In 2016, Rob Delaney's one-year-old son, Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Amid the hospital routine, surgeries, and brutal treatments, they found a newfound community of nurses, aides, caregivers, and fellow parents contending with the unthinkable. Two years later, Henry died, and his family watched their world fall away to reveal the things that matter most.
Memoirs by grieving parents obviously have some similarities; what makes the best of them unique is each writer’s voice. I was reminded, up to a point, of Jayson Greene’s magnificent memoir about his young daughter’s death, Once More We Saw Stars. But A Heart That Works is a book about grief as only Delaney could write it. Indeed, it is the work of a more mature writer than the one who published his first memoir in 2013 ... Though it will inevitably be described by some as 'raw,' I’d like to pre-emptively disagree. True, the book is lit up with flashes of red-hot fury and despair ... There’s nothing undercooked or unpolished, however, about the captivating spiral narrative Delaney crafts, doling out memories and digressions with precision and modulating the emotional volume with impressive control. He touches on his son’s death, spins away into a poignant contemplation of the invisible burdens of strangers or a profanity-laced swipe at the American health care system, then comes back to his central loss, again and again. Will you cry? Yes, unless you have no soul. You’ll also have space to catch your breath ... And you will laugh, because this book is often miraculously funny...His absurdist’s touch makes otherwise mundane sentences bubble with playfulness ... Even some of the darkest moments are slashed through with light ... That’s another miracle about this book: Whether or not readers relate to the specifics of this father-son relationship — whether or not, say, you have ever had to administer tracheostomy care — it’s impossible not to recognize the joys and heartbreaks of our shared human condition. The word I wrote most frequently in the margins of my copy was, YES ... Humor may provide momentary respite, but what keeps this family afloat throughout the long months of Henry’s illness, hospitalizations and surgeries is their devotion to one another ... may be a tribute to a lost son and the family who survives him; it may be a hand outstretched to bereaved parents who feel alone on their planet of grief; but most of all, it is a hopeful plea to people everywhere to make choices, large and small, guided by love. What a world it would be if we did ... All the more reason this radiant memoir deserves the highest admiration. Knowing he was attempting the impossible, Rob Delaney set out to do it anyway.
From the start, everything is narrated from a present tense in which Henry is already gone; just as in life, where grief explodes and warps time, everything feels incredibly close one second and unbearably far away the next ... The book can feel like a dagger that stabs you again and again ... But we also get some laughs along the way. Alongside the recounting of panicked hospital visits, scary infections, and breathing-tube struggles, there are comic riffs and asides that wouldn’t be out of place in a Delaney standup set, or on his Twitter feed. These two strands—the grief and the laughs—don’t just sit side by side; they work together. When Delaney gets going about the confusing nature of hospital layouts, or his troubles having his American voice understood by a phone menu designed to respond to Brits, it does a few things at once. It’s a momentary reprieve, however partial, from the book’s unalterable trajectory. It’s a formal embodiment of Delaney’s advice, to other parents of severely ill children, about finding opportunities for immediate delight, resisting the power of disease’s shadow to darken everything. It’s funny. Then Delaney yanks you back to grief. You wonder, guiltily, if you latched on to the reprieve a bit too eagerly ... Sometimes these rapid leaps of register coincide, to powerful effect, with Delaney’s swerves through time ... Early on, Delaney says that he knows evoking his experience accurately will hurt people. Therefore, he writes, he wants to hurt people. But he steers clear of easy sentiment. He knows that he’s writing a tearjerker, and is obviously wary of the genre; he doesn’t want Henry’s life to be just a pile of sadness. On first read, it’s easy to overlook just how strenuously he avoids barraging the reader with details of Henry’s suffering. It’s there, to be sure, but we learn just as much—maybe more—about his passions and enthusiasms: the relationships he made in the hospital, the TV shows and music he liked; his connections with his family members; the dancing and play that filled their apartment when he came home. The pain comes less from horrifying details than from the way Delaney lures us into contact with the very aspects of our lives that are easiest to ignore: our fragilities, our constant proximity to calamity, our powerlessness to control what life brings, or when ... All along, the jokes keep coming, letting you laugh, sometimes just to laugh, and sometimes so you can hurt more, the laughter and the hurt getting increasingly tangled, long past the point where it would be possible to prise them apart.
To those who have felt the icy grip of grief around their own throats, it is a relief to read an account of grief that is not a series of hard-won life lessons wrapped in a gratitude journal ... There is no making sense of the senseless, and Delaney doesn’t attempt to ... The result is a book that sings with life: not just Henry’s abbreviated one but the lives of the people who loved him, who love him, who will continue to love him ... That a book about a dead child is at times laugh-out-loud funny is a testament to Delaney’s skill; in the hands of a lesser writer, the humor could seem dismissive or grasping instead of the natural release valve of a person who is highly attuned to the absurdity of the awful.