Marblehead native Rob Delaney can now add “New York Times bestselling author” to a resume that already included co-creating and starring in an award-winning television series (“Catastrophe”), and dozens of other credits on the big and small screen.
But Delaney wishes this latest accomplishment never came to be. That goes doubly for his mother.
Delaney’s book, “A Heart That Works”—No. 9 on the Times’ combined print and e-book nonfiction list in its first week of release—offers at-times brutal insights into the pain and heartbreak Delaney and his family continue to endure from the death of his son, Henry.
Delaney and his wife Leah’s third child, Henry was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 1 and spent much of his life in the hospital. Surgery removed the tumor, but Henry lost the ability to swallow and required a tracheostomy to help him breathe. Henry spent the last several months of his life at home but died before his third birthday.
In the first chapter of “A Heart That Works,” Delaney explains that, since Henry’s death, he has been tempted “to ask people I know and like to imagine a specific child of theirs dead in their arms.”
At this point, readers might be hoping that Delaney will grant them a swift release from the unsettling thought experiment. Not quite.
But in a typically darkly humorous turn, Delaney soon assures acquaintances that he won’t inflict the exercise on them in real life. After all, where would such a grilling take place? In the kitchen?
“Would I make them a cup of tea first?” he writes.
The point is not whether Delaney would actually follow through but just that he has pondered it, he explains.
“That is one thing that grief does to me,” Delaney writes. “It makes me want to make you understand. It makes me want you to understand. I want you to understand.”
With that, Delaney sets up a challenge for himself that he goes on to meet over the balance of the book.
Back home in London after wrapping up his American book tour, Delaney tells the Marblehead Current he also wrote the book for people who already “understand” all too well.
“I first got the inkling to maybe write something when we were in the cancer wards,” Delaney says. “After we’d been there for a while, I would see other parents come in with newly diagnosed children or children beginning treatment and just see how just destroyed they were.”
But most did not write for a living, he knew. Instead, he was uniquely positioned to “make other grieving people feel less alone and less lonely,” he says.
Meanwhile, for the statistically larger percentage of the population who will never know such pain, the book offers some semblance of a substitute for such experience.
“I thought the best thing I can do is look at how horrible it is, and honestly,” Delaney says. “If I can and then they get a picture of it, then they’re better equipped to help people.”
Delaney’s main tool is not maudlin or florid language but rather simple detail deployed to devastating effect.
The last solid food Henry ate in his short life? A chocolate croissant from the hospital cafeteria. Henry’s favorite item to tote around in his final days? A Lego Duplo ice cream cone.
Delaney credits short story writers Lucia Berlin and Alice Ann Munro, who “unlocked some secret drawers for me” by introducing him to the power of simple prose.
“They’ve kind of ruined other writers for me now, because I just can’t stand to see somebody trying to be impressive or flowery with their language,” Delaney says.
Delaney’s chapters–including the one in which Henry dies–also end abruptly, and not in a comforting Forrest Gump “that’s all I have to say about that” way.
Given its subject matter, Delaney knew that he did not want the book to have the quality of prestige television, where the most important developments happen in the second-to-last episode, and the final episode sews up loose ends.
“I wanted [Henry’s death] to happen and have it hurt the reader,” Delaney says. “Then they would have to clean up afterwards, not me. I did it deliberately to be brutal.”
Yet to call the book “unsparing” would be inaccurate, says Delaney’s mother, Nancy Gwin.
“It is only a fraction of how awful it was,” Gwin says of watching “that little angel suffer .”
As she has with all of her grandchildren, Gwin was there when Henry was born, and she was also there the day he died. In between, Gwin made regular trips between Marblehead and London to help Rob and Leah manage the care of Henry and his two older brothers.
On one such trip, Gwin arrived late one night and sat down in the hospital hallway with Henry’s oldest brother, Eugene, then about 5 years old.
“Grammy, I prayed to God to please take Henry’s tumor away, but he is not answering,” the child said.
Gwin says she could only reply, “I know, I feel the same way.”
In response to the book’s success, the most Gwin can muster is that it is “doing what it is supposed to do.”
“There is nothing good about what happened to Henry,” she says.
“A Heart That Works” was released Nov. 29, and Delaney says he has already heard from bereaved parents and siblings, and young widows or widowers suddenly raising young children alone.
“It’s been a very beautiful response,” Delaney says.
Delaney says it was his editor who first suggested that the world might be ready for the book now, given all the loss people have been dealing with due to the pandemic.
Delaney suggests his book “doesn’t break any new ground” and is just a small part of a larger healthy trend towards talking more openly about grief.
But the book does more than just ruminate on and offer comfort to those who have experienced loss.
The reader is left with an indelible impression of what a “happy kid,” in Delaney’s words, Henry was, experiencing much joy and happiness in his all-too-short life.
Lest anyone think Henry’s death brought any relief to him and his family, Delaney is quick to dispel that notion. He calls it a privilege to have rendered care that demanded such skill and physical intimacy.
“Now, it’s like, what do I do with all that energy?” Delaney says. “I desperately wish that he was still here, with his disabilities. I wish I was changing tracheostomy tubes. I wish I was setting up a nighttime feed with his feed pump. I wish I still had the calluses on my fingers from operating the suction machine.”
While not the main purpose of the book, Delaney also occasionally notes how different his family’s experience might have been had Henry’s diagnosis come in the United States, rather than England.
“He would have died no matter where we were,” Delaney says. “But at least we got to spend more time with him because we weren’t on the phone with some functionary who had no medical background in an office tower in a suburb of Tucson, saying no, we can’t have the MRI that the doctor ordered.”
This fall also saw Delaney appear on the silver screen alongside Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House.” The film is based on a novel by Ann Leary, herself a former Marbleheader.
Delaney says that once he read the script, he lobbied hard for the role of Peter Newbold, having recognized a lot of his hometown in it.
“It was like a stenographer had walked around Marblehead and just written down the things that are happening every day,” he says. “I felt like I had lived a large percentage of the story. Luckily, the producers and directors agreed with me.”
The last few weeks, however, have been about promoting “A Heart That Hurts” around its American release.
Delaney’s whirlwind press tour included appearances on “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” and “CBS This Morning” and feature stories in the New York Times, New Yorker and Boston Globe, among other major publications.
The tour also afforded him a brief stop in Marblehead, coinciding with a Dec. 1 reading and discussion hosted by the Harvard Book Store at First Church Cambridge.
Delaney acknowledges that it has been difficult to do press about such a personal book.
“But if it gets the book to people who can use it, then it’s worth it,” Delaney said. “It’s an occupational hazard that I anticipated.”
Gwin, too, says she is glad that the book tour is over, allowing Delaney to settle back into life with his family.
“They all went through hell, and they are a tight little group,” Gwin says.
Gwin will soon see her son again, and this time Leah and their children–Oscar, Eugene and Teddy–will be with him, for a Christmas visit she anticipates will be “total, wonderful bedlam.”
If there was ever any doubt, Henry will be there, too.
“Henry is still with us,” Gwin says. “He is part of our family and always will be.”