I'm sure that the phenomenon goes by many names but I know it as "the crossword puzzle
effect." You hit a wall in solving a crossword puzzle and set it aside. Pick up the puzzle a moment later, the answer appears obvious and you wonder how you could have been stymied in the first place. It must be a cross-cultural phenomenon because I've seen it in the fortune cookie
sound bites from Lao Tzu
as well. He didn't address crossword puzzles specifically but I'm pretty sure that he was talking about the same thing when he said, "if one ceases to strive for understanding, one can know without understanding."
I always suspected that the first person to come up with a unified field theory or the cure for cancer wouldn't be wearing a lab coat and a pocket protector. I pictured a man or woman sitting on a park bench listening to the birdsong and watching tree branches bend in the breeze. The layman philosopher would appreciate the essence of the forest from his humble perch while the physicists and mathematicians groped the bark and examined pinecones, slaves to the details they sought. Enlightenment would visit the philosopher on the park bench macroscopically, the seamless amalgam of an intricate universe laid bare to the most casual observation, when viewed from a proper distance with an open mind.
Mathematics and the self-defining laws of physics seem a clunky way to address the delicate latticework of small miracles that conspire to create such a mammoth one. A kangaroo could be defined mathematically but it is much easier and more edifying to simply view the kangaroo as a whole. The creature's peculiar magic is lost in quantum analysis and little of value is gained in the effort. The grandest mysteries, like the parameters of gravity and the cure for cancer, seem far too large to approach with a clinically focused mind.
If you catch me lingering on a park bench or gazing out the window for hours on end, apparently detached, I'm working on a unified field theory.
Fred wasn't my uncle but I like to call him Uncle Fred just the same. I know for a fact that he was somebody's uncle
, I just don't remember exactly whose and that's not important anyway. What is important is that Uncle Fred was not a biochemist or an Indian Shaman
or even a particularly gifted guy. He was a working stiff and a family man who led a normal life in an ordinary town. He had children, his children had children and they were all dosed with an average amount of tragedy and bliss. His life would have been completely unremarkable were it not for the fact that he discovered the cure for cancer.
Uncle Fred's wife took ill in her fifties and expired before her sixtieth birthday. She was still in the thick of it when Fred started solving big problems in his sleep. There was little in the way of cancer treatment in those days so she was left to wrassle with the disease largely unaided. Toward the end she had a terrible fever and thrashed about in a fitful delirium that required the use of the entire bed. Fred took to sleeping on the sofa in the front room and that's when he started having the dreams.
The fact that Uncle Fred was able to connect the dots in his slumber is no more surprising to me than the idea that the best way to solve a crossword puzzle is to look away from it. His days were spent in useless worry over his wife's illness, his plea to the Gods that be apparently left unanswered. A parade of doctors with second and third opinions presided over her deterioration and ultimately her death. The malignant chaos of her decline gave way to the most serene dreamscape imaginable when he allowed his worried mind to rest at night. The questions he screamed into the wind of his waking life were answered softly, unexpectedly in his dreams.
Each night as he fell to sleep on the sofa, the dream would take him to a beautiful park where he'd be seated on a bench near the edge of a placid lake. His wife was not dying of cancer in this place; it was always springtime and the sun felt warm on his cheek. The branches of an ancient willow tree swayed over his head and the fingers of shade moved across his body and comforted him. He'd wake from the dreams inexplicably hopeful about his wife's recovery, only to find her languishing ever closer to the abyss.
The dreams stopped the day that she died.
Fred lived to be a very old man, more than thirty years would pass before he joined his wife, summoned by a similar affliction. He had all but forgotten the dreams of the willow tree and the park bench from three decades before but they mysteriously returned with the onset of his own disease. Fred knew that his night visions were somehow related to his wife's decay but he could never quite make sense of them. They might have remained disjointed forever were it not for an attentive nurse and a series of strange visions during Fred's own deterioration.
Uncle Fred has been gone for quite awhile now and the scientists at the University are still trying to untangle the puzzle he left for them.
