First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
I like to believe that some things in life never change.
The earthy scent after an overdue summer rain, the devilish feeling of finding forgotten money in a jacket pocket – our lives are dotted by certain events unbothered by day or decade. A constant in my life, and one ever since I could hold a pen, has been the routine at lunch with my grandfather.
My grandmother will ask me how the walk was from my parents’ house, while I hang up my jacket and make the quick turn into the kitchen, drawn by the smell of savoury spices and the mystery of today’s meal. At the sink to wash my hands, and still after all these years, there is no hand soap. I lather my hands with the fluorescent green-dish variety, before I pour myself a glass of water and take a seat at their 1970s kitchen table.
Sitting at his usual spot in the corner is my grandfather. His eyes surface for a quick “hello” before they plunge back down into the focus in front of him. Brows furrowed, glasses perched on the tip of his nose and an arm flexed into his chin like Rodin’s The Thinker, I’ll always catch him in the middle of some thought.
“So, how’s this one coming along?” I’ll ask. With a frustrated laugh, he will slide the crossword toward me.
Carefully cut and neatly folded from his newspaper, he will have had a head start on it that morning. By the time I arrive, three-quarters of it will already have been finished. Many of the clues are far beyond my riddling reach. I am perfectly content with the consolation of the remaining corner or two, and the odd clue related to sports (my expertise) that he has left behind.
Even if I am utterly certain of an answer, I fill in the squares with the faintest stroke of my pen, as clues are systematically checked against cross-clues and, again, against cross-clues. He rarely makes an error – I hope to avoid setting off an avalanche of them. As lunch goes on, we will get so engrossed in the day’s puzzle that my grandmother will rebuke us for letting our food grow cold. In the rare event that we are unable to finish the crossword by lunch’s end, he will call me later that evening to go over the clues he later solved; and more importantly, to debate that puzzle-maker’s prowess.
Today, lunch unfolds in its usual manner. As I pull in my chair, I take up the crossword. A busy summer has made for several months between visits, so I’m excited to have it in my hands again.
I look it over. Then once more, scratching my head to make sure what I am seeing is really what I am seeing.
Large swaths of the puzzle are blank! Clues are filled in here and there, but short of what I came used to seeing for an inveterate crossword puzzler.
“Thatha [grandfather], I think this is 49-down… and this 52-across,” I say.
“Oh, right. Yes. Yes, put that down there,” he replies. I reach across the table to hand him the crossword. Looking at him as he searches for answers, something feels different. I note his hair is whiter than I remembered. His voice carries more softly, too.
For the first time I think about my grandfather as, well, a grandfather. I’d never really noticed it before. Not when we broke away during family gatherings to discuss how the biology of our brains could conjure up the abstractedness of philosophy. Or when we scaled the hills of Heidelberg to take in the Rhine breaking into the Neckar. Nor when we walked the sprawling grounds of the Theosophical Society, a peaceful oasis of Banyan trees amongst the bustling streets of Chennai. He could have been an artist or a poet, but losing his father at a young age forced him toward a career in academia to provide for his mother and five siblings. He would settle in the small town of Deep River, Ont., with my grandmother. Soon after starting work at Chalk River Laboratories, they would have my mom. One thing lead to another, and eventually, I would find myself here at his table for lunch.
But life is about change – and change we aren’t always prepared for. I see it firsthand in the patients I care for in hospital: minds clouded by Alzheimer’s disease, joints stiffened by arthritis and hearts failing as pumps. Before the indignities of disease grab hold of those we love, the signs are often subtle: the fumble of a knitting needle, a forgotten meeting with an old friend, a shortened walk on a beautiful day. These moments in between carry a different weight, a reflection of life’s many transformations that lie ahead.
While I wrap up my medical degree, unsure of where the next chapter in life as a resident will take me, my grandfather is starting a new chapter of his own after retiring from a career that spanned the greater part of 60 years. Just as we are on different ends of life, we find ourselves on different ends of the city now, too; connecting over the odd text message about an interesting study I’ve read or a play he’s recently seen. Life will never stop pulling us unwittingly forward. But at lunch – when we take up our pens, put on our thinking caps and focus on the 15x15 grid of black and white squares – all stands pleasantly still.
Now, instead of an exercise of quick wit or instant insight, the crossword asks for patience and understanding. An answer can change the entire outcome of a puzzle, much like a single event can change the trajectory of one’s life. As clues are slowly revealed for their meaning, so are the truths in life as we live them. And only when it is finally solved, can we both look back on a job well done.
Arjun Sharma lives in Toronto.