A Heart That Works
- By Rob Delaney
- Spiegel & Grau
- 196 pp.
- Reviewed by Holly Smith
- February 3, 2024
Can’t imagine losing your child? Try.
The dream is always the same: I’m on my knees in the sand, staring down and pushing frantically against the onrushing water in front of me. My hands move faster and faster, and I’m gasping for breath. Suddenly, it seems to start working. I’m doing it, I think, I’m holding back the flood! Then I look up and realize it’s the ocean. I never stood a chance.
I had this dream most nights during the early weeks of our fourth child’s life, both in the days leading up to the initial surgery to repair her horribly broken heart, and in the days after, when her chest was left open and my husband and I could see that swollen, stitched heart beating underneath what can best be described as medical-grade Saran Wrap.
It came less often as time went on and the breaks between procedures and ICU stays lengthened. My daughter is 15 now and doing well, but the nightmare is always there just beneath the surface, ready to suffocate me anytime I remember that she has more surgeries ahead.
Rob Delaney wasn’t as lucky as we are. His child is dead. Not passed away. Not sleeping peacefully in the arms of Jesus. Dead. There’s now a hole in the world where 2-year-old Henry Delaney should be.
If this sounds harsh, good. It is harsh. As Delaney writes in the honest, unadorned A Heart That Works:
“Why do I feel compelled…to make people feel something like what I feel? What my wife feels? What my other sons feel? Done properly, it will hurt them. Why do I want to hurt people? (And I do.)…The truth is, despite the death of my son, I still love people. And I genuinely believe…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.”
Delaney, an actor/comedian best known for co-creating and co-starring in the popular Amazon series “Catastrophe,” doesn’t ease you into confronting these feelings. He shoves them in your face, as he should. Just a few pages in, he orders the reader to picture their kid — have a bunch? Pick one — and “imagine them, in your arms. Tubes are coming out of various holes…The temperature of your child’s body is dropping. No breath…no heartbeat. Even just that; imagine searching for your child’s heartbeat and you can’t find one. Their heart will never beat again.”
If this exercise chokes you up or rattles you so much that you refuse to do it at all, it probably means you’ve never been forced to contemplate your child’s death in any meaningful way. Congratulations. Now, stop crying and do it anyway. Go there. Immerse yourself in the visceral rawness of Henry’s death, and then you can fully celebrate — as Delaney does in every chapter of this short, poignant book — the beauty and buoyancy of Henry’s life.
Because it was beautiful. Henry, despite the brain cancer that would take away his ability to eat, to swallow, to breathe on his own, to speak, or to reach his third birthday, was a loving, happy toddler. And the Delaneys — Rob, wife Leah, and three boys under 6 — were a happy family living in London (where “Catastrophe” was filmed) when Henry was found to have an apple-sized tumor pressing on his brainstem.
Actually, “happy” isn’t the right word to describe the family, or at least it wasn’t at the time. Delaney owns up to being “a shitty husband” who worked 14-hour days while Leah (who’d taken a leave of absence from her teaching job in Santa Monica and relocated to the U.K. so he could pursue his dreams of stardom) cared for a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old in a dreary, below-ground flat by herself while preparing for their third child’s arrival.
“I was a bad husband and a very, very good cog in the TV machine,” Delaney admits, acknowledging having done “genuine damage” to Leah, “all while pretending to play a loving, attentive partner and dad on a TV show that would be advertised on buses that would drive by and splash my wife, who’d be pushing a double stroller while pregnant to go buy diapers and toilet paper for me and my children.” Reflecting on it now, he writes, “I luxuriate in shame.”
It was Leah who gave Delaney the ultimatum: Start being present, or she was leaving. He did, so she didn’t. Infant Henry got sick during the third season of “Catastrophe.” By the time the fourth and final season was shot, he was gone. Through it all, Delaney and his wife were intentional about spending time together, protecting their marriage, and holding back the ocean for as long as they could.
They also laughed a lot (and readers will, too). Because death may not be funny, but life sure as hell is. And Henry was very much alive until he wasn’t — wooing his caregivers, delighting his brothers, reveling in kisses from therapy dogs, signing along to his favorite songs, and generally brightening the world the way little kids do. So in love with life was Henry that when his aggressive, hungry cancer inevitably came back, his parents made the decision to let their son die.
“A fascinating thing happened…when we told a nurse and a doctor that…we weren’t going to pursue further treatment,” Delaney recalls. “They were quiet and comforting when we told them his cancer had returned. Then they cried when we told them we weren’t going to do more surgery or radiation. Then they both said they were crying because they were so glad we weren’t going to put him through any more treatment. Their relief was palpable, bodily, guttural.” The Delaneys were doing the right thing.
Henry’s death was devastating to the family, as was a close relative’s shocking suicide not too long before it. (Unlike movie ninjas, real-life tragedies don’t line up patiently and come at us single file.) But the Delaneys got through — are getting through — the loss by staying open to the joy in the world and by embracing their two “big boys” (who were 6 and 4 when Henry died) and now a new son, Teddy, whose birth is testament to the fact that life goes on even in those airless, despairing moments when we cannot fathom how it possibly could.
“I still have to remind myself. I will never see Henry again,” Delaney writes on the book’s final page. “There is no physical paradise where he’s waiting for me, and for that I’m glad. I have to imagine that would get boring after a couple of centuries, for him, for me. For you. Rather, I suspect I am a glass of water, and when I die, the contents of my glass will be poured into the same vast ocean that Henry’s glass was poured into, and we will mingle together forever…And you’ll get poured in there one day, too.”
And so will I, and so will my daughter. It’s the ocean, after all, and nobody can hold it back forever.
[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]
Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent.