Sudoku with Love

Nonfiction by | August 20, 2017

I never thought that a simple logical game could change my perspective in life. Sudoku, a number-placement, brain-stimulating puzzle, once became a refeshing activity during a gloomy season of my life. It served as a temporary source of happiness in a time when hopelessness became a constant companion. Those nights were long as I spent every minute pouring out my thoughts on pen and paper. In the mornings, I slept longer than the required hours, refusing to meet the sunlight for I detested the false promises it could bring.

One day, I was looking through a pile of old newspapers to find something thought-provoking to read. As I scanned the pages of a Sunday comic issue, I saw a whole page filled with Sudoku puzzles. It was labeled “easy.” For a beginner, easy was what I needed. Out of curiosity, I attempted to solve one puzzle.

Sudoku is a 9-by-9 grid with nine 3-by-3 sub-grids that compose the whole puzzle. To solve the puzzle, the grid should be filled with the numbers 1 to 9 without repeating the digits on each column and each row. There is only one solution to every puzzle. A wrong number placed on the 3-by-3 sub-grid results in an incomplete game.

After solving one piece, a sense of accomplishment sparked my inactive brain. I immediately began to fill out one after another like a famished wolf devouring each prey in sight. That day, I fell in love with Sudoku.

To up the challenge, I decided to introduce Sudoku to my father, a crossword puzzle enthusiast. I figured he might enjoy the same activity for he was fond of mind-boggling activities. I copied the Sudoku puzzles from the newspaper, carelessly at that, so I could teach him the dynamics of my newfound game.

I didn’t really think Papang would appreciate Sudoku for we rarely shared the same interests. For one, I indulged in pasta. He, on the other hand, derived pleasure from pancit. I gobbled pizza; he fancied sweets. I preferred iced tea; he consumed softdrinks. I relished fresh durian; he liked to put milk on it. I licked ice cream on cones; he ate ice cream spread in a sandwich.

Who was I to break his solid relationship with the crossword puzzle? He has been holding a pen in one hand, and a folded newspaper with a crossword puzzle on the other hand since his bachelor days.

One time, he called the office of a local newspaper to complain that they were recycling their crossword puzzles. I could hear frustration in his voice as he argued with the person on the other end of the line. He threatened to cut his subscription unless they produce new sets of puzzles.

“Ok lang ka, ‘Pang?”

“Suya kaayo! Gibalikbalik lang ilang crossword. Sayang-sayang lang ta og palit og newspaper.”

Amusing, really, for who would have thought someone would pay that much attention to newspaper crossword puzzles?

My father held the title of being the quietest son among his siblings. Being a man of few words, he would rather shell out cash and treat his friends to drinks than be forced to tell a story. To woo the woman he loved, one of the beautiful faces in Zamboanga, he hired someone to serenade my mother during their courtship stage. It was his actions, more than endearing words that captured, not just my mother’s heart, but also her parents’. He literally climbed a steep mountain for her sweet “yes,” impressing my grandparents.

I recently learned that people found it challenging to start a conversation with him especially when he seemed to be lost in space solving his crossword puzzles. I was surprised when they commented on how intimidating he could be, probably because of his quiet composure. My siblings and I already got accustomed to his reserved behavior that I would find myself shaking my head in disagreement coupled with a silent chuckle when his colleagues share how frightened they were in approaching him. Contrary to what these people thought, Papang usually welcomed an interruption when he’s engrossed in solving his crossword puzzle; a conversation even.

Papang had worked as an accountant until the company was restructured. He lost his job and strived to look for new employment but was not successful. I was twelve years old that time, back when my mother was heavy with their fourth child. Since then, our family struggled to make ends meet. Ironic it was that my father tried to venture into sales as a source of income when he lacked the gift of gab. He and Mamang invested in various network marketing companies without any substantial returns, emptying the few savings they had left.

During the times of plenty, my siblings and I would rush outside at the sound of Papang’s footsteps as he entered the house. We always anticipated his BH or “Bring Home”. BH was anything Papang could buy on his way home from the office. When Papang lost his job, there was no BH to look forward to anymore.

One particular morning, my father came home holding two pieces of paper in his hands. He showed them to me with a smile as if they were winning lottery tickets. These were Sudoku puzzles drafted by his own hands. Two puzzles alike: one for me, and another for him. It was the best BH for me during our downtrodden days.

The time I presented the Sudoku instructions to Papang, he easily figured out how to fill the numbers inside the 9-by-9 grid. At last, we finally discovered an activity we can officially call a shared interest! Oh, how I loved to race with him in answering each puzzle. I would feel triumph and pride when I could finish solving one ahead of him, something he was completely oblivious about.

It was not unusual for Papang to walk an extra mile to encourage his children. When I became a volunteer teacher in a school for missionaries’ children, I was stressed and worn out from the unending list of tasks added by rowdy students. The challenge was so exasperating that I hid in a corner to weep. This crossword-addict-turned-Sudoku-fan came to console me. I began to rant as if I knew how as I poured out my heart to him. He lovingly wrapped me around his arms and whispered, “I am so proud of you.” Those words of approval signaled a green light for a flood of tears.

When Papang noticed how enthusiastic I had become in solving Sudoku puzzles, he exerted effort to bond with me. Since he couldn’t afford to buy me a collection, he asked vendors from different newsstands if he could copy the Sudoku puzzles from their newspaper display. He usually drew two kinds of each puzzle available there: one for me, and one for him. It would take him a longer time than an average person though, for he used a ruler to trace every horizontal and vertical line of each grid, and wrote every number with his best printed handwriting making it look like a puzzle printed from a computer. I told him that he did not have to perfectly copy the puzzles for I would just throw them away after I solved them, but he always handed me his perfect replicas of Sudoku.

Papang produced dozens of his handmade copies of Sudoku puzzles for my indulgence. They were the highlights of my day, like dextrose to an ailing patient. I crumpled them immediately and sent them to the garbage bin after filling up the numbers 1-9 to the right boxes. All but one puzzle, which is safely tucked in the pages of my journal. Papang gave this piece to me at the time when an opportunity to embark on a promising future in Manila came.

My family and I were at the Francisco Bangoy International Airport, spending our last quality time together. When it was time to bid farewell to everyone — after the obligatory hugging and kissing took place– my father, teary-eyed, forcing himself to smile, showed me the last Sudoku puzzle he created for me. It was written on a cardboard. I needed to hurriedly leave for time was downright cruel to interrupt our last moments together. So Papang quickly slipped the puzzle inside my handbag without saying a word.

As I was waiting for my flight in the passenger’s lounge, I took the puzzle and decided to solve it to kill some time. But then, I discovered that it was the hardest one to solve so far. Not because it was hard per se, but because I couldn’t control my hands from shaking nor my tears from falling just by looking at the puzzle. I repeatedly blinked my eyes to halt the tears as I did not want to make a scene. I wondered how he drafted this one. I knew he was going to miss his Sudoku partner. Was this the reason why he wrote it on a cardboard? Considering how long it takes for him to make a puzzle, he did actually allot time so he could give this to me as I started a new journey. Scenes of his kindness and acts of love flashed in my memory. I was sure I was going to miss this man– he who always saw me as beautiful even when I woke up with uncombed hair and in a defeated mood at a late hour of the day.

If the Almighty would let me live again and give me a chance to choose another father out of ten different successful wealthy men next to Papang, I would still pick my Sudoku partner. “Lord,” I’d say, pointing to the man who is holding the logic game, imperfect and poor, “I still want him.”

Funny how a piece of Sudoku was given to me as a remembrance, when others would be granted a more expensive farewell gift. But this gift was priceless. For beneath the numbers, the boxes, the grid, and the lines, a message can be decoded by the heart that cannot be deciphered by the mind: a father’s devotion to his downhearted daughter. For me, it was a gesture of love.

Karen Quiñones-Axalan was a fellow to the Davao Writers Workshop in 2009. She is a graduate of BS Community Development at the University of Southeastern Philippines.