October 1, 2018

People : 1000 Piece Puzzle

A text conversation circa summer of this year:

Me: Working on a 1000 piece puzzle while listening to this book is my dream as an introvert and I'm up until midnight as a result.
Friend: Probably the nerdiest text message I have ever received.

If we were counting in terms of number of concrete unpleasant events, I'd have to say this year has been my rockiest.  Now that the events are past, it's much easier to share.  But what I take away most from them is gratitude for the incredible support and care I received as they were happening, and every day from the people in my life.  Sharing now is less about relieving burden, because honestly with that kind of love it never felt like I was carrying too much.  Sharing now is about the process of putting together this puzzle.

During the thickest part of it, I was spending a week at my childhood home to be with my mom while she recovered from a surgery to remove part of her lung (she continues to recover well).  For us this was the least hard part of her being sick--we were all relieved to get past the uncertainties of diagnosis and treatment, and to see the surgery go well.  For her it was harder, to actually feel the physical reality of being sick, to cough and breathe and move differently.

I'd just been told some not-horrible but not-great news about my own health (unrelated to my ankle, which at the time felt both trivial and heavy), part of which meant getting minor surgery now and major surgery sometime in the future. Having never been put to sleep or incised, this freaked me out a little (a lot).  I tried to maintain relativity, as it wasn't even close to the realm of what my mom has faced.  My mom, who is 4'11" tall and less than 100 pounds light, has given birth five times (one C-section--me), underwent open heart surgery, had a quarter of her lung taken out, and still manages to look sixty at near eighty, so I figured I could channel some of her bravery.

During this week I spent time with my mom and dad, but they are pretty low maintenance and most of the day they didn't need much from me other than being around.  I was feeling really down, and I couldn't climb (no partners in Fremont) and I couldn't run (my broken ankle was un-casted but recovering at 1 percent pace I wanted).  So I started this puzzle.

I got this puzzle for my dad for Christmas.  You can choose a photo and have it cut into any number of pieces.  I love how happy everyone looks in this photograph my brother Stephen took of my parents and my niece and nephews.  My dad likes games like Sudoku and has excellent spatial skills, so I figured I would make the puzzle super challenging at 1000 pieces.  It turns out this was a little too much.  Dad: "I opened up the box and my vision went blurry.  I closed the box."

So I decided to give it a shot.  Anyone who knows me knows that unlike my dad I have very poor spatial skills, but I do have lasik-rendered perfect vision so I figured I had that one thing on him.  The border was easy, and then suddenly a flood of obstacle after obstacle: the huge swaths of monochrome without any outline, the five flesh-colored faces, the varying shades of red, that neon orange-and-green cake with loopy cursive.

But as I sat for hours with the puzzle, shapes and strategies formed both naturally and with effort.  As I searched for my family's eyes and teeth and hair and lines in these pieces, the thousand pieces soothed ragged parts of me.  There's this indiscernible mess, but I know for certain there was once a whole and there is another whole to be made, and I know I can make that happen with patience.  Which was like water to me while all these not-ideal things seemed to be happening to me.  My brothers and I had been fighting a lot in the past few months, and I could see that we were fighting for control over what was happening to our mom, for whom we could only do so much.  My body, which I so value for its capacity to move, which I've relied on when all else seems out of my hands, had been broken and was about to be placed in the hands of a seemingly random surgeon. Here, I finally had control.

While I worked for hours on end on the puzzle, I listened to The Nix by Nathan Hill. I couldn't have designed a better fit for the activity of my hands, the frenzy in my mind and the flurry of feelings.  It's loosely about a man whose mother left him as a young boy, and his quest to piece together the story of her life from very little: a photograph, stray details from his dad, a couple facts.  There are a lot of characters, but in the versatile voice of the narrator and the crafted language of Nathan Hill, each person stood out sharply and strongly.

I felt the same about my family the longer I looked at the pieces and saw more clearly the differences between the shades of Asian.  In some ways I've never looked so hard at these cheeks I've snuggled and kissed.  I'd barely given their teeth a glance.  Immersing myself in this single picture of them created a new kind of intimacy--not better than real life, but just not existent in real life.

I left that swath of black sweater for last.  There were literally a hundred pieces that were just black, nothing else on them to guide which ones might be in proximity.  I separated them into piles based on how many edges were a "lock" into which other pieces fit, and how many edges were a "key" to insert into other pieces.  And stared at them, until I started picking up on minute differences in size of the lock and key, and I can put these solid blocks of color together as they are unique enough to have their own place, their own neighbors.  I like using this dusty, wilted part of my brain.  There's still a lot of random testing; I take one piece and align it down a column of other pieces until something fits.  I like this mindlessness.

At the end of the week, the parallel narratives in the book tumble into each other and the puzzle is done with not one piece missing, and the beauty of these alongside each other just about kills me.  I'm not kidding when I say that this experience is special to me. Yes part of that is pure nerdiness and the love of sitting alone in that nerdiness.  Most of it is the sifting and putting together of something complicated and close, the comfort and the struggle of that.  When I'm puzzling, the difficulty is still deep and in some ways the intermittent frustrations of the puzzle (my vision does go blurry many times) helps me see just how upset I am.  But confronting it in this solid way unwinds, softens my feelings.

In the months that follow, life starts to heal too.  By the time my dad tires of assuming my mom's domestic role she's recovered enough to take the position back, I'm climbing stronger than pre-fracture, I'm grateful for what a small surgery teaches me about the patient experience.  All the while, the puzzle remains on our dining room table as my dad looks for a frame to fit its unusual dimensions.

Then one weekend I'm home visiting my parents, I find that it's not there.  Where is it?  Is it framed?

It is not.

My mom, who in the haze of her first week post-operation didn't notice me crouched like a madwoman over this puzzle for