Shambhala Sun | January 2014
Before He Melts Away
His son has been cancer free for six years now, but for
JAMES HANMER the meaning of Frosty the Snowman has changed forever.
I am standing at the front of the classroom, leaning on the
podium as thirty-three high school students stare at me. Some eyes are alive
with interest, others were glazed with boredom when they entered the classroom
and have not changed. My tattered copy of Don Quixote flops in my left
hand. The mad knight has fought windmills, puissant Biscayans, troublesome
sheep, and now, with dreamy persistence, searches for the golden helmet of
Mambrino. The eyes stare. A hand from the back rises. “Who cares?” asks the
young inquisitor. “Why do we need to read this story?”
I pause, because this is the most important question of the
whole school year. If I fail this question, the whole year is easily lost. “We
tell stories to convince ourselves that our lives have meaning.”
Then there is a knock at the door, and the English
department secretary peeks in. “Mr. Hanmer, your wife is on the phone. She
needs to speak with you immediately. It’s urgent.”
This is not good. Stepping out of the classroom, I call her
and hear the unmistakable tenor of tears and worry in her voice. “Come to the
hospital as fast as you can,” she says. “Something is wrong with Avelino.”
Avelino, whom we usually call Nino, is our second son. He is
only twenty months old.
Entering the examination room, I see my wife delicately
holding our baby boy as a doctor shines a little flashlight into his eyes.
After a hushed introduction, I am silent.
The doctor leaves the room, saying he’s going to bring in a
colleague. I hug my wife and touch Nino’s cheek with the back of my hand. Two
doctors enter, then three. I have a sinking feeling in my chest and a
constricting sensation in my throat. There is the smell of hand soap and
hospital, the sound of squeaky shoes on pearl-white floors and machines quietly
whirring. One of the doctors finally speaks: “He has a tumor.”
Hours later, we leave the hospital, knowing only that our
child has retinoblastoma—malignant cancer of the eye. Fear comes in waves; deep
sorrow comes in torrents. For weeks my heart is flooded with both. In my
classroom I teach that journal writing can be a life-saving practice; late one
night I find my journal in my bedside drawer and, in an attempt to make sense
of what was happening to my little boy, to my family, to me, I put pen to
Nino has cancer. Seeing it written down hurts my stomach.
Over the last three weeks of hospital visits and wrenching fears, it has become
unreal. Nino has cancer. Now it is real again. I will never again read Nino’s
favorite book, Frosty the Snowman, in the same way.
Illustration by Sydney Smith