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The Tenth of December

December 10, 2013

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 1.22.42 PMToday is the Tenth of December, a date celebrated by American short story writer George Saunders in his collection published this year.  The title story “Tenth of December” is so powerful and important that I feel compelled to write this essay exploring Saunders’ vision and insight.  Of course, the best thing to do as a member of the extended St. Andrew’s family is to read the story in its entirety.  I simply cannot do the story justice in the following pages.

The story revolves around the random and miraculous connection between two outcasts:  a boy named Robin and a 53-year-old man named Don Eber.  Robin is the victim of persistent and lacerating bullying at school, and the treatment of the boys has worn him down.  He has random thoughts of suicide.  Don Eber has terminal cancer and desperately wants to spare his wife and children the burden of taking care of him as he loses independence, dignity, and life.

Robin creates a dramatic narrative of heroism and adventure to strengthen his confidence and identity.  He ventures out on a freezing December day to confront the Netherworlders, an imaginary species that opposes him but ultimately honors his dignity, mercy, and style.  Don Eber decides to enter the same woods to commit suicide by removing his hat and coat and succumbing to the elements.

What makes the reader care deeply for these characters is their love and reverence for life.  As they go through their day, their language is creative, authentic, lively, humble, and humorous.  Here is Robin imagining a conversation with Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in his class from Montreal whom he depicts as a victim of Netherworlders guile:

Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us.  Do you feel the same?

Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes.  They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality. (p. 218)

Here is Don Eber’s thinking of the goals in his life, the experiences in his life that would go unfulfilled following his death:

He was young. He was 53. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion.  What about going down the Mississippi in a canoe?  What about living in an A-frame near a shady creek with the two hippie girls he met in 1968 in that souvenir shop in the Ozarks . . . One of the hippie girls had said that he, Eber, would be a fox when he grew up . . . (p. 222-223)

What Robin and Eber learn on the Tenth of December is that they are not alone, not disconnected from the human family.  Instead, they are heroic, capable of outrageous expressions of grace, courage, compassion, and sacrifice.

Saunders’ plot beautifully suggests that both characters are by their very nature rescuers.  Even as he plays his Netherlander narration and adventure in his mind, Robin notices the coat Eber has left behind.  He pursues him, knowing intuitively that he bears a moral and religious responsibility (“as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves” . . . p. 221) for the welfare of this desperate man.  When Robin crosses over a frozen pond to gain on the retreating man, he falls through the ice and begins struggling for his life.  Now, it is Eber’s turn to notice Robin and to break out of his depression and act.  The following passage marks Eber’s return to active engagement in life:

Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, make this not true make this not true . . .

What to do? When he got there? Get kid out of the pond. Get kid moving. Force-walk kid through woods, across soccer field, to one of the houses on Poole. If nobody home, pile kid into Nissan, crank up heater, drive to—Our Lady of Sorrows? Urgent Care? Fastest route to Urgent Care?  Fifty yards to the trailhead. Twenty yards to the trailhead. Thank you, God, for my strength. (p. 235)

When Eber discovers Robin lying on the edge of the pond, he understands immediately that Robin is now near death.  He has to warm him up, but realizes that the coat that provoked Robin’s heroic rescue attempt still lies on the ice.  Eber must lean, stretch, crawl on to the cracking ice to retrieve the coat that might mean the difference of life and death.  With the coat in hand, Eber returns to Robin, and suddenly the story reveals the power and magnitude of this random pair.  Like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, Robin and Don Eber become a startling and remarkable son and father:

Then it was like the old days, getting Tommy or Jodi ready for bed when they were zonked.  You said, ‘Arm,’ the kid lifted an arm.  You said, ‘Other arm,’ the kid lifted the other arm.  With the coat off, Eber could see that the boy’s shirt was turning to ice.  Eber peeled the shirt off.  Poor little guy.  A person was just some meat on a frame.  Little guy wouldn’t last long in this cold.  Eber took off his pajama shirt, put it on the kid, slid the kid’s arm into the arm of the coat.  In the arm was Eber’s hat and gloves.  He put the hat and gloves on the kid, zipped the coat up.

