The Girl Who Walked Away


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Solver Stories

The Girl Who Walked Away

As an adolescent, Leslie Doyle felt embarrassed by her father. As an adult, she learned to be grateful for what he taught her.

Credit…Illustration by Ard Su

  • Jan. 27, 2021, 6:00 a.m. ET

The word “revolutionary” contains all five vowels plus the sometimes-vowel Y.

I know this because it was a term my father and I used in the word search game we played, one of many games and puzzles that held us together in the years before his death. He died 13 days before my 15th birthday.

Our rules were thus: I had to find as many words — of at least four letters — as I could using the letters in the chosen word, and he had to find as many words as he could with a five-letter minimum. I was probably 8 or 9 when we started playing, which is why I was given the handicap. We were not allowed to use proper nouns and plurals to help us get to the minimum. There was no time limit. We could look at the puzzle until we were certain there were no more words to be found.

I absorbed a methodical way of working from my father, making columns for each consonant in the word across the top of the page, then an extra set of headings for the vowels. This way, all of the words that started with each letter could be grouped together, the better to check which ones we’d already found. We sat at the kitchen table, faces set with concentration and each with a yellow, lined tablet.

My father was a brilliant, depressed, often out-of-work alcoholic with cancer. I didn’t know most of that when I was young.

I was pretty certain he was brilliant, and I knew when he was out of work because he was home and Mom was working. She first found a temporary job in a department store, and eventually, ironically, she ran an unemployment office.

I didn’t know then that he was depressed, but now it seems obvious.

I didn’t know then that he was an alcoholic though it was equally obvious considering the rocks glass of bourbon always by his side, next to the ashtray with the always burning cigarette.

And I didn’t understand that he had lived with cancer for years though it was eventually made clear; I just knew he was sick. I knew he had once received treatment that made him radioactive for a week; I remember that we couldn’t visit him during that time, and my mom could visit only through a window. I later learned that his gums were seeded with cobalt pellets to combat the malignancy throughout his mouth and throat. I knew that all of his teeth were removed for this procedure. And I knew that this embarrassed me, especially as he was often now the stay-at-home parent, the one who picked me up from my friends’ houses, with no teeth. He eventually got dentures — a full set, in his mid-40s. I also didn’t know until I was an adult that the kind of cancer he had was generally seen only in older people, the only exception being men in their 40s who smoked and drank to excess.

Word searches were just one of the many kinds of puzzles and games we bonded over. We also played chess, checkers and all sorts of card games — gin rummy, casino, Oh Hell and many varieties of solitaire. We played Scrabble, and a sort of Boggle-precursor in which players took turns dumping out letter cubes and arranging them into a crossword of overlapping words. And we solved crosswords.

We bought or made physical puzzles, tangrams and Soma cubes and Instant Insanity, the Rubik’s Cube of the 1960s. And something called a java puzzle, which was a plastic shape — sort of a triangle with the corners lopped off, and a series of small differently shaped pieces that had to be fit into it. Each shape could be composed of six tiny triangles, so my father created a series of grids of the puzzle shape divided up into tiny triangles so that we could draw in each new solution to keep track of how many there were. He kept the grids in a file cabinet, under the Oxford English Dictionary.

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.

Leslie Doyle is a college instructor and freelance writer of essays and fiction. She lives with her husband in New Jersey, and can be found on Twitter @lespdoyle.

Illustration by Ard Su.

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