Janice was a misery junkie
. From an early age she saw this world as little more than a parade of sad circumstances and loss. She had a fraternal twin named Jason who died a senseless death when they were eight years old and she had not been able to summon a happy thought since. They were playing together in the front yard when Jason climbed their favorite tree to untangle the rope of the tire swing
. He fell from the branch barely ten feet off of the ground, simultaneously breaking his neck and his twin sister's heart. Jason died in her arms that morning and took the better part of Janice with him. She resigned herself to wait out this life without her brother or her smile.
Her parents did everything in their power to heal the family and mollify their only remaining child after the accident but Janice would not be soothed.
Her mother worked as a nurse in a field hospital during the war and had witnessed the most horrible suffering imaginable; broken men with amputated limbs spurting blood by the bucketful. None of her haunting memories of war torn men compared to the depth of despair she saw in her daughter's eyes following Jason's death.
The carnage of war inured her to tragedy, steeling her against despair over the loss of her son but little Janice was as delicate as a flower. She feared that her daughter would never recover without similar toughening. With the best of intentions she visited the little girl with memories of the battlefield hospital, hoping to somehow mitigate the smaller tragedy and thicken her skin. The gruesome pep talks only bolstered Janice's moribund worldview and further distanced her from anything resembling a happy childhood.
The cancer took her father when Janice was eleven and she made the decision to follow her mother's path in caring for the afflicted. She lost her mother to a different type of cancer a month before she received her own nurse's certification.
After graduation, Janice was assigned to an internship in the terminal wing of the hospital's cancer ward, a temporary situation that she never relinquished. Nurses were ordinarily rotated out of hospice duty after six months or so because the hopeless scene bred attrition in the ranks. The death ward was a staffing nightmare, a notorious breeding ground for everything from alcoholism and drug abuse to burnout and suicide. After the fourth time Janice declined rotation from the ward, she was promoted to a supervisory position and never again offered a change of scenery.
Janice found herself singularly well suited to the life of a caregiver for the terminally ill and the dying patients were as much a comfort to her as she was to them.
were always shorter than he'd like, interrupted by one of the nurses or by a stabbing pain in his legs or arms. He had been burdened with crippling arthritis for the last twenty years and learned to deal with it through immobile meditation
. He simply stopped using the afflicted limbs and the pain was kept under control. This world's last gift to Fred was a painful batch of bone cancer that immobility did nothing to quiet.
Doctors rarely visited him after the cancer was deemed untreatable and ultimately fatal. The strapping young oncologist didn't use any soft soap when he delivered his diagnosis to the ninety-two year old man, he simply told Fred that he was going to die and that he should get his affairs in order. Fred received most of his nourishment through a network of tubes and eliminated it through another, so there was little left for the caregivers to do but look after his tubes. The nurses mechanically replaced his morphine patch four times each day and emptied his colostomy bag twice.
The fresh morphine patches were the highlight of his existence because they marked an hour or so of quiescence from the bellowing pain in his bones. Within a few minutes after the application of the patch, he could close his eyes and drift about in the pain-free landscape of his mind and memory. The forays into chemical serenity always began in the same manner. His eyelids drew shut and his hospital bed became a park bench beneath a regal old willow tree. The graceful cascade of willow branches was reflected in the lake and an early summer sun warmed his skin. The scene was oddly familiar to him but the opiates obscured the connection to the dreams that accompanied his wife's sickness thirty years before.
The park was always alive with activity, ducks and geese and swooping gulls, happy children playing tag in the distance as joggers circumnavigated the lake in a sweaty trot. Fred could hear the birds chirping in the branches of the willow above his head and the splash and playful bark of a Labrador fetching a stick that one of the children had tossed into the lake. It seemed odd to Fred that he could contemplate the hospital from that bench, that he could see it clearly through youthful eyes. The old man in the cancer ward would die soon and he wondered what would become of the vital man in the park when it happened.
After an hour or so on that peaceful bench, the dull ache would begin to grow in his arms and legs and build to a throbbing crescendo. His eyes would flash open to find himself in the dark corner of a little room, in a big building where people go to die. He cursed the old man and his cancer and he cursed the limits of the morphine patches that he knew had purchased his fleeting serenity.
