On the penultimate page of Rob Delaney’s grief memoir, we get a summary of the story so far:
Our boy got sick
We went to a lot of doctors, trying to find out what was wrong with him.
We found out what it was.
It was very, very bad.
It got worse.
And then he died.
And now he’s dead.
This summary reminds Delaney of the full horror of what he and his family have lived through.
Delaney moved to London, with his young sons and pregnant wife Leah, to act in ‘Catastrophe’, the TV series that he co-wrote with Sharon Horgan. During the time that the four series of Catastrophe were made, baby Henry was born, diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour, which led to his death. Henry spends time in Great Ormond Street and the Whittington hospital, encountering the professionals and other families of sick kids along with his parents, who are also keeping daily life moving along outside the hospital. (The last series of Catastrophe was filmed after Henry, as well as Carrie Fisher, had died and death in the presence of life is suggested by the ambivalence of the final scene.)
The story of Delaney’s parenting of Henry and Henry’s brothers is described in an angry, self-flagellating, scatological, rude style that is bracingly unsentimental, while also memorializing the beauty of the boy and the pleasures of rumbunctious family-life. Delaney wants the reader to feel the utter devastation of what happened to Henry and the choice details of what treatment does to the small body of a baby boy are visceral. Tracheostomy care for instance; the scarring, bleeding, suctioning and physical restraint of a child who cannot breathe independently. The brutal side effects of surgery – damaged hearing due to a severed nerve, a lop-sided smile due to brain damage, not to mention being unable to speak and feed – are all described unsparingly as part of the urgent quest for a cure for Henry. The ambivalence of putting a baby through treatment that itself damages and injures the child, is painfully present.
When Henry’s tumour reappears on scans, his parents decide to stop the aggressive treatment that requires so much time in hospital and instead enjoy living with Henry. But getting appropriate social care in place to allow Henry to leave hospital takes an awful effort. Leah has to put significant pressure on the local council to provide suitable carers for their son, to allow his ‘unsafe airway’ back into the community. Delaney rants briefly about the absurdity of under-funding the Social Care system, keeping his son in expensive hospital bed for longer than necessary and longer than the family wants. Criticism of the lack of social care is a blip, in Delaney’s chorus of praise for the NHS, in contrast to America where ‘for financial reasons it’s terrifying to get sick’. Those working to advance the cause of health-care privatization in the UK, ’need to fuck off ten times, then gargle a big bowl of diarrhea.’
Delaney reports on two separate occasions that telling healthcare professionals that the return of Henry’s cancer means they won’t pursue further treatment, those professionals respond with tears of relief and an expressed wish that more parents would take similar decisions. The brutal side effects of chemotherapy make Delaney reluctant to sign the consent forms for each round of treatment that Henry has undergone, so there’s palpable relief deciding to stop treatment and focus on home life for the remainder of Henry’s life.
The book pulls off the trick of offering an intimate portrait of the experience of caring for ‘sweet Henry’, without exposing too much. This is paradoxically partly because of the fruity details that are exposed: Delaney’s depression and drinking; sex (with his wife) while Henry has surgery; the suicide of a beloved brother-in-law; ambivalence over his father’s prostate cancer diagnosis; conception of a fourth son during the time that Henry is dying.
Delaney’s grief for his son’s suffering and death is refracted through his preferred music (suicidal), films (horror) and his admiration for Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Delaney adjudges the remark made by one character, on learning of another character’s brother’s murder, to be perfect:
I can offer you no consolation, my friend. Your disaster is irreparable. What do you intend to do?
When your two-year old dies of brain cancer, what consolation can anyone possibly offer?
Delaney returns to the idea of love as the response to death and suffering around illness, whether paediatric cancer or adult depression. Love is not the consolation to death, but it is the appropriate and perhaps the only response, along with a healthy dose of scatological obscenity.
In contrast to the intimacy that Delaney achieves by strategic sharing of colourful details, Charles Hayter’s ‘Cancer Confidential’ offers a retrospective of the author’s professional life, without making a compelling story. This is a curious failure, since the bones of an emotionally fulfilling story are there: Hayter’s parents migrate from England to Canada, in the early 1960s, in search of professional opportunities for his father, a rehabilitation physician. Hayter himself initially trains in humanities before following in his father’s footsteps and entering medical school, specializing in radiation oncology which he goes on to champion, lobbying against its second-class status compared with surgical and chemotherapeutic specialisms. Just as Hayter arrives in medical practice, his father is retiring and getting a cancer diagnosis. After his father dies and his mother returns to England, Hayter seizes the day and leaves his wife of 22 years, to establish a life as a gay man and write and perform plays, alongside medical work.
The majority of this book is made up of vignettes from a career in radiation oncology, with various patients and colleagues taking on bit parts. There is some meditation on the problem of detachment and lack of compassion of medical professionals and how honest communication can infuse therapeutic work. Recurring theatre metaphors are deployed and Hayter has ongoing imagined conversations with the figure of Death about his patients. He picks up well-worn topics – dishonesty and euphemism in communicating about death, the role of patients’ wishes and the preservation of hope at the end of life, medical rivalries and hierarchies. But the crucial action that might have offered an emotional heart to this story is absent, that is the role of a closeted gay identity in family and professional life which remains largely unspoken. Instead, we learn that Hayter had a somewhat strained relationship with his father who rarely expressed his feelings and with his mother, who suffered from lupus and hadn’t wanted to emigrate to Canada in the first place. While doubtless important emotional strains for Hayter as a son, their resolution through Hayter senior’s death and his wife’s return to England, offer neither narrative drive nor a satisfying arc.
Where Delaney’s book is compelling, Hayter’s is not, although both deal with the meaning of life in the face of death. A disclaimer at the start of Hayter’s book asserts that while he has disguised the details of the patients that he discusses and has filled in the gaps in his memory with conjecture, he has remained ‘faithful to the emotional truth of what happened.’ Regardless of what aspects of Hayter’s stories are invented, the verisimilitude is sorely lacking. Delaney’s book does not seek to document the facts of Henry’s life and death, so much as the experience of being his father – the joy and the horror – and of continuing to be his father after death.
Hayter ends his book by pontificating about the figure of death and its close association with cancer that, however good the individual prognosis, brings into focus ‘uncomfortable questions about the pointlessness of our lives.’ Delaney has looked the pointlessness of life square in the face, as his child died at home in January 2018, and reports from the frontline. As Henry slowed down towards death, he often held a big plastic ice cream cone in his hand. Delaney makes no attempt to explain the attachment – it is just noted as an absurd detail that adds to the verisimilitude of this human and humane account of living.