Brendan Halpin's memoir, It Takes a Worried Man, evokes many emotions. Should you laugh? Should you cry? Or cry while laughing, as I did?
According to Halpin, the book is supposed to make you laugh, but the topic would make anyone tear up. His wife Kirsten was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. Halpin, a Cincinnati native now teaching English in a Boston charter school, followed his wife to doctors' offices for mammograms, MRIs and many painful treatments.
Kirsten felt her husband needed some way to vent his frustrations throughout her upcoming tests and chemotherapy treatments, so Halpin began keeping a journal. It was a coping method, an alternative to food and drink. Throughout it all, both Kirsten and Halpin retained their sarcastic wit.
He never thought the journal would get published.
What began as a coping method did, in fact, become published after he gave a copy to some close friends. They, in turn, sent it to a literary agent they knew who loved the story, called him a week later and asked Halpin if he would like to get it published.
Halpin felt there weren't many books that told the man's side of the story of breast cancer. Most books about cancer mention the men only in a few sentences saying something like, "This is a tough time for him, too."
Shelved amidst books on the female psyche during breast cancer, It Takes a Worried Man ventures into the unknown. It goes where no man has ever gone before — well, at least where few have been and been able to tell the story.
Halpin's mother likes to tell him that "nobody likes a smart ass," but as a reader his attitude makes him likeable and the book easy to read. The best pieces of this journal-gone-published are those that illustrate Halpin's smart-mouth tendencies. Who could dislike someone who takes from the hospital little orange stickers used to distinguish the chemicals used during treatments that say CHEMOTHERAPY on them and sticks them on his shirt for fun?
"I offer them around at work, and some people politely decline," he writes, "I think only one or two people have any idea why I think this is a funny thing to do."
It's safe to assume that Kirsten finds all of this hilarious. Halpin writes that she also planned to steal some from the hospital, "and then surreptitiously stick them on my teacups and stuff."
This memoir is mostly upbeat and funny, but never fake. Of course there are moments where Halpin admits to bouts of tears — but, make no mistake, It Takes a Worried Man is definitively bittersweet.
It Takes a Worried Man, named after lyrics by the Carter Family, a popular country group during the early 20th century — "not Jimmy, Rosalynn, Chip and Amy" — is special. Not very often can you find the story of a couple so in touch with each other.
Even Halpin's talk of other women goes virtually unnoticed. Halpin's talk of crushes on attractive women does not shock Kirsten anymore, "I kind of thought she would be [shocked]," Halpin says from his home in Boston. "I was kind of disappointed about how transparent I am."
Kirsten might understand Halpin's forthright humor, but his mother wasn't so entertained. He confesses that his mother was very hurt by the book. She tried to help as best as she could, Halpin says, but she couldn't understand that sometimes he just got annoyed.
"I don't think our relationship is necessarily any more complicated now than it was before I wrote a book that said she got on my nerves," he admits.
Throughout the memoir, the brightest spots are when Halpin's daughter, Rowen, now 5, adds her childish wisdom. As Halpin and Rowen are passing through a multitude of dreary waiting rooms, lounges and bathrooms, Rowen's innocence cheers even the most cheerless moments.
During one such trip to the waiting room where everything is in grays and beiges, Rowen looks up at the ceiling and says how pretty the pipes are all painted in an array of colors. Only a child would see an exposed pipe in a hospital waiting room and feel joy.
From beginning to end, sarcastic comment to emotional confession, this memoir is fun, scary, gross and inspiring. The book might start as a book about cancer, but the real story lies in the amazing relationship between Brendan and Kirsten.
BRENDAN HALPIN signs and discusses It Takes a Worried Man at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood.