“Having your child die is so brutally humbling I struggle to describe it,” writes comedian and “Catastrophe” actor Rob Delaney. And yet he does manage to describe it, and does it well, in his unspeakably admirable memoir A Heart That Works. The comedian’s first book was memorably titled Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. This second, decidedly different, book describes the life of his 2-year-old son, Henry, who died from a brain tumor in 2018.
Life seemed practically perfect for Delaney and his beloved wife, Leah, with their “beautiful little clump of boys”—three under the age of 5. However, Henry became ill at 11 months from an apple-size tumor right next to his brainstem. Instantly, their lives were thrust into another dimension as Henry faced surgery, chemo and 14 months of hospitalization, only for his cancer to eventually return without any safe options for treatment. Delaney recounts the ordeal in searingly honest terms, conveying the intricate cobweb of emotions he experienced, often simultaneously: grief, rage, gratitude, grace and, most of all, love for Henry, their family and the many people who supported them during this time.
“It often felt like we were falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion,” Delaney writes, “with each successive piece of bad news.” Still, they were able to savor sweet moments with Henry and his brothers, even in the face of an additional family tragedy: Delaney’s brother-in-law died by suicide during Henry’s hospitalization. This unexpected death struck hard, especially since Delaney has wrestled with suicidal ideation himself, and since he wasn’t able to reach out as he normally would have because his son had been so ill.
Despite this tsunami of tragedies, there is humor, often black humor, throughout Delaney’s account. “If you can’t have fun dressed as a family of skeletons in a pediatric cancer ward,” he writes, “I don’t know what to tell you.” There are parcels of advice amid his frank, razor-sharp writing as well. Delaney digs deep on every page, baring his soul and sharing a remarkable range of emotions while relating the worst moments of his life. His is truly a heart that works.