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Why the Willow Weeps
by Jonathan Shute

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.



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