A Wintry Tale of Deliverance

The George Saunders story “Tenth of December” poses a question that absorbs many patients and caregivers: Can we save ourselves or each other from suffering?

When I learn, as I did a few days ago, of a cherished member of my cancer support group going into hospice, I find myself alienated from holiday cheer, as many do this year. Rather than reading a holiday story like “A Christmas Carol,” I open instead George Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December.” In it, a man who dreads end-of-life cancer connects with a boy who has been bullied in school. Through their interaction, the tale poses a question that absorbs many patients and caregivers. Can we — how can we — save ourselves or each other from suffering?

People with late-stage disease or those loving people with late-stage disease may find this story especially heartening. It analyzes not only our anxieties about physical deterioration but also how we might lay them to rest.

“Tenth of December” begins with the ostracized boy, Robin, trekking to a frozen pond to vanquish make-believe enemies who torture him with the sorts of barbs launched by his classmates: “Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name.” Undaunted, Robin imagines rescuing a girl he admires from being kidnapped by his assailants, though he realizes “The twerpy thing was, you never really got to save anyone.” He had failed to save a dying raccoon and “He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.”

Robin’s fantasies are interrupted by the sight of a coat left on a bench and then, in the distance, of a skinny, bald man in pajamas who looked “Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.” The boy determines to deliver the coat because “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

While Robin embarks on “a real rescue,” Don Eber is resolving to freeze to death in order to spare his wife and children his “future debasement.” Disease or chemotherapy has begun to scramble his words and Eber dreads the degeneration that reduced his beloved stepfather to a rail-thin, verbally abusive brute. Determined instead to do what a good father does — “Eases the burdens of those he loves” — Eber prays, “Let me do it cling. / Clean. / Cleanly.”

Both the boy and the man want to be heroic, though soon their roles reverse. After Robin falls through the ice and manages to pull himself only partly out, Eber drags him free. “The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer.” Noticing his coat on the ice, at the edge of the black water, Eber slides on his belly to snag it, strips off the boy’s freezing clothes, and then peels off his own pajamas, boots and socks to dress Robin, who slowly regains consciousness.

The exposed man and boy quaking in the killing cold bring to mind Lear and his fool on the stormy heath: unaccommodated, forked animals. With the exchange of the coat, their scene evokes William Butler Yeats’s definition of an aged man as “a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.” On the brink of catastrophe, Robin and Eber are poised to expire, although Robin manages to gather Eber’s coat “like some sort of encumbering royal train” and high-tail it home where he will summon help.

Left alone and hallucinating, Eber remembers dressing his sleepy kids, recalls that because of insurance he has not left a note, and senses the misery he will inflict by “offing himself two weeks before Christmas,” his wife’s favorite holiday. “Tenth of December” opts for “Let me do it cling” over and against “Let me do it cleanly.” For abandoned in the snow, dying in his underwear, blue-skinned Eber comprehends the cruelty of his earlier attempt to commit suicide. Recognizing the interconnectedness of his life with others, he realizes that it is not his sole possession to give away.

Both Robin and Eber have botched their initial missions. However, they end up saving each other, not despite but because of their failures. When Eber is finally brought in from the cold, his response to Robin’s apology for fleeing the scene — “You did perfect. I’m here. Who did that?” — comforts them both: “Can’t console anyone if not around?” Eventually Eber remembers that in precious moments his dying stepfather preserved his identity through small acts of kindness: “I’ll try to be like him,” he decides.

Eber accepts the future deterioration dictated by his disease. “Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them. He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there would be many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to withheld. / Withhold.”

Sometimes we know — or a person we love knows — that a decline toward death has become inevitable. Under these circumstances, it is an acknowledgment of our reciprocity to be lifted or lift, to be fed or feed, to be wiped or wipe. Not our strengths but our weaknesses inspire and intensify the mutuality that sustain us. When we cannot save ourselves or each other from suffering, sharing it can become a saving grace. This is a poignant insight these days when the pandemic has limited our capacity to share suffering.

Like Charles Dickens, George Saunders illuminates the mystic deliverance of our dependence on each other and celebrates the generosity to which erring people cling. Like William Butler Yeats, he suggests that we become more than “A tattered coat upon a stick” only when “Soul claps its hands” and learns to “sing and louder sing / For every tatter in our mortal dress.” By instructing us to rejoice in every drop of affection bestowed upon our torn or sore mortal bodies, his story blesses its readers, each and every one.

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