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.

James Hanmer
15 December 2020
Illustration by Sydney Smith.

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.”

I will never again read Nino’s favorite book, Frosty the Snowman, in the same way.

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.

Tonight, sitting on the toddler bed with my little boy on my knee, I was struggling to hold back tears. His fuzzy hair smelled sweet and felt like a soft stuffed animal. “Sing, Dada,” he said with his clear brown eyes imploring me. I looked at his right eye—the eye with the cancer that’s killing him.

“Sing, Dada,” Nino repeated. He was in his flannel green dinosaur onesie pajamas, and the cold rain was lashing the windows. While he is here with me, I will refuse him nothing. I opened the toddler book filled with colored pictures of the snowman, who magically comes to life for children, and I tried to sing the lines: Frosty the snowman knew the sun was hot that day, so he said, “Let’s run, and we’ll have some fun now before I melt away.” But suddenly I was weeping waves of salty warm tears, my chest heaving with the pain of a parent who can do little to save his child. I do not want Nino to melt away… please don’t melt away…

Nino turned the page with his chubby little fingers. He waved goodbye, saying, “Don’t you cry. I’ll be back again someday.” My stomach convulsed as my little boy asked me to sing the story again. I will sing the story with you forever, Nino, as long as I can smell your sweet fuzzy hair and have your tiny warm pajama’d body on my knee. Thumpety thump, thump, thumpety thump, thump, look at Frosty go. Thumpety thump, thump, thumpety thump, thump, over the fields of snow.

Nino’s soft fuzzy hair is long gone. He is one of those kids. We are one of those families. My wife and I hold each other close. We hold our boys close.

For the next two years, my family and I fall into the pattern of laser surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. The effort it takes to keep a toddler away from germs, the vomiting, the shots, the blood tests—they all take their toll. We are tired. Yet, the hope that one of these months Dr. O., our wonderful retinoblastoma specialist, will come and deliver the news that the cancer is gone keeps us afloat. But each month we are forced to puff up our deflated hearts when we hear: “More surgeries, more chemo.”

Nino’s soft fuzzy hair is long gone. He is one of those kids. We are one of those families. My wife and I hold each other close. We hold our boys close.

At this time, journaling and my fledgling meditation practice are keeping me just above the flood of fears and despair. But the story of Frosty keeps returning to me as I drive to work, teach class, drive home, try to fall asleep. Thumpety thump, thump, thumpety thump, thump, look at Frosty go.

In my classroom, my mind is not sharp; it feels warbly and swishes like sickly seaweed. One time, while teaching Hamlet, I feel it is Frosty who enters the stage and states, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Another time, while teaching Oedipus, the blind despairing man says, “All is well,” and I envision Frosty’s eyes of coal. How can all be well? My child is fighting for his life; my family is shredded with fear and anxiety. Why am I reading and teaching these stories? Who cares?

It is at this time that we endure another surgery, and Dr. O. takes us into a private room to inform us that the cancer has returned stronger than ever and is heading toward the optical nerve that leads to the brain. Our choices are limited: continue chemo or enucleate the eye in an attempt to save Nino’s life.

We return home. I wander around our house. I am empty, defeated. I should do something. I stare at the wall. I wash the dishes. I do not sleep. I cannot watch TV and I absolutely cannot read. I decide to meditate if I can manage. Perhaps it will give me some moments of peace. I go to a quiet room and sit. After some clearing breaths, I remember the mantra present moment, wonderful moment. At this moment of my life, these words seem absurd, but I am desperate. Present moment, I say to myself on the inhalation. Wonderful moment, I say to myself on the exhalation. Present moment, wonderful moment… Five minutes, ten, twenty. My mind spins with fears that I usually try to push out of my head, realities that could defeat even the most quixotic spirit. Then, as crazy as it sounds, Frosty, like a persistent dream, returns to my mind. I do not fight the story this time. I know that in meditation I am supposed to return to the breath, but instead I breathe in the story and something reveals itself to me. I see something new. Something extraordinary.

