Where Words Fail, Humor Glimmers

A HEART THAT WORKS, by Rob Delaney

In his new memoir, “A Heart That Works,” the writer, actor and comedian Rob Delaney keeps repeating the basic truths of his situation: “My son died? He got sick and they couldn’t cure him and he died? And now he’s dead?”

Reeling after 2-year-old Henry’s death from brain cancer, Delaney not only replays the facts for himself but also feels the urge to tell everyone else. He bites his tongue to keep himself from forcing acquaintances to picture the deaths of their own children. He imagines assailing them with haunting details. “Have you forgotten that I held my 2-year-old’s body after rigor mortis had set in?” he wants to say. “Did you know I saw it zipped into a black rubber bag and taken from my home by strangers?”

Why the compulsion to revisit such pain? Delaney explains: “This is one thing grief does to me. It makes me want to make you understand.”

Alas, he knows that expecting others to comprehend his grief is tricky, because those who haven’t lost a child — people like the man he used to be — are limited by their own inexperience, not to mention the self-protective guardrails of their minds. He writes, “When you’re a parent and your child gets hurt or sick, not only do you try to help them get better, but you’re also animated by the general belief that you can help them get better.” It is human nature to want to take this belief as reality.

Memoirsby 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 — the zany, confessional “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.”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: “You wish you could take a kitchen knife and stick it into yourself … tear apart skin, fat, muscle and viscera, and pull your child out of you again and kiss them and hold them and try frantically to fix what you couldn’t fix the first time.”

Coping With Grief and Loss

Living through the loss of a loved one is a universal experience. But the ways in which we experience and deal with the pain can largely differ.

  • What Experts Say: Psychotherapists say that grief is not a problem to be solved, but a process to be lived through, in whatever form it may take.
  • How to Help: Experiencing a sudden loss can be particularly traumatic. Here are some ways to offer your support to someone grieving.
  • A New Diagnosis: Prolonged grief disorder, a new entry in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, applies to those who continue to struggle long after a loss.
  • The Biology of Grief: Grief isn’t only a psychological experience. It can affect the body too, but much about the effects remains a mystery.

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 — a fact that won’t surprise fans of Delaney’s stand-up comedy or the television series “Catastrophe,” which he created with Sharon Horgan. His absurdist’s touch makes otherwise mundane sentences bubble with playfulness. Infant Henry is “a delightful and smooth little nugget.” Life in a London flat with three small boys feels like “a ramshackle zoo on the edge of town.”

Even some of the darkest moments are slashed through with light. When his father-in-law weeps, “I wish it was me instead of Henry,” Delaney responds, “We do too, Richard.” The family laughs through their tears in that moment, as did I, reading about it. No one wants our parents to die, but isn’t it the preferred order for the old folks to go before the kids? We laugh because it’s true. And 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. Delaney and his wife, Leah, hole up in bed watching scary movies, a strange comfort that feels like “a warm bath.” When it becomes clear that to continue treatment will only increase Henry’s suffering, not save his life, they conclude, “Loving him meant we had to let the cancer spread and kill him.” They wait, then, for the inevitable, clinging to each other, their extended family and Henry’s two older brothers. So much is unbearably out of their control, but they learn it is possible for their hearts to continue to beat: “We were in hell and we were loving each other.”

That turns out to be the great message of this book. I questioned Delaney’s meaning in the opening pages when he wrote, “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.” And what is that? I thought.

By the book’s end, we have our answer. “A Heart That Works” 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.

After Henry’s passing, Delaney considers how friends and caregivers reacted to the news, extending empathy to those who fumbled. There is no perfect way to respond to such a loss, just as there is no way to bring back the dead and no way to convey adequately, using something so rudimentary as human language, what that futility feels like. Despite our best efforts, there may always be an uncrossable chasm between those who have experienced it and those who have not.

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.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “Bomb Shelter: Love, Time and Other Explosives.”

A HEART THAT WORKS |By Rob Delaney | 196 pp. | Spiegel & Grau | $25

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