The other day I was going through some papers in my nightstand drawer, and I found a small glossy blue and white folded paper that I’d come across many times in the last few years and done nothing with. I recognized the paper as a folded crossword given to me by my dad several years ago. I had been saving it. For what, I didn’t know.
I live in the Rocky Mountains and my father lived in California. Being his only daughter and the mother to his only grandchildren, he visited often. And my dad only flew here on United Airlines. I used to joke with him that I don’t think he chose that airline because of the prices or his growing Mileage Plus account. It wasn’t for the (at the time) free cocktails or the Priority Seating that he got for being 6’4″ tall. I swear he flew United and no other airline strictly because of the crossword puzzles.
From an early age, I could remember my father doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle on a daily basis. He always did it in pen. He used either a fine-point Sharpie or a felt-tip pen of another brand, never ever a ball-point pen. And when he started the crossword he might use one color, but if he put it down and had to return to finish it at a later time, he always used a different color ink. In addition, he always used all capital letters to fill in his answers. Everything was always done the same way: the way he folded the paper, where he sat when he worked on the puzzle (outside on the patio in good weather, at the kitchen table in bad), the colors of the ink and the capital letters. I thought it was tradition, or perhaps even superstition. I know now it probably had to do with his bipolar disease. It goes hand-in-hand with OCD and he likely worried that if he changed anything around, the outcome would be different. And his outcome was always the same: that man never failed to complete a NY Times crossword puzzle, even the harder Friday versions. It might take him several days, and several colors of Sharpie, but he always finished. That crossword puzzle was his peace. His quiet retreat. His “time-out”.
When my father would fly to see me, he would reach into the seatback pocket of his airplane seat and find the United Airlines magazine with an “undone” puzzle. And he would very, very carefully remove the puzzle page from the magazine. Then he would fold it in half, then in half again, and again and again until the clean, unsolved page measured about 2″x 3″. Then he would put it in his dress shirt pocket (where he kept his Sharpie) and remove the United Airlines magazine from the seatback pocket of his yet unseated neighbor, hoping for another blank puzzle. If he found one, he would not remove that one from the magazine. That magazine he would keep for himself and that puzzle he would start before the plane lifted off, and he would usually finish it before the flight attendant came around with that first free cocktail.
When my dad arrived at my home, he typically had gifts for my three children. Stuffed animals or handknit sweaters from my mom, or other fun trinkets. And there was always a gift for me: a small, glossy, folded white magazine page with blue squares and tiny blue typing. My United crossword. He brought one every time. And I would wait until my children were in bed before sitting at the kitchen table, trying to solve my puzzle, my simple gift from my dad.
My father died in my home during one such visit. Cardiac arrest. They claim he died in his sleep, but I saw him as he left this world, and his eyes were open. And he was scared. And I could not save him. And as my mom and I were going through his clothing the following day, I found my crossword. Shiny and small, folded with perfect right angles and even corners. I put it in my nightstand drawer and never opened it. Since my dad’s death 6 years ago last week, I never once opened that puzzle. I never unfolded its perfect page. I never looked at the theme. But in the corner, without having to open it, I could see the date. And it is dated for the month of his death. April 2007.
Well, here it is now, April 2013. My life, in many ways, is worse. Since that time, I have been given a name for what troubled me for so many years: bipolar disorder. I have learned that my daughter suffers from the same illness. My children are growing and no longer need me as they used to, my husband has left me, friends have abandoned me, my only brother no longer speaks to me, and of course, my father is dead. And there is nothing I can do to fix any of it.
My life is a bit of a puzzle itself, but with no “answer key” at the back of the magazine. My dad didn’t remove that page, only the crossword. The answers I will have to come up with on my own. I can use as many colors of ink as I want, and I can fold it back up and put it away in my drawer if I can’t bring myself to solve it all at once. Or if I simply don’t have the answers. It will never be as neat as when my father first tore it from the magazine. It has been bent and crumpled around the corners, and the ink has faded near the folds. But it’s still my puzzle. And I’m pretty sure I can do it. I might have to ask for help, because I don’t know all the answers. But I can complete it. I may have to put it down and return to it later, with a different color Sharpie, but I will finish it eventually. I may not finish it the way I originally planned, but it will get done and my answers will be correct.
And in honor of Earth Day, I think I’ll start with green.