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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 paper:


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.

Read the full article in the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Illustration by Sydney Smith

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