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.