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Lions Roar : January 2014
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 stom- ach. 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 one- sie 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 chil- dren, 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. 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 can- not 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 pres- ent 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 min- utes, 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 persis- tent 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 Nino and James today PHOTOCOURTESYOFTHEAUTHOR 66 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2014