The first homework our English teacher set us at secondary school was to write a short essay jauntily entitled “The Day That Changed My Life”. Among various 12-year-olds’ accounts of finding medieval coins on a beach and performing a clarinet solo on a skiing holiday, I wrote five pages on the death of my father two years previously. I hadn’t written about it before, hadn’t really spoken much about it, and was a little disappointed when, in his comments at the end of the piece, my teacher explained that he had demurred from giving it a mark. It felt wrong, he wrote, to be examining such a topic with too critical an eye.
I didn’t agree. It had felt fantastic to write it, to see the most significant event of my young life given shape, structure, even story, however inelegantly. I had wanted to know how it made other people feel. Maybe it would spark a dialogue with my new classmates. Instead it felt like my teacher had turned away from the messiness of it all, leaving me further stranded in that remote emotional cottage-in-the-woods where all young bereaved people find themselves. I also knew, though, that he was trying to be kind. And that if he had put a red pen through my description of my family’s howls of pain by the sitting room windows and scribbled “Get to the point!” in the margin, I might have asked to change schools. That’s the problem with people in grief. Can’t do right for doing wrong.
All of which is to ask the question: is it possible to write a critical review of someone who is bearing witness, in writing, to the incalculable pain and emotional chaos suffered on the death of their young child? Does the weight of its emotional punch do away with the need for an anaemic assessment of a writer’s craft? Or is the very act of writing something so transgressively raw and open, a cry for these experiences to be normalised – and therefore a request for it to be treated like any other book? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be mean if it were awful, at least publicly. Which makes me worry that I’ll sound disingenuous when I say that it gives me great pleasure, and no pleasure at all, to write that Rob Delaney’s new book is both overwhelmingly moving and, in any other way you might assess a book, excellent.
It is about Delaney’s son, Henry. It tells of Henry’s birth: Delaney and his wife Leah had just moved to London with their two older sons to begin filming the first series of Catastrophe, the show that was to make his name in the UK. It tells of Henry’s illness: before his first birthday, he is diagnosed with a brain tumour after some weeks of vomiting and subsequent misdiagnoses. It tells of the attempts to cure Henry: he is operated on at Great Ormond Street hospital for children and is largely there, or at the Whittington hospital, for the next year of his life. And it describes Henry’s death – from his parents’ decision to not torture him with more treatment when his cancer returns, to his removal from their room, cold, in a body bag. It is unbearable, in the sense that the situation Delaney and his family find themselves in – the pain he describes wittily, unflinchingly, confrontationally – is greater than most of us have yet to bear, and try not to allow ourselves to contemplate.
And yet it is, as one might imagine, vital and very, very funny. When his father-in-law hugs them, post Henry’s diagnosis, and wishes that he could be ill instead, Delaney doesn’t hesitate: “We do too, Richard.” The image of the Delaney family dressed as skeletons on Halloween in the Great Ormond Street paediatric oncology ward suggests a family united in an appreciation for the curative effects of the darkest kind of humour, just as Delaney now finds great peace, even delight, in art that horrifies or depresses others – the songs of Elliott Smith, the film Midsommar. And he is self-aware about just how unreasonable grief has made him. He’s furious when a man tries to comfort him with the fact that his grandfather had survived a brain tumour: “Grandfathers are supposed to get tumours and die! That’s their job!” Perhaps because Henry died on his father’s birthday, having only had two himself, Delaney now can’t believe adults are so needy as to still celebrate them. If he hears co-workers are surprising a colleague with cake at 4pm, he “will go take a shit at 3.57”.
Most moving, though, are Delaney’s descriptions of the privilege of care. People don’t appreciate just how addictively wonderful it is to help someone you love, however exhausting, however devastating. Almost unbelievably, Delaney’s much-loved brother-in-law took his own life the year after Henry was diagnosed, following a period of depression. The bonding effect of his and his sister’s mutual agonies, the way their families responded with support, childcare, travel, listening, presence – these are the small actions, you feel, that make Delaney’s heart still “work”. His and Leah’s relationship also deepens, strengthens and blossoms in extremis. When events fracture us, it is the love of others that binds us together again, however imperfectly. Those practical and physical expressions of love – the relatives who learn to clean Henry’s tracheostomy or the calluses that develop on Delaney’s fingers from operating his son’s suctioning machine – are some of the most moving images of the book. My disabled sister, who died in 2020, also required regular suctioning; it is amazing how profoundly one misses the mind-numbingly tedious aspects of care. It’s difficult for love to find similar active expression once that person is gone.
For Delaney that practical activity was replaced, I imagine, by writing this book. And as much as I wish he hadn’t had to write it, I am glad he did. Because such deaths do happen. And they largely happen in private. The reality of medical care, especially social and palliative care, is often shrouded in silence. Those engulfed in it, from workers to “clients”, are often too tired, physically and emotionally, to shine a light on its strengths or its fault lines (although Delaney, an American, is full of praise and wonder at the very existence of the NHS). Those who don’t need it don’t like to hear about it. Indeed, the more severe the pain, the more desperate the need of others to avoid it – they don’t want to intrude or don’t know how to help, scared of confronting their own and their children’s mortality. And those suffering stay in their cottages in the woods. So as much as Delaney is writing to offer succour and companionship to people who have experienced something similar, he is also rallying those who haven’t to understand and listen, and to chisel away at the stigma of pain. That he is able to do so with such guiltless, funny and disarming honesty is testament to the profound effect of Henry’s short but meaningful life.
• A Heart That Works is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy atguardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.