The nurses were kind for the most part but were probably relieved as Fred's condition deteriorated. They knew his pain was severe but were only allowed to give him a new morphine patch every six hours, so they did their best to ignore his constant grimace. When his discomfort became intolerable and vocal, the doctors agreed that Fred was near the end. The patches were replaced with an intravenous morphine feed that Fred was allowed to control himself.
When discomfort yanked him back from the serenity of the park bench, he simply pressed the little red button four or five times and drifted right back again.
Janice came to see herself less as a nurse than as a gentle steward for the departing. Any medical expertise she might possess was of little value in the terminal ward and she often felt as though her time at nursing school might have been better spent on theological studies
If she fancied herself ineffective, it wasn't apparent in her enthusiasm for the job. Her life was devoted solely to the comfortable passage of those in her charge and she was as kind to them as professional decorum permitted. As often as not her days off would be spent on the ward and many evenings she'd sleep off a difficult shift on a cot in the break room in lieu of going home. Janice was the subject of gossip among the nursing staff for not having a life away from work but she was usually too busy to suffer hurt feelings.
Although she tried not to play favorites she had, for the past several months been especially doting on the guy who wouldn't die in 208. Old Fred was down to one of every organ that God had given him two of and was the unhappy host to at least five different flavors of cancer. All manner of disease and attrition were competing over that poor old man's carcass and it seemed to Janice that the diseases themselves must be keeping him alive so they'd have a place to stay.
Fred was the hands down record holder for taking up space on the death wing. It had been over a year since the doctors told him he had a matter of weeks to live and Janice took them at their word. She spent at least one day of each weekend and an hour or two at the end of every shift reading to him from her favorite books. Whether Janice grew attached to Fred in spite of his looming departure or because of it seemed of little importance to her. She hadn't any family left to cling to so she embraced the misery that had taken those she held dear.
In her heart of hearts she knew that her affection for him was selfish.
Time seemed to move in lazy loops from Fred's perspective on the park bench in his mind
. If he enjoyed the splashing Labrador
chasing a stick he could see it over and over again as though he was rewinding the favorite scene in a movie. Thoughts and people would come at his bidding, some that he recognized as familiar but most of them were strangers, people he had never met in his other life. When he had a pleasant conversation with a denizen of the park it would last as long as he pleased, never interrupted by business or obligation.
The linear locomotive of the real world, the one that was hurtling toward a chasm, felt foreign and unnatural. The lilting arc of the willow's limbs embraced him and provided a sense of well being that he had never known in the waking world. The warmth of the sun and the serenity in the park gave him solace just as the opiates soothed his hopeless counterpart. Nighttime never seemed to fall on the park in Fred's mind.
He struck up a particular friendship with one of the children in the park and their open-ended conversations were his favorite diversion. The boy sat in the crux between two of the larger branches in the willow tree over his left shoulder and spoke with the assurance of a sage across the vocal chords of an eight-year-old.
The boy seemed content to sit on the branch of that tree and talk to Fred for hours, in no rush to abandon their conversation and join the other children playing by the lake. There was something odd about the child, in that Fred could engage him in conversation as though he was an adult, yet he was entirely naive about certain things that every little boy would know. Fred once asked him if he wasn't bored, just sitting in the tree shooting the breeze and the boy didn't understand what the word "bored" meant.
"You know, when things get dull and you'd rather be playing tag or kickball with the other children."
"Why would I be talking to you if I'd rather be playing kickball? That doesn't make any sense."
Fred realized for the first time that he had never once moved from his own spot on the bench; it had simply never occurred to him. He remembered his other self, confined to the bed and wondered if he mightn't be immobilized in this world as well. To test the hypothesis he stood and walked to the lake's edge on strong legs, apparently unencumbered by fragile bones and feeding tubes. He bent down, picked up a stick and threw it into the lake with vigor that his arm hadn't possessed for some seventy-five years. The eager Labrador dove in after the stick, as he had a hundred times before but instead of splashing into the water, the stick made a sound like shattering glass.
Fred was stricken with a terrible dizziness and collapsed at the lake's edge.
