A chubby boy with a vivid imagination and a terminally ill man intent on suicide share an adventure in survival on an extremely cold day. Robin plays make-believe as he heads to a pond in the woods. In the distance, he spots an emaciated man who appears to be wearing only pajamas. Fifty-three year old Don Eber is dying from cancer that's in his brain. Surgery and chemotherapy have not prevented its progress. He's come to the woods on this frigid day to die with dignity.

Robin finds Don's discarded coat on the ground and is determined to return it to the stranger. While toting the jacket, the boy falls through the ice of the frozen pond. Don sees Robin struggling in the water and realizes it is his fault that the well-intentioned kid is in danger. With great difficulty, Don makes his way to the pond and pulls the boy out. He removes Robin's wet clothes and replaces them with his own dry pajamas and the coat. He revives Robin and encourages him to run home.

Don is now naked, shivering, exhausted, and alone in the woods. But he no longer wants to end his life. He now understands its value, how "there could still be many - many drops of goodness" [249].
As he reminisces about the past, Don senses he is in a warm place. It is Robin's house. The boy has sent his mother to retrieve Don, and she has successfully rescued him.


This moving yet not maudlin tale feels like a dream that veers toward a nightmare but closes as a wake-up call for the two main characters. The boy and the man are both outsiders living in their own altered reality. For Robin, it is a pretend world where he is no different from other children and not a "loser." For Don, it is disease and dependence on others along with frequent visits to his past.

Memory and imagination have important roles in the story. They are poised to oppose each other - fact versus fiction - but where is the line that divides an accurate recollection of the past from self-delusion, wishful thinking, or sugar-coated remembrances? In their own way, both memory and imagination offer a means of escape, a place of possible comfort. There are no neurological or psychological constraints that mandate all memories must be more truthful, more correct than imagination.

Parenthood, hope, heroism, identity, fear, and kindness are additional concepts explored in this story.


The story first appeared in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Primary Source

Tenth of December (pp 215-251)


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count