Excerpt: Cathy Rentzenbrink - The Last Act of Love

August 1990, 17-year-old Cathy Rentzenbrink went to a disco with her handsome, clever and much-loved younger brother Matty. Some time after midnight, she was offered a lift home and asked Matty if he wanted to come too. “No,” he replied with a grin. “I might get lucky.” They were the last words he’d ever say to her—because, as she heartbreakingly puts it, “he never, in any sense, got lucky again”.

Cathy Rentzenbrink - the Last Act of Love

Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Published by Picador

Memories of Matty

Walking home with friends, Matty, 16, was hit by a car and suffered major brain damage, leaving him in a coma. That night in Leeds Infirmary, Cathy begged God to let her only sibling live. And yet, the way she sees it now, she was praying for the wrong thing: although he didn’t die, it would have been better if he had.

In the early days following the accident, there were some signs that Matty might possibly come round—but he never did. In the meantime, his GSCE results came out and were the best in the school.

But the family wouldn’t give up. After nine months, with the hospital unable to do any more, they took Matty home to their pub in the village of Snaith, Yorkshire. For four years, they fed him through a tube, dealt with his incontinence and sat him up during the day—all the time looking for any hints that he might know what was going on. Only in 1995 did they finally realise (or admit) that he was never going to recover and placed him in a local care home. Three years after that, they applied to the courts for permission to have his treatment withdrawn and, in “the last act of love” that gives the book its title, allowed him to die.

Rentzenbrink, who somehow got through Leeds university while Matt was in his coma, is both unsparing and utterly convincing about her own shifting feelings—feelings that, however contradictory they become, are always entirely understandable. The result is a book that makes the unimaginable not just imaginable, but devastatingly vivid.

This extract takes place after those first nine months in Leeds Infirmary, when the family have decided to take Matty home: 

The Excerpt:

He would have physiotherapy three times a week at Goole hospital, and the head physio at Leeds gave Mum a sealed letter to pass on to the physios there. ‘If you open it I don’t want you to be upset by the term vegetative,’ he said gently. ‘It’s just a word we use to describe the condition.’ Mum didn’t open the letter, but it was the first time we had heard that word used about Matty. It was difficult not to be upset by it.

There was much to do to prepare for Matty’s homecoming. Not bunting and balloons, but specialist equipment —a ripple mattress that prevented bed sores, a hoist, shower trolley and wheelchair. A district nurse would call, a home help would be there for the morning bath, and a rota of professionals and friends would sit with Matty so that we could carry on working behind the bar.

Once he was home, I spent a lot of time sitting on the sofa with him. I’d put on the comedy videos we used to watch together before the accident. He couldn’t be left alone in a seated position in case he coughed and toppled over, so he’d be propped up with a pillow under one of his arms, and I’d cuddle myself around him on the other side, putting my arm across his waist and resting my face against his chest. I’d pull his arm around me and hold onto his long fingers, interlacing them with mine. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and imagine that the accident had never happened. Sometimes I’d cry, very quietly because I didn’t want him to know, and let my tears fall onto his T-shirt.

Only a matter of months ago we’d been sitting on this same sofa with one of his friends who’d kept tickling my feet.

‘If you’re going to try to get off with my sister,’ Matty had said, ‘don’t do it in front of me.’

I’d always felt so proud when he’d referred to me as his sister. I wondered if he still knew that I was, if I existed somewhere in his head.

Once we’d watched a film about the French Resistance and I’d sobbed my way through it while Matty had remained unmoved.

‘How could you not cry?’ I asked at the end.

‘I wouldn’t ever cry at something made up.’

‘But it was based on a true story.’

‘Oh. I might have done, then, if I’d known. It was really sad.’

Now he was stuck in his own long, true, sad story with me there watching it.

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Listen to our moving discussion with Cathy Rentzenbrink