The alarm was sounded so often on the terminal wing that that the full code blue team
s rarely responded. Usually a nurse or an orderly would check the alert solo and summon help only if necessary. Most of the patients were on a "do not resuscitate
" basis, so most of the code blues were something less than urgent. It simply meant that there would probably be a vacancy tomorrow. When the guy in 208 triggered the alarm with his escape attempt, half of the oncology
department showed up to see the spectacle.
The poor old guy had climbed out of his bed, ripping out all of his tubes in the process and triggering the code blue. He somehow stood erect on bones as fragile as porcelain, removed the armrest from the wheelchair next to his bed and threw it through the window of his room. The funereal quiet of the cancer ward was shattered with the breaking glass and the subsequent shouting of the orderly and within a few minutes the room was full of curious staff. The attending nurse knew the patient well, he had seniority on the ward and on the planet as a whole, for that matter. Old Fred was just a couple of weeks shy of his ninety-third birthday and he had scarcely left that bed in over a year. He had never done so under his own power.
The presiding nurse thought it curious enough that he should summon the strength and inclination to get out of bed and break the window but more curious still was that, according to his chart, he hadn't walked in nearly a decade. The old man passed out cold after breaking the window, most likely as a result of excruciating pain and had fallen in a heap more than ten feet away from his bed.
"You trying to make a break for it Fred? We've never had a successful escape from 2nd floor west and we're not about to let an old duffer like you get the better of us."
Fred was unresponsive, oblivious.
"Can you hear me Fred? We're going to send you down to radiology to see if you've broken anything."
His vital signs were normal for a man in his condition but Fred was dead to the world, still fast asleep on the spot where he had fallen beside the lake.
Fred remained happily sedated throughout the painful ordeal of the full body X-ray procedure. He awoke twelve hours later to a torrent of pain that was grand even by his own high standards. As he reached for the magic red morphine button that had been attached to the bed rail near his right hand he discovered it absent. The effort elicited a tidal wave of agony and he managed to summon a weak scream before falling again into merciful unconsciousness.
Janice had just arrived at the nurse's station when she heard the little scream from 208. She ran down the corridor to Fred's room and found him sleeping like a baby with his dislocated right arm pulled from its sling and a pathetic expression frozen on his face. She gently replaced the elastic support around his shoulder and he stirred awake as she did so.
"The button's gone, Janie! The button's gone!"
"Calm down Fred, we've moved the button near your left arm since you've all but ruined the right one. I hit it twice just now so go easy on it."
She guided his left hand to the device and he clicked it three times in rapid succession.
"You call that goin' easy, old man? You keep clicking that thing like Dorothy clicks her heels and you're gonna wake up on the other side of the rainbow."
"You promise, Janie?"
The warm comfort flowed through his veins like hot chocolate and the magic button calmed his mind immediately. This nurse was kind and he had taken a shine to her right off. He misread her nametag upon their first introduction and called her "Janie." When she corrected him and said that her name was Janice he told her that he liked Janie better, if it was just the same to her. She laughed and told him that she'd been called worse. Fred called her Janie from that day forward.
Fred had trouble holding a book and turning the pages by himself so Janie started reading to him. Most of the time he'd drift off to sleep after a page or two and awake some time later to find her still sitting in that ridiculous wheelchair, reading aloud to nobody. She would alter her inflection and tone for the different voices in the story in such an animated performance that he felt a little guilty for nodding off. Janie reminded him of the kid in the willow tree who never seemed in a hurry to go anywhere, content to keep his company alone. If Fred didn't know better he'd have sworn that sweet young thing had a crush on him.
"You've gotta find a fella your own age, Janie, I'm no good for you."
"Aw, Fred, you know you're the only man in my life. It breaks my heart that you'd climb out a second story window to be rid of me."
Fred would have been heartbroken had he known just how close to the truth it was. Janie was smart and attractive by any measure. By all rights she should have spent her evenings breaking handsome doctor's hearts, not mollycoddling an old man with one foot in the grave. The morphine was taking him away from her now and he spoke to her across the foggy expanse.
"I wasn't going to climb out the window, Janie..."