Frosty, as we all remember, is “a jolly happy soul.” Born of heaven’s white falling snow and seeing through his earthy black eyes of coal, his spirit is that of a child, but his foreknowledge of his own demise places him outside the realm of the purely innocent children. His crucial conflict—our crucial conflict—is this: Frosty the Snowman knew the sun was hot that day. Life is suffering, death will come, is coming. Yet, Frosty’s response is astonishing! “Let’s run and have some fun,” he says, “before I melt away.” Frosty is delivering the wisdom of the Buddha, and one can almost picture him meditating on the mantra present moment, wonderful moment. He teaches the children that there is heaven in the present moment. Here and now, we are alive.

Frosty leads the children out of the pastoral forest into the town where the group faces the complications of daily life in the stern and officious police officer, who hollers, “Stop!” There is a temptation to dwell in the realm of fear, but Frosty’s stop in the town square is momentary. Time is too fleeting, too precious. The children must learn—while they can—how to play, for as we all know, nothing lasts forever and Frosty must “hurry on his way.”

As Frosty faces his own melting with the acceptance of a Zen master, he teaches us his most valuable lesson. He will face death, his next metamorphosis from one form (snow) to the next form (water) with courage, understanding, and even a sense of ease. With peaceful acceptance, our snowy hero waves goodbye saying, “Don’t you cry, I’ll be back again someday.” Then he fearlessly dances over the hills of snow back to the forest. Frosty shows us that our time is short, but that does not mean it has to be lived in fear and sadness.

Nothing changes a person like suffering. Joy, happiness, and contentment are warm blankets that we wish to curl up in forever. But trauma? Trauma teaches.

Coming out of my meditation, I open my eyes. This children’s story has lifted me out of despair. I stand up and step outside. It is a windy, brisk February afternoon. It occurs to me that I am a lucky man, even in one of my darkest hours. Despite the horrendous decision that my wife and I will have to make, this present moment is still a wonderful moment, for I am alive and can do everything in my power to ease the suffering of my little boy, the suffering of my amazingly strong wife, and the secret worries of my four-year-old son. This is my heroic moment. I will suffer it and feel it. With the spirit of a mad knight, I will fight the giants and monsters for Nino. I feel less fearful, for my heart is stronger. I feel less anxious, for my mind is clearer. I feel less sorrow, for I have accepted the reality. I will take on as much of this burden as I am able so Nino can live like a child—so he can go thumpety-thumping for as much life as he is meant to have.

It is seven years since Nino’s battle, and the waves of that experience still come rolling to my shore. Nothing changes a person like suffering. Joy, happiness, and contentment are warm blankets that we wish to curl up in forever. But trauma? Trauma teaches.

We moved away from California. The expensive, fast-paced, and competitive lifestyle demanded our attention; however, we were unwilling to comply. For my wife and me, something deep in our core had shifted.

The wide-open spaces of the Midwest welcomed us as I landed a job teaching literature and writing in a town just south of Omaha. They call it “the good life” here in Nebraska, and it is. We needed America’s heartland to heal. My wife is also headed back into teaching; her deep love of children and families is a clarion call to the classroom. Our older boy is ten, and he was forever changed by his experience; he displays an empathy and compassion that is rare for a person of any age. As for me, I am a husband and a father. I am now convinced that stories hold the key to understanding our lives.

And Nino? In an attempt to save his life, we chose to enucleate the eye, and today he is six years cancer free. At eight years old, he sports mounds of dark hair and is as strong as a freight train. He’s fiercely competitive, plays baseball, soccer, and tennis, and is so social that his classmates and teachers call him “The Mayor.” He is the happiest person I know. And when the snow falls in beautiful Nebraska, there is a soft glow in his face because he knows it’s time to race outside, feel the cold white wetness on his skin, stick his hands in that divine frosty blanket, and pelt his daddy with one perfect snowball after another. Present moment, wonderful moment.