Everybody has a cat or dog story. I’ve also read one about horses. Cathy Rentzenbrink is a reader like me, well, probably better than me. She read a book a day, sometimes two, after her brother died. She did a lot of boozing. Went a little mad, finished her degree and got married to a man she loved. Then she got divorced, but, hey, nobody’s perfect.
Her brother, Matthew, was perfect, but never lived long enough to unperfect himself. He was born on Sunday, 17th February 1974. He weighed seven pounds and twelve ounces. He was a happy baby. He taught himself to tell the time aged four. He was senior Prefect at his Secondary School. He won the Headmaster’s Prize for Outstanding Academic Achievement. He played football in the same village team from aged ten, and was regularly awarded Player of the Year (voted by other team members) and Top Goal Scorer trophies. 12th August 1990, Two weeks before he got his exam results he was hit by a car. There was a lot of blood on the road, most of it coming from the back of his head. He had everything to live for, but he didn’t die.
The surgeon told Matthew’s parents, Kevin and Margaret, that he’d saved their son’s life, but wasn’t sure that was the right thing. They were sure it was the right thing. He would get better, he would get better. Cathy knew that too. There’d be a fairy-tale ending when he’d open his eyes and waken up. It was just a matter of time.
I remember a poem from school when a wife (I think it was a wife) called back her loving husband from the sea. And he came, in his drowned form. There was no sending him back. The plot in Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery turns on that enigma. In Duncan Williamson’s short story, Death in a Nut, Jack lived with his mother in a small croft by the sea, his father dead, when Death came for his auld mother, he put him in a nut, and every living thing stopped dying. Henry Marsh (2014) Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, after a life-time in surgery, admits he became more conservative. He wasn’t fixing things; his mistakes were written on his patient’s bodies. Samuel Shem’s (1978) cult classic, The House of God takes a more light-hearted look at medical interventions and our insatiable appetite for saving lives at any cost (well, as long as you can continue paying for more and more tests, more and more medical interventions).
The interns follow the advice of The Fat Man, Medical Resident in the House of God: ‘Life is like a penis: When it’s soft you can’t beat it. When it’s hard, you get screwed.’
The harder and wiser, Cathy writes a letter to Matty:
I met a woman that believes in an afterlife. She told me that I should think of you as being free. She wasn’t trying to convince me of anything…She also said that what helped her when she recently lost someone was trying to be grateful for the fifteen years they’d spent together rather than thinking of the empty present.
I asked the person who it was that she had lost.
She looked a bit awkward. ‘Well,’ she said, it was my cat.’
I came in the other day and my partner was in her bed. ‘You no’ well?’ I asked Mary.
‘You know what day it is?’ was her question.
I didn’t win any prizes like Matthew for telling the time when I was younger, but I guessed, ‘Friday?’
Well, she wasn’t pleased. I told her the story of how my da brought back a dog that had followed him home. And we’d made a kennel for it out the back garden. But then, when he was going to work, the dog dutifully followed him onto the train. When he came to Bowling station, he jumped off when the doors closed, leaving the dog on the train. I said, maybe it was still on the train.
She reminded me of the time, her son Robert, had phoned her saying he’d lost Max, his dog, which was our dog, because he couldn’t look after a budgie. At his funeral, I choked telling the story of Max. My sister said she’d never seen me like that. Greeting about a dog. I was raging, of course. Max was lost, and we had to go down to Dumbarton and search for him. Mary got into the van and we parked at Dumbarton Central. Max was sitting on the platform, quite the thing. That dog was smarter than Robert. Smarter than me. But it was the right thing to get him put down. He wasn’t my dog. It wasn’t my decision.
In Danny Weston’s The Hunter’s Moon, the foundling, and the shargie, Mhairi says we don’t find death, it finds you. Tony Marsh at Hillsborough, deprived of oxygen, brain damaged, and in a persistent vegetative state, didn’t find death, didn’t find life. Matthew Rentzenbrink followed his legal precedent. His family had to go to court to stop food (it’s always called nutrition, which is probably nearer the mark) and water being given to him. The Last Act of Love was to let him die. To uncork death from the nut. But that’s another story.