Rob Delaney became Twitter famous before being Twitter famous was a thing. A largely unknown comic, he amassed more than a million followers in the early years of the platform and was named ‘Funniest Person on Twitter’ by Comedy Central in 2012. (Sample: “I love gay people. Or as I sometimes call them, ‘people.’ ”) He’s the co-creator of the show Catastrophe (Amazon Prime, 2015-19), which is funnier than whatever you think is the funniest show ever. In 2016, Delaney’s young son Henry was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 2018, before Henry’s third birthday—and on Delaney’s forty-first—Henry died. In a new book that may well be the best thing published in 2022, A Heart That Works, Delaney writes with anger, grace, hope, naked honesty, and above all love about Henry’s life and his death. The book is a generous gift—he invites us into places of wrenching, claustrophobic grief and the most intimate family joys. We come away feeling a little stronger, like we can somehow handle life a little better.
Delaney was interviewed for Esquire’s long-running What I’ve Learned feature, which is an interview boiled down to its essence: only the subject’s wisdom appears.
People won’t always think of me as the dad whose child died. They think of me that way now, maybe. But that won’t last forever. And then one day when they don’t, I’ll wonder, Why aren’t they thinking of me that way anymore?
We were looking for an old cell phone charger the other day, and my oldest son found one of Henry’s tracheostomy tubes. This custom-made, state-of-the-art thing, exactly made for his little throat. It was like a little magician had poofed into the room. I thought, Look at that thing that tortured us, tortured him, but also helped him breathe. It was a heavy moment. And I loved it.
They talk about how we miss people in grief because we love them. Yeah, well, we also rage, and we also want to walk down the street smashing windshields with a baseball bat and then commit suicide by cop. That’s another part of love. And that’s normal.
I like to write alone. But I like to write with other people better. Even if that other person is just sitting there doing nothing.
Anger is the shameful emotion these days. Particularly as men. An angry man is a bad man! I wouldn’t say an angry man is a bad man. An angry man can certainly be a destructive man. An angry man can hurt people. But I think we need to look at, well, why? And then work through it to get to love.
Anger is the shameful emotion these days. Particularly as men.
When Henry’s cancer came back, my wife would say, We can’t go fucking Lorenzo’s Oil where we just fly around the world looking for magic beans. We’re not gods. We’re not neuroscientists. We are parents. We can love these kids. We can have them feel our heartbeats—that’s what we can do. For all of them.
Other parents are like, “My son didn’t do well on his test!” Yeah? Why don’t you blow it out your ass.
A week, when you’re eleven, is a long time. But for me, a month is a second. Which is why I love to do nothing when a big challenge faces me these days. Just a big bunch of nothing. What if I just sit there? What if I just fucking wait for forty-eight hours? What if I wait three whole days? There’s a problem—and it will not last forever.
I have the same emotional response to hearing that somebody’s eighty-year-old grandfather died as I do if somebody told me, “I just bought a new shirt, and it’s teal.”
When you’re sailing, you’re dependent on a natural phenomenon—wind—and that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know anybody who’s gone sailing on small boats a few times and not said, Whoa, this is pretty special.
I get that the idea of doing stand-up comedy is scary and insane to people. But you do it if not doing it would be scarier. Me, whenever I see somebody opening a restaurant, I start to sweat and get nervous for them. They’re opening a restaurant? That’s insane!
If my feelings for my wife were a sapling before Henry got sick, now there’s a root system that turbo-grew deep into the earth’s core and branches that have grown up into the heavens and the stars.
Someone close to you dies. He’s gone. Yes. But then the crazy part is, he is here. He’s in your heart, and there are literally molecules of him—farts and dandruff and exhalations—all around us and we’re breathing them. How crazy is that?
He’s gone. Yes. But then the crazy part is, he is here.
I worked at a camp for disabled people for two summers. It was the first time I’d ever wiped another grown-up’s butt. You’ve heard people say, “Shoot me before I have to have my ass wiped.” But after wiping a few adult butts, I was like, Oh totally, that’s fine. If I ever get incapacitated and somebody has to wipe my butt, wipe my butt! No big deal.
When you live with people who have disabilities and people who don’t, after a while the lines start to blur.
No, I didn’t want to drink during Henry’s illness or after he died. I might have liked a doctor to tell me, “There’s something wrong with your ankle, and we’re gonna have to break it apart with a hammer and put a bunch of screws in it, so you have no choice in the matter: We’re injecting you with powerful synthetic opiates.” But I knew that wasn’t gonna happen. Did I crave oblivion? Certainly. Was I gonna do it? No. Because I knew I wasn’t doing everything perfectly with Henry and my family anyway, but I knew I could do an even worse job if I introduced alcohol or drugs.
If you need a handbook for grief, I’d say Frankenstein is the way to go.
You need to get your mind and soul in a place where this freight train of insanity can travel through you. It’s going to have giant shipping containers on it, and the contents of those are the blackest, most horrific stuff. And why wouldn’t it be? Your child died.