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Crossword Puzzles: The Sixth ‘Love Language’

I found the stack of yellowed newspapers behind the sippy cups in the cabinet. I had been doing a kitchen overhaul and there they were, shoved in the back corner behind loose straws and lids to lost bottles. Each paper was neatly creased and turned to the crossword, where it had been waiting years in the dark for someone to take a pen to it.

The kids were at school, so I sat down on top of the counter where I had been crouched and hugged the bundle of papers to me like a favorite sweater. I began to thumb through them, checking the date of each one that was so closely attached to a memory.

September 2008: A few months after we were married, my husband — the title still shiny and new — left for the first time for a work trip. Jody’s job was to map areas in Texas and Louisiana for an environmental management company.

This puzzle from The Times-Picayune marked the beginning of an era punctuated by his absence. His work would send him all over the country, charting the clean up for natural disasters like floods and earthquakes and for not-so-natural ones as well. It was a lonely season, and the puzzles were his way of sending bits of himself back to me. He would fill in some answers and leave the rest for me, like a game of checkers you leave on the coffee table to finish over the course of days, weeks, months.

December 2008: We had set up a twig of a tree in our low-ceilinged living room and then abandoned it to visit my new in-laws for the holidays. He got the call to leave again on Dec. 26, just as we were pulling into our driveway, happy to be home again even if home was a fixer-upper with drafty windows and a rotting deck. Neither of us knew that trip would be the one that would take over our lives for the next year.

In what would become one of the worst environmental and industrial disasters in the country, Jody began work on the site for a coal ash spill in east Tennessee. He would call from a trailer on the property or a motorboat on the river, and each time I would ask, “Are you OK? Are you being safe?” He assured me that he was. He sent me pictures of himself in a hazmat suit, along with a half-filled crossword from The Knoxville News Sentinel.

Before Jody, I was good at being alone. I liked my solitude. But somewhere in the space of meeting and marrying him, I had forgotten how to be alone. The dog followed me through rooms filled with boxes still unpacked from our wedding. I’d talk to myself, and the dog, sipping coffee that wasn’t as good as when Jody made it. And when the quiet and the stillness got to be too much, I’d take one of the crosswords onto the deck and pick up where he left off.

Jody had never been a romantic man in the traditional sense of the word. He doesn’t write me love songs or arrange Post-its on the bathroom mirror in the shape of a heart. But I’m not the kind of woman who wants paper hearts. I want to be presented with solvable problems, tangles that require creative solutions. It’s what makes me a good teacher, card player and wife. Jody knows this. He knew it even back then in those early years of marriage and so he would send me thick envelopes filled with puzzles — our unique love language.

But some problems are not easily solved. From March 2012 through July 2020, the crosswords in this pile are blank.

These are the years that almost sunk us. On March 15, 2012, our first son, Charlie, was born, early and with complications. Jody stopped traveling. We kept up with the puzzles in the hospital, when all we could do was wait, and then panic, and then wait.

But then Charlie came home from intensive care at 3 months old with a tracheotomy, oxygen monitor and suction machine, and there was no time for puzzles. At age 1, he was given a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. When he was 2, we had twins. We were busy filling in the blanks of our own lives.

That era was a wasteland of worry that was also rich with happiness. Slowly, Charlie grew more stable, healthy and happy and as safe as you can ever be in a world with no guarantees, and we settled into our self-made chaos. We were so teeming with life, it was as if the kids subsumed us.

Then the coronavirus hit, along with quarantine. We had all the time in the world and yet we had none: The days filled up with Zoom school and two adults working from home and carrying the dog up and down the steps to the backyard because she is now old and arthritic. I forgot all about those early years of loneliness and the quiet ritual of the crossword, until today, sitting on the kitchen counter in a quiet kid-free house.

I unfold one for us to do later and set it by the sink along with two pens, the click-top one for me because it is faster and everybody claims a puzzle is about teamwork, but really it’s a race.

And then I tuck the rest away for safekeeping, because they remind me of our story.

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