The kid’s pants were frozen solid.  His boots were ice sculptures of boots.

You had to do things right.  Eber sat on the boat, took off his boots and socks, peeled off his pajama pants, made the kid sit on the boat, knelt before the kid, got the kid’s boots off.  He loosened the pants up with little punches and soon had one leg partly out.  He was stripping off a kid in ten-degree weather.  Maybe this was exactly the wrong thing.  Maybe he’d kill the kid.  He didn’t know.  He just didn’t know.  Desperately, he gave the pants a few more punches.  Then the kid was stepping out.

Eber put the pajama pants on him, then the socks, then the boots.

The kid was standing there in Eber’s clothes, swaying, eyes closed.

‘We’re going to walk now, okay?’  Eber said. (p. 238-239)

Eber literally gives Robin the clothes off his back in a spontaneous act of love and self-sacrifice.  Slowly, painfully, Robin comes back to life and runs wildly home.  Eber stands alone, naked, and alive.

On his way home, Robin has two epiphanies.  The first emerges from reflections about the teasing he endures at school.  He admits to feeling at times like killing himself to teach the boys a lesson, but ultimately he realizes that his mother’s love and belief in him supersede all:  he suddenly remembers a day when he decided to record a phone call (as part of a game of investigation) of his mother’s, and now months later the power of the conversation shocks him . . .

I never dreamed I could love someone so much, Mom had said.  I just worry I might not be able to live up to him, you know?  He’s so good, so grateful.  That kid deserves—that kid deserves it all.  Better school, which we cannot afford, some trips, like abroad, but that is also, uh, out of our price range.  I just don’t want to fail him, you know?  That’s all I want from my life, you know?  Liz?  To feel, at the end, like I did right by that magnificent little dude. (p. 241-242)

Robin sees that he cannot quit, cannot surrender, cannot die:  his mother loves him, believes in him, sacrifices for him, defends him:  this is enough—

He got to his feet and, gathering his massive amount of clothes up some sort of encumbering royal train, started for home. (p. 242)

In his run back to life and family, Robin remembers Ebers, the man who gave him his life back.  Robin’s mother races back into the woods.

Meanwhile, Eber is having an epiphany of his own.  He thinks now about his children and wife:  about his daughter Jodi pregnant and deserted by her lover, and his son Tommy who worked so hard for the love of his father.  He remembers Molly’s love of Christmas and the hope and magic of the season.  Suddenly, the selfishness and insanity of suicide overwhelm Eber:

He was offing himself.  Offing himself, he’d involved a kid.  Who was wandering the woods hypothermic.  Offing himself two weeks before Christmas.  Molly’s favorite holiday . . .

This was not—this was not him.  This was not something he would have done.  Not something he would ever do.  Except he—he’d done it.  He was doing it.  It was in progress . . . 

He had to fight. (p. 245)

At the end of the story, Robin’s mother, the source of Robin’s hope and love in the world, rescues Eber and with her own courage and resolution takes him home to her house.  She recreates the same process of loving restoration Eber performed with Robin.  Finally, Eber meets his wife Molly.  He understands that though cancer, suffering, and degradation may lie ahead, life ultimately provides us with “many drops of goodness”; “many drops of good fellowship” are not only ahead but not his to withhold.  His wife Molly ends the story with one majestic moment of concern and love:

She came to him now, stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s home.  (p. 250)

This magnificent story honors the power of the human spirit at Christmas.  Despite our doubts, despite our anxieties, despite our frailty, we have agency and power to do good, miraculous work.  This is not a time for fear, weakness or retreat.

St. Andrew’s, it is the Tenth of December.  Do the work of love and rescue in the world.

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