Love, Loss, and the Boston Globe Daily Crossword Puzzle

Chad McDermott

I set my alarm for 6:10, before we were technically “allowed” to be up. Stealthily, I walked over to the office where the night counselor sat clicking monotonously at her computer screen.

“Is the paper here?”

“Not yet,” she replied, narrowing her eyes in an attempt to figure out what I was up to.

“Well, can you unlock my bathroom?”

“Again?!” she sighed exasperatedly as she picked her keys up from the desk. I was notorious among the night counselors for my overactive bladder. Once, one of them told me that between my roommate and I, the bathroom had been unlocked eleven times in a span of eight hours.

While we walked down the hallway to my room, I peered surreptitiously down the hallway. No paper. Not yet.

So I showered, and I brushed my teeth, and I probably didn’t shave because I couldn’t be bothered to check out my razor. By 7, I was hovering around the entrance to the apartment like a helicopter. One of the counselors poked her head out of the office to ask me if I needed anything, to which I politely said “no thank you” and retreated across the hall to a more secluded spot.

Being the first one to get the morning paper was a competition of unspeakable seriousness. You see, the crossword and the horoscopes were always on the same page, and while everybody else was going gaga over their star-supposed future, I wanted to get my puzzle on. I depended on my daily word challenge to get me through an otherwise maddeningly meaningless day.

I always started the crossword at breakfast, when everyone else was too exhausted to think. Early in the week, I could usually finish it before breakfast was over. By the time I reached Saturday or Sunday, however, sometimes it took me all six meals to fill in the last few boxes. I would ask for help from other people at the table, but mostly they just laughed and said things like, “how would I know?” or “there’s a reason you have a 4.0 in college and I don’t.” Like that has anything to do with knowing obscure 80’s TV references…they should have taken pity on me in my youth. The point is, nobody really understood why I was so into these silly newspaper puzzles, and most of them weren’t shy about telling me so.

When we had goal-setting group in the morning, one of the goals I wrote down every single day was “finish the crossword puzzle.” And I always did. No matter what else happened that day, I would have that. I would set lots of goals, usually 5 or 6, ranging from “eat 100% of my meal plan” to “participate at least three times in groups.” I worked on those goals too, sometimes meeting success and sometimes failure, but I always, always finished the crossword puzzle.

It’s a little silly now to think about how obsessed I was with something so mundane. But treatment was hard, and there were a lot of days where nothing seemed to go well and I felt like everything around me was crumbling into pieces. The shred of constancy, the thing I always had, was the Boston Globe and its big square grid on the back page. It wasn’t always easy to figure out; some days I would get frustrated because it would be afternoon snack and I still hadn’t solved even half the clues. But for every day that I felt like it was impossible, I knew there was a day coming when the crossword wouldn’t be quite so hard. Somehow, that made it easier to bear.

If it’s true for the Boston Globe (and the New York Times) crossword puzzle, then shouldn’t it be true for all of us? Maybe our lives don’t run in such a predictable pattern, with the struggles getting harder at the end of the week and restarting afresh on Mondays, but they oscillate just as frequently. For every day that feels completely insufferable and unconquerable, there’s a day sometime in the future when it won’t feel so difficult. Well, and then things will get harder again. There’s no easy way around it. Unfortunately, there isn’t a solution on the opposite side of the page that we can peek at when we feel like giving up.

But it always gets easier. And if you can finish a Sunday crossword puzzle, imagine the relief you’ll feel when Monday comes around.

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