gave up again, I’d just be back here again in a few year’s time.
There are a number of notable biographies which map unmovable histories. Let Not the Waves of the Sea, and The Wave, both pieces about relatives lost in the 2004 tsunami. These works have a purposefulness, which is about giving testimony for both the writer and the reader. How aware were you of the reader, and that this would be a useful book, that it would have a purpose that perhaps fiction doesn't have?
I wasn’t initially but I gradually became more aware that people would read the book not because they liked reading literary memoirs, but because there isn’t much written on this subject. I did think of that in the editing. I often had a reader in mind who didn’t really read books but whose son was in PVS. I tried to make the book really accessible for that reason.
Autobiographical works assume a level of resolution - that the writer has reached a place where issues can be approached, set out, considered, and perhaps set aside. That's an artificial structure - particularly with grieving. Were there other versions of this book? Or approaches you considered?
Yes, I was aware of that and - completely supported by my agent and editor - felt it was really important not to offer false resolution due to the narrative demands of the book. However the writing itself was so transformative that there is an upward momentum to the end that I never expected at the beginning. I learnt more and changed what I think about things in ways that I didn’t expect at the start. I do say, though, that grief is not a linear process but a sharp set of zigzags and I try to show that in the book.
Writing a biography you're stepping forward in a big way, how has this affected your approach to writing fiction, where, arguably, the writer is less of a figure?
I’m loving writing fiction and am crazy with the joy of being able to make things up.
Can you speak about your discipline as a writer?
Ideally I’d write first thing in the morning before letting the world in, but, happily, I don’t often get to do that because I’m looking after my son instead. When I’m at literary festivals and staying in hotels in my own I like to wake up at 6.30 and write for a couple of hours before breakfast. That feels great. I’m off the booze at the moment and I do find that is a great help in getting things done. I have much more of a sense of purpose, loads more mental clarity and lose less time to wallowing in self doubt.
Any advice, in hindsight, you'd give yourself as a writer starting such a project?
Think less and worry less. Just write and trust that as you accumulate words the rest will somehow sort itself out. The act of writing itself will let the meaning out.
Cathy Rentzenbrink homepage
UK publisher: Picador
The Last Act of Love at Foyles and Amazon UK