When I put this book down, red-eyed and wet-cheeked, I felt sorry. Sorry for all the times I’d allowed myself to feel irritated by my family, sorry for the occasions when I could have gone to spend time with them but chose not to, sorry for the periods when I’d kept them out of the things that were going on in my life. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s unforgettable story lays out many truths in black and white, but maybe most poignant of all is the fact that we can never know at what moment our lives may be blown apart. When he was just 16 the author’s brother, Matty, was hit by a car as he walked home from a night out and was left severely brain damaged – from that point onwards he was no longer able to walk, talk or feed himself. This is the story of that appalling night and the years that followed as Matty’s family struggled to come to terms with the reality of loving someone who, while not dead, cannot be said to be truly alive.
It’s a situation that most of us can barely imagine. After a few early moments of hope it gradually becomes clear, both to the medical professionals and the Mintern family, that Matty has no chance of recovery. He is eventually diagnosed as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, with no awareness of what is going on around him. He doesn’t communicate, and indeed he no longer has any of the normal human thoughts that would require communication. Any movements or sounds are involuntary spasms that Matty won’t even register on any conscious level; the lively, inquisitive teenager has become for all intents and purposes an empty shell. Yet how long do you go on believing that the person you love is still inside there somewhere? As Cathy asks of a hospital chaplain at one point in the book, if a person isn’t dead but still in this brain damaged state, then where is their soul?
When faced with a tragic situation such as this you inevitably start thinking things you would have considered unthinkable in your formal life. The author never shies away from what could be perceived as being the ugliest of thoughts, the most painful one of all for the whole family being the gradually dawning realisation that maybe Matty would be better off dead. Cathy is honest too about the feelings of guilt that come from enjoying a moment when the person you love cannot, about the long periods of time she avoided seeing her brother because it was just too hard, and about the heavy drinking that became a way of attempting to deal with the pain. At the end of the book, following years of therapy, research and conversations with others who’ve shared similar experiences, she realises that almost without exception everyone in her position goes through an almost identical catalogue of emotions and reactions. You only question the validity or morality of your own response because it’s a subject we still haven’t dared to embrace as a society, “the shades of grey that now exist around life and death” as she puts it.
How do you begin to explore such an emotionally complex situation in a way that conveys even a fraction of your agony to your readers? The feat is achieved, I think, through touches of inspired wordsmithery, the turns of phrase that make you go, “yes, that’s it exactly!” The phrase that stuck with me most resolutely was a simple one, “emotional tinnitus”. In two words she’s nailed the way that grief operates; it’s more intrusive at some times than it is others, but it’s always there, an underlying drone running in the background of your life. And it never goes completely – an enjoyable day or intellectual distraction may dampen the noise but it never falls silent. She writes too about “marinating in my own sadness”, a description I love because it encapsulates that all-pervading state is despair when you’ve been absorbing sadness for so long it almost becomes a part of you, and you can no longer tell where you end and the sadness begins.
The author tells us many times how much she loves books. Maybe this memoir was an act of catharsis for her, but it also carries an uplifting sense of the resilience of the human spirit and the joy we find by loving others that will lodge in the hearts of all who read it. I shed many tears along the way, but by the end I was crying because I couldn’t help but agree with her: grief is the price we have to pay for our unique ability to love – and love truly does conquer all.