Read an Extract from The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Read an Extract from The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

THE PRAYER TREE

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.

15 years and I miss you like yesterday.

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. That won’t have been here when you were.’

I walk over to it and 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, differing 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.

Please don’t let him die, please don’t let him die, please,

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 flat 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.