And then he spoke from somewhere between his two worlds.
"I was tossing the stick for that hound and the window broke...and...and..."
As he drifted off, his face took on a pleasant expression that provoked one of Janice's rare smiles and a tear drifted down her cheek.
Janice spent the rest of her shift at Fred's bedside, watching him sleep and thinking about cancer and death. Fred hadn't broken any of his fragile bones in the fall but the doctors in radiology agreed that he wasn't long for this world. The ravaged cells ran rampant throughout his body now, nearly every bone and each internal organ showed evidence of the malignancy. When the orderlies brought him back to his room on the gurney, one of them pulled Janice aside and said that he'd been told Fred would be lucky to last the night.
"You took quite a spill, old man, you'd probably better stay on the bench."
"You're probably right."
Fred felt different now. His aches and pains accompanied him to the dreamscape this time and the illusion of his youthful self in the vibrant park was clouded over. He doubted that he could summon the strength to get up off of that bench even if his pants were on fire.
"Why are you always muttering about Janie when you pass back and forth? Who's Janie?"
"Janie's my nurse, she's a wonderful girl. You've never told me your name, young man. I'd turn to make a proper introduction but..."
Fred tried to crane his neck around and have a look over his shoulder at the boy but was interrupted by a jolt of pain from his waking world. His vision of the park and the willow's branches reflecting in the lake became blurry, then black. He opened his eyes and he was right back in the hospital, his loyal nurse fast asleep in the wheelchair beside his bed, tortured nerves screaming their objection to the fading opiates. He reflexively reached for the little red button and clicked it furiously until that world fell away and the other returned.
"Your neck hurts don't it?" Fred could see that the boy was swinging his feet playfully in his periphery. "The cancer's about finished its run. You'll die soon enough old man."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. If I could turn around I'd stick my tongue out at you. Do you have a name, or should I just call you sunshine?"
"Jason." The boy's feet stopped swinging. "Dying ain't nearly so hard as living. Your nurse's name isn't Janie either, it's Janice. She's my sister."
"Your sister? Janie told me that she didn't have any family."
"I died a long time ago, fell out of a tree just like this one and broke my neck. I came to talk to you because you're Janice's only friend. Did you know that?"
"I sort of got that impression. A pretty girl like your sister should be out kicking up her heels, not wasting her time on a lost cause like me."
The boy resumed swinging his legs back and forth at a happy tempo and Fred could turn his head slowly and just about see the kid's face as he spoke.
"She sees me in your eyes, old man. She doesn't understand how but some part of her knows that you've been with me. When you die she'll lose me too so she's scared to see you go."
"Will I come back to this park when I die?"
"If you'd like. You won't be stuck on that bench either. Your wife is here already but you knew that didn't you?"
"Yes I did. I saw this place when she was dying; the willow tree and the lake exactly like this."
"The willow was trying to tell you a secret when the cancer took your wife but you weren't listening. It told me the same thing on the day that I fell and I tried to tell Janice but she was bawling so hard I don't think she ever heard me."
A part of Fred's conscious mind was intact in his dreamscape because he had the good sense to question these visions and the nature of this place. He knew that the pain medication could trigger hallucinations but if asked to decide which was the real deal, the park in his mind was the obvious choice. The colors were so much more vivid in the dream world and his thoughts had a singular clarity and sense of calm certitude.
"The willow weeps because it's busting to break the big news but nobody ever listens."
"I'm listening now."
The flashing trauma lights in the corridor of the hospital always reminded Janice of the blue light special
s at K-mart
. "Attention K-mart shoppers, there will be a vacant bed on aisle 4 in just a few minutes." She triggered the alert herself, as she had done for a dozen other dying patients, but this case was considerably more difficult. Janice didn't know why she loved the old man but she loved him and though she'd always known that he wasn't long for this world, she was not prepared for his passing.
The alarm on Fred's oxygen tent disrupted Janice's sleep at 4:30 a.m. and he died a few moments later. There wasn't any time for last minute heroics by the code blue team or a long tearful goodbye for his favorite nurse. He came out of the opiate haze just as the squawking respirator was signaling his last irregular breaths and spoke to his devoted attendant in a hoarse, dying man's rasp.
"Jason says hello."
"Who's Jason you old nut? Lie still until we stop all the sirens."
Janice wrestled with the thatch of tubes that connected the respirator to the oxygen tent through an onslaught of tears and hit the code blue button with a wild swing of her elbow. She was angry that she had allowed herself to love a dying man and she was angry with him for not dying a year ago when he was supposed to.
"Your brother Jason, silly girl."
She grew faint at the mention of her brother's name. The bundle of tubes fell from her hand as she grabbed the bed railing to steady herself. Fred's last whispers in this world were so breathy and hoarse that Janice had to lean over him and position her ear an inch or two from his mouth in order to hear them; her tears cascading onto the dying man's cheek.
"He told me why the willow weeps."
Janice never told Fred that she had a brother, much less mention his name. The old man couldn't have known about the willow tree in their front yard that loomed over her brother's broken body more than twenty-five years before. The day Jason fell from that tree, the last day of his life, he whispered to Janice about the willow tree just as Fred was doing now. As her brother lay dying in the yard that day she was too grief stricken to pay attention to what he was trying to tell her. This time she didn't miss a syllable.
"It has to keep a happy secret, so it weeps."
"What's the secret, Fred? What did Jason tell you?"
The life support mechanism next to the bed sprang to life with flashing red lights and warning buzzers. The commotion of the machine would have obscured Fred's final utterance completely had Janice's ear been more than an inch or two from his mouth. He exhaled his last breath in the form of a barely audible sentence, which fell on her ear as a warm breeze before death's cold calm.
"The willow knows the cure for cancer."
Janice started writing the letters anonymously at first. She wrote to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota
and Johns Hopkins
using names and addresses that she gleaned from the daily newspaper. She scrutinized the papers each day for word of the discovery of a radical new cancer treatment but saw no evidence that her letters had ever been received, much less taken seriously. Several months elapsed with no progress in her secret willow tree campaign, when the fates added a new urgency to her mission. She attributed her frequent headaches and sleepless nights to stress over the odd turn her life had taken but they were in fact the first symptoms of her own cancerous tumor
Janice assumed the role of cancer patient and abandoned her nursing career in favor of full-time letter writing. She could now speak with some personal authority on the limitations of radiation and chemotherapy. The traditional remedies seemed to be killing her quicker than the cancer and her rapid deterioration redoubled her resolve to betray the willow's secret.
With the clock ticking in the background she had less to fear for being thought a kook so she signed the next batch of letters with her real name and provided a return address. This time she wrote to Universities with prominent medical schools and teaching hospitals and the response was deafening. Her credentials as a nurse in a cancer ward got the letters opened and read. The earnest appeal to investigate the willow tree as a cancer cure piqued the interest of researchers who had only recently stumbled on the potential truth of her claim.
The healing powers of salicin, from the bark of the willow tree had long been recognized. It is the willow that gave us the miracle drug aspirin. There was nothing revolutionary in the idea that a tree might provide the cure for disease and the willow tree in particular was less than a radical offering.
It was, however, only very recently that the bark of the venerated willow was the target of cancer research and it was unlikely that this nurse would have been privy to the guarded data. The first trial of a substance called combretastatin, from the bark of the African Bush Willow, had shown a remarkable efficiency in starving cancerous tumors of oxygen, strangling them out of existence without damage to neighboring tissue.
Janice's correspondence raised some eyebrows in the competitive research community because the most recent was postmarked three weeks before the publication of papers on that very topic. The series in the medical journal offered preliminary research results that warranted expanded study of the willow bark as a cancer remedy.
It's just as well that she passed away before they involved her in the tug of war over bragging rights to the discovery. A half dozen Universities were prepared to pay Janice's expenses to secure an interview but she was, by that time, far too ill to travel. Before they could visit her bedside, she was gone. Controversy hovered briefly when a local paper made the minor scandal public but was quickly quieted with a stroke of posthumous diplomacy.
As an academic compromise, Janice's name was added to the authorship of the research papers.