The Necessity of Filling Certain Boxes
by Ross Trudeau
The pain usually starts in my lower back and flashes down the sides of my legs, and when it gets really bad, Jessie asks me if I want her to get her chainsaw. I always smile; it’s a funny bit. It started years ago when she deadpanned the question and offered to perform an amateur living room amputation of my legs. Now, as then, I smile-grimace and nod, and she sighs and feigns weariness and rises from our bed to retrieve the hardware.
As she leaves the room, I think of the phrase “gallows humor.” I think of “palliative care,” and a Mary Oliver poem I haven’t read since college. What’s it called? “Death Comes”?, I think. Maybe “Death Arrives”?
Jessie returns with a glass of wine and sets it on my nightstand. “Do you want to solve the crossword?”
I’m staring into the middle ground, mouth slightly open, shaking my head slowly. The pain is still deep and sharp but now somewhat blurrier around the edges. Is it “When Death Arrives”? Jessie kisses me on the forehead and smiles. She learned to recognize this expression of slack intensity years ago, and slides back into bed beside me.
I sit up and reach for my laptop at the foot of the bed, and wince as the change in position draws my attention back to the pain. Jessie, lying next to me again, asks, “Got a crossword idea?”
“Got a crossword idea,” I say, opening a blank document and typing out a line:
WHEN DEATH COMES
My diagnosis came in November of 2001, when my classmates and I were still walking around our Manhattan prep school in a persistent post-9/11 miasma. It was nearly Thanksgiving, after the smell had lifted and President Bush had reopened Yankee Stadium with a ceremonial first pitch, when an MRI revealed a benign olive-sized tumor in my spine. I was initially diagnosed with Schwannomatosis, a genetic disorder involving an inactivated tumor suppressing gene. But when I started developing dozens and then hundreds more angiolipomas scattered all around my body just beneath the skin—a symptom not commonly associated with Schwannomatosis—my diagnosis became hazy. A specialist at NYU Medical Center told me that he’d never met anyone like me.
It’s definitely called “When Death Comes,” I tell myself, and I count the letters in the title. W-H-E-N-D-E-A-T-H-C-O-M-E-S. 14 letters. The idea that’s burbling up is too macabre for a mainstream crossword, but even that awareness doesn’t interrupt the internal mechanism playing out irresistibly in my head. When. When suggests temporality, chronology. Year, day, time, hour, second. I reach for the wine and sip. Death. Synonyms for death. Euphemisms for death. Rest, eternal rest, expiration, departure, passing.
WHEN DEATH COMES. I stare at the phrase. Rest, expiration, departure, passing. Year, day, time, hour, second. And then I’m typing the phrase EXPIRATION DATE—yes, also 14 letters long!—the same moment it comes to mind. The cursor blinks. A moment later I’m typing DEPARTURE TIME. 13 letters.
I’m still in pain, but I’m not looking at it, inside. The pattern resolving in front of me arrests my attention. I just need one more answer, a second 13-letter answer, because like the mind, crosswords demand symmetry above all. And then the phrase PASSING MOMENT snaps into focus, and I count the keystrokes as I type: P-A-S-S-I-N-G-M-O-M-E-N-T. 13! A wave of abiding satisfaction suffuses me down to my toes as I consider the words in front of me.
EXPIRATION DATE (14)
PASSING MOMENT (13)
DEPARTURE TIME (13)
WHEN DEATH COMES (14)
I went in for my first surgery a week before Thanksgiving, 2001. The surgeon promised me that removing the tumor from my spine would relieve some of the pain immediately; the specialists were quick to point out that I might develop new ones at any time. When they rolled me for the first time to the operating room, my mom walked calmly next to the gurney, holding my hand. When I came to a stop under the clinical glare of the discs of OR lighting, a blue-clad female anesthesiologist materialized above me. I’m told that I, already drugged, blurted out, “Mom! Smurf!”
“No, sweetie,” she’d said. “That’s Smurfette.”
Smurfette asked me to count backwards from ten as my vision went black.
I can’t trace my waking memories post-surgery to any fixed point. I’m told I was awake within a couple hours of the conclusion of the six-hour procedure, but what I can remember are more like feelings or impressions than actual memories. At some point it registered that I’d had surgery. Post-op treatment details cohered: I’d been given multiple antibiotics since waking, morphine for the pain, Benadryl for the itching caused by the morphine, Zofran for the nausea caused by the Benadryl. But my central nervous system couldn’t support anything like a fixed train of thought, and I remember at one point settling on the terrifying notion that I’d gone insane, and my disordered, half-waking, half-sleeping reality would persist forever.
But the world reordered itself, slowly, by degrees. And within ten days, once the jagged, nine-inch incision on my lower back had closed, once I’d regained feeling in my lower body, I was ready to leave the hospital. The morning of my discharge, with my parents at the bedside holding my arm, the surgeons told me that while the surgery had been successful, they’d also found another tumor—too small to operate on—and that I may need to start thinking about chronic pain care.
“Oh, that’s good.” Jessie is looking at my screen. “The first three are phrases that can be reinterpreted as when death comes.”
“You should reorder them. If it goes DATE, then TIME, then MOMENT, it’s like you’re zooming in to, like, the very last second.”
I look at Jessie, who’s wearing a small closed mouth smile. She’s an autodidact who started making her own crosswords some months after we began dating. I lean to kiss her on the forehead, and the pain hardly registers. “You just wrote all the clues,” I say, and I start typing again.
EXPIRATION DATE (14) [Last day?]
DEPARTURE TIME (13) [Last minute?]
PASSING MOMENT (13) [Last second?]
WHEN DEATH COMES (14)
“There it is, baby,” she says. “A tight, consistent, utterly morose set of theme answers for your depressing crossword puzzle.”
I smile, and open my crossword software, and place the answers in the grid, each pair of equal length occupying symmetrical slots: a standard crossword has 180-degree rotational symmetry, which means it’d look just the same if you turned it upside down.
Over the years I experimented with a variety of pain management strategies. Yoga routines seemed to work for a while, until they didn’t. Neurological pain drugs weren’t effective, and left me in a dense cognitive fog. Meditation practices felt like they only made things worse.
The low emotional ebb came when I was teaching high school English in San Francisco in 2011, when I uncapped a sharpie in front of my bathroom mirror and began circling each of the subtle bumps that dotted my torso, arms, and legs. I remember feeling defiance, maybe anger, as I started in on my left arm: seven circles, ranging from pea-sized to larger than an olive. The five circles on my right arm, drawn with my left hand, were sloppy and irregular, especially the one delineating a tiny new lipoma I found on the triceps above my elbow. My torso took only a matter of seconds, since I was keenly aware of the location of each of the fourteen bumps that, more often than any of the others, I unconsciously prodded and rolled in the minutes before sleep or between sets at the gym. Here I paused to look at my naked reflection in the mirror and began to cry. In retrospect, I knew from the outset that I’d weep, that this was no exercise in empowerment or control. It was an expression of self-pity, a giving up. The first disgorged sob of a long, surrendering cry that persisted as I continued circling the largest bumps (lower back), the most emasculating (inner thighs), the most noticeable (above the knee).
By the time I’d finished I was sitting on the floor, hidden from the mirror but not the fluorescent ceiling bulbs, the ink on my back imprinting faint purple circles on the side of the tub. I spat on my left forearm and started rubbing at one of the circles near my wrist. Pressing down on my lipomas like this didn’t exactly hurt, but evoked a nails-on-chalkboard discomfort. The lesion that I imagined that caused the real, unignorable pain was the small one in my spine, clinging to the angel hair pasta of woven nerves at my L4 vertebra. Sitting on the bathroom floor as I did sent a synesthetic lightning bolt down the outside of my right leg, a unique sensation at the intersection of an overdeep stretch and a broad, achy bruise.
Jessie has by this point nodded off. Even more than when I’m developing a theme for a crossword, building and filling the grid sinks me into a fugue state in which the pain recedes to some more distant quarter of my awareness. Time has dropped away too: I don’t know how long I’ve been at it, or how long Jessie’s been asleep.
I tab unconsciously between rows and columns, adding black squares, scanning for constrained crossings. The grid begins to take shape: not too many closed-off sections, some long entry slots for fun non-thematic answers. I add FLOPPY DISK, and PRO-GAMERS. A whole corner falls easily, with fun entries like IRON MAN and RASTA. I wonder if the “R” where the proper nouns DREXEL and ARLO cross will be a challenging square for solvers. I come to a complete halt in a section that seems unfillable with valid entries, until the name RIRI bails me out.
I yawn and look at my watch. It’s 2:00am, and the pain has subsided to the point where I slide my laptop to the floor, put my head on the pillow, and am asleep next to Jessie within a minute or two.
When I started making crosswords as a hobby in the summer of 2015, it was largely because of how pleasurable it was to develop lists of words that expressed an interesting linguistic pattern. I’d been an inveterate word nerd from a young age, favoring Scrabble over Monopoly, causing my father to wince with bad puns, and anagramming every collection of words that entered my field of vision. On our first date, I pointed to a NO PARKING sign and suggested to Jessie that the words could be scrambled into the phrase A PORN KING, in which she delighted, to my great relief.
The pattern-seeking became habitual. On a dinner date with Jessie in Mission Hill, I wondered how many places have names that comprise a religious facility and a topographical rise. Boston’s MISSION HILL, Jerusalem’s TEMPLE MOUNT, Gettysburg’s SEMINARY RIDGE, Yosemite’s CATHEDRAL PEAK. And as a kicker, I hit upon a phrase that can be reparsed as a cutesy descriptor of this pattern: MORAL HIGH GROUND.
On that same evening, Jessie exhorted me to one more drink, doing a quick sidewalk arabesque and singing, “The night is young!”
My face slackened. The night is young. THE NIGHT IS YOUNG.
“Oh no. What is it?”
“The night! It’s young! Get it? CHILD STAR! And … BABYMOON! And, uh … oh! MINOR PLANET! There’s a crossword theme here!”
It was only after I’d begun selling crosswords to newspapers that I began to reflect on why I’d thrown myself so completely into the avocation. Yes, I found it rewarding and fun, but much of the time, I realized, it was a coping mechanism. When I found myself in pain, standard distractions like watching television didn’t tend to help: sitting and watching was too passive, and my attention would inexorably return to the hurt. On the other hand, more demanding tasks—grading my students’ papers, reading a novel—asked too much of me. I couldn’t devote the critical focus to the task.
But making crosswords, I came to realize, occupied some sublime cognitive space at the intersection of entertainment and rigor. My attention could share a space with my pain. I couldn’t ask it to leave, but rather to sit next to me, tracing its bony finger down the length of my sciatic nerve, and looking at my computer screen, rather than directly at me.
It’s morning, and I’m pouring coffee while “Windows” plays over the radio. An NPR host is saying that Chick Corea has passed as I review last night’s grid on my laptop, shaking my head. I know it doesn’t stand a chance of seeing daylight in a mainstream crossword venue. When you open The New York Times, the puzzle makes two implicit promises to you: first, that unlike the other problems and headaches you’ll face today, this problem has a solution—perhaps an elegant and satisfying one. And second, that when you enter the little compartmentalized reality of the crossword, you won’t have to be on guard against the stressors, triggers, and anxieties of life outside the grid. You won’t see SPINAL TUMOR or UNTREATABLE PAIN as an answer word. You won’t have to dwell on Chick Corea’s passing by filling in WHEN DEATH COMES. Relax, the puzzle says. You’re safe in here.
Jessie appears over my shoulder, kissing my ear.
“You’re never going to sell this one.”
“I know,” I say, setting the coffee pot down and exhale. “It hurts again this morning.”
Jessie grunts her sympathy and hugs my shoulders. “Let’s make another one,” she says, squeezing tighter. A jazz piano riff fills the silence.
After a while, I say, “How many famous people besides Chick Corea have a young animal in their name?”
Jessie snorts a small laugh. “RYAN GOSLING. Hottie.”
“Don’t forget KIT HARINGTON,” she says.
“This isn’t a bad theme idea. It needs a title.”
We stand there, thinking, with little curls of steam rising from our mugs. After a few moments Jessie smiles and looks at me. “Men,” she says, kissing me gently on the forehead, “can be such babies.”