Brutal but funny: A heart that works

A heart that hurts is a heart that works

- Juliana Hatfield, 'Universal Heart-Beat'

I have wanted, but also not-wanted, to read this book ever since I heard of it.

It's probably been 2 years or so since I heard that comedian/actor/writer Rob Delaney was writing another book (I adored his first memoir with the ridiculous title) and I always knew that I would read this one too but... it's not to be done lightly, ploughing into one man's story of losing his infant son to brain cancer.


And the last few years have been a bit rough (not "losing a child" rough for me personally but still, it's been a time - has it not?) and sometimes books are an escape, and other times they're a journey you're not quite ready to go on.

So I just put myself on the waitlist for this book and hoped it wouldn't arrive until I was ready for it to. And you know what? It didn't.

I have been a Rob Delaney fan since episode 1, season 1 of Catastrophe, the brilliant British sitcom he made with Sharon Horgan. In it they play a couple who have a fling, get pregnant, and then fall in love. Over 4 series they navigate the worries, screw-ups and pressures of parenting, work, and relationships along with a brilliant cast of friends, colleagues and family (the late Carrie Fisher did the occasional cameo as Rob Delaney's mum. CARRIE FISHER!). It was sarcastic and sharp and I loved it. Later I discovered his bizarre Twitter persona that was regularly a source of amusement.

Rob Delaney was someone who could be relied upon to make me laugh. That's kind of who he was to me. And then one of his children died tragically young and... how could this person ever make me laugh again?

And yet from page 1 of A Heart That Works I was. I was chuckling, at least.  "Oh," I thought, "maybe this book won't tear my heart a new one. Maybe this will be fine".

By page 7 I was welling up. On page 9 the welling turned into leaking. By page 10 my cheeks resembled the Nile River delta, criss-crossed by swift-moving water, feeding into a salty drip under my chin.

At the end of chapter 1 I flicked to the end of the book to see how many more pages there were - 171, not including acknowledgements. I'd read 11 pages. I took a break.

I'm aware that I am making this book sound like it was a struggle to read. It wasn't. For one thing, 182 pages isn't that long and the font is on the largish side so actually bulkwise it's not an immense commitment. But also for every "and then we had to do this horrible procedure on a one year old" there's a really touching, funny, or just weird reflection on what it was like to be a family during that time. What it meant to be a husband, a dad, and a human. It's an actually very readable mix of the poignant, the ludicrous and yes, the brutal.

On the one hand, it's an exploration of grief:

"... so many of the days, months and years that followed are obscured by a fog. Grief drove a bus through the part of my brain where memories are stored. I forgot the PIN for my ATM card. I'd been using it for years, and it just evaporated from my head. I had to get the bank to send me a reminder in the mail."

And there are justifiable feelings of anger:

With the death of my blue-eyed son Henry, I often found myself driven by the urge to believe in God so I could live to a very old age, then die and meet Him  - so I could kick his teeth in... Thoughts like that genuinely made me smile at the time. They still do. They're the sort of dark comfort-food thoughts that bereaved parents share and laugh at.

But it's also an affirmation of life and what a precious, beautiful, weird thing that is.

We did every holiday in Henry's hospital room too. Halloween, birthdays, Christmas. And guess what? We usually enjoyed them. We have one Halloween picture where we're all dressed as skeletons. And if you can't have fun dressed as a family of skeletons in a paediatric cancer ward, I don't know what to tell you.

It's also a tribute of sorts to all the people who helped. Delaney is glowing in his praise of the healthcare workers and carers who helped Henry during his illness. As an American who didn't grow up with universal healthcare he admits to now being "radicalised" in terms of his support for the NHS. He has been a vocal and visible defender of it in recent times and is unadulterated in his disgust at the current British Tory government and their attempts to basically dismantle and privatise this institution.

Fair warning if you don't like curse words - there are quite a few of them in this book. Personally I'm very comfortable with that kind of language, but also if you're a parent who has lost a 2 year old I think perhaps you should get a free pass to be as sweary as you like for as long as you like. You should be issued a swearing "get out of jail free" card that you can just wave at people who might object.

Early on Delaney addresses the "why" of the book - why write about the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Why make people feel sad on purpose? And the answer is the simplest thing in the world. Grief made him do it:

It makes me want to make you understand. It makes me want you to understand.

I want you to understand.

Do I understand? No, not really. In the same way I didn't understand what being a parent was before I became one. It's like looking at a picture of a thing but not experiencing the thing (I never want to experience that thing).

I did not know Henry. But I, a stranger half a world away, knows something of him and the joy and love he brought to his family. And that's not nothing, folks. Maybe it's even a comfort.

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