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The Girl Who Walked Away

And we read puzzle books. There wasn’t much religion in our house, but Martin Gardner puzzles from Scientific American and books of brainteasers were a kind of scripture for my father. I knew all about those two trains that started at the same time from opposite stations, and how far a bird flying from one point to another would go, given this speed and that landing time and, I dunno … the weather that day, maybe the color of its feathers.

It was only when I got older that I worried that the two trains would crash.

If all of this sounds obsessive and nerdy, well, yes, I suppose it was. But it was our language, and it became the way I connected with him.

As I became an adolescent and tested the bounds of authority — and he became sadder and more authoritarian — we fought. A lot. I was a total nerd but a free-spirited one, who argued endlessly about rules and anything I thought was “unfair.”

He would repeat the mantra “Life isn’t fair.” And I hated that. I hated the idea that anyone should perpetuate unfairness just because that was the way life was.

The last time I saw him, he was in the hospital for breathing problems. His cancer was at bay, apparently, but his other health issues — chronic bronchitis and asthma and all of the ways four packs of cigarettes a day could damage one’s lungs — were progressing. I remember sitting against the window and talking about the books I was reading, and it was fine. But then when we were leaving, he walked us to the elevator in his pajamas and bathrobe and I got embarrassed or impatient or, I don’t know, something adolescent and ugly, and walked ahead. My last view of my father was looking back through the closing elevator doors, him waving at us.

He died a couple of days later — a sudden asthma attack, or maybe a pulmonary embolism. I had never gotten the full story. We did learn that the cancer had come back, everywhere, and would have killed him soon, slowly. He was right. Life is unfair.

So that’s the puzzle I am left with. The man who was sad and drank to cover it, or maybe drank and was sad because of that. The girl who loved puzzles, who still does, who walked away. And there’s no time limit, it turns out, for trying to understand that. But every time I try a new word game, or figure out the answer to a logic puzzle, I’m with him again — not walking ahead down the hall, but at the kitchen table, letting the letters fall into place.

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