A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney

Review by Walter Cummins

Rob Delaney doesn’t exploit the ironic connection of the title used for his four-season television series—Catastrophe—and this book about the sufferings and eventual death of his two-year-old son, Henry. Yet, the term could have served as the title for both works, though with radically different implications. In 2014, Delaney, his wife, Leah, and their two sons—Eugene and Oscar—uprooted from California to London, so that he could write and act in Catastrophe with his creative partner, Sharon Horgan, and where Henry would be born in Whittington Hospital.

A fictional pregnancy provides the initial plot twist of the series’ opening episode. Delaney and Horgan—actually characters also called Rob and Sharon—engage in six days of passionate, impersonal sex after meeting in a bar when the fictional Rob is visiting London on business. Sharon ends up pregnant, and Rob decides to return to London, stunned by his potential parental role. Eventually, they marry and have a son named Frankie and later a daughter named Muireann, also engendering enough comic tribulations and marital stresses to keep the story going for four full seasons and gather several awards, including a BAFTA.

The real Delaney who emerges in A Heart That Works is unlike the alter ego of his pretend role. That man, bewildered all that sex could have impregnated a virtual stranger, says, “A terrible thing happened. Let’s make the best of it.” That’s Rob Norris. Rob Delaney is besotted with love for his sons and with his wife, with whom four pregnancies resulted from overt planning, hardly the accident of an anonymous fling. But parenting matters for both Robs, and Delaney confronts an actual terrible thing.

A Heart That Works overflows with both love and grief. The love makes the grief bearable. Delaney and his wife greet Henry’s birth with great joy. His brothers, toddlers themselves, welcome him with immediate affection. Henry is a beautiful, winning child. Then, at eleven months, he develops a brain tumor and ends up spending most of his remaining time in hospitals, needing constant care after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, finally coming home to die. He breathes through a tracheostomy that must be cleaned and changed frequently. He loses the ability to speak, losing much of his hearing, and signing with a system called Makaton,.

Yet Delaney describes a happy child, thrilled to play with his brothers, excited by the attention of parents, nurses, and caretakers: “He was impossibly sweet and calm and lovely, so you were just drawn to him.” As difficult as his survival is, Henry enjoys being alive. Adults bond with him, and Delaney and his wife bond with those new to their lives. Henry creates a community around him, people dedicated to his survival.  When the brain cancer returns, his parents agree with physicians that further medical intervention would inflict pain and accomplish nothing. Henry had to be allowed to die, fortunately happy in his final weeks until, one night, he just stopped breathing.

When he died, his mother was pregnant with the couples’ planned fourth child, another son named Teddy. In one sense, the family continues and strengthens. Delaney’s career thrives. And yet the loss of Henry inflicts Delaney with an ongoing pain of absence: “I get mad when I think about how beautiful he was, and it’s offensive to me. His hair, his face, his eyes, which were such a bright blue. It makes me angry that people won’t get to look at them. Those eyes were two of the most glorious things I’ve ever seen and it offends me that they’re not there for people to gaze into. It’s fucked.”

The tone of the book, so open and personal, reveals its roots in Delaney’s comic style. Even while making his readers laugh, he hopes to make them grasp his pain and anger at the unfairness of Henry’s fate, how he and his family and all people could be cheated of the ongoing presence of such a valuable boy.

In the book’s opening section, he explains why he wrote it:

Maybe it’s because I write and perform for a living that I can’t help but try to share or communicate the biggest, most seismic event that has happened to me. The truth is, despite the death of my son, I still love people. And I genuinely believe, whether it’s true or not, that if people felt a fraction of what my family felt and still feels, they would know what this life and this world are really about.

When Delaney learned that his father was diagnosed with cancer at age seventy-three, he didn’t react with shock, thinking that his father had lived a complete life and that his father had contracted the disease at a “fairly reasonable time.” Death of an older person is what’s supposed to happen, but “What happened to Henry wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Yet Delaney finds satisfaction that Henry died at home in the arms of his mother, where his brothers could give him final hugs and kisses: “Henry knew happiness and curiosity and love and brotherly squabbles every day that he was home. And that absolutely included his final days. His death was good.”

Still, a good death does not compensate for what has been lost. Grief remains an essential part of Delaney’s life, lurking in the background and often emerging for moments of dominance: “Name an emotion: I can still feel it, and often do. Leah and our boys and I laugh every day. But now there’s a band of black in my rainbow, too, that wasn’t there before. Or if it was there, I couldn’t see it before Henry died. It’s a part of me now. And it should be. Grief colors the happy moments now, the milestones.”A Heart That Works serves as an important book about the grief that follows the death of a loved one. Delaney is probably right that the loss of a children hurts much more because it seems a violation of the natural process of live for decades, grow old, and then die. But for most survivors, despite the age of the deceased, awareness of the inevitability of death is not a comfort. Someone valuable and necessary is gone forever. Delaney speaks for many shaken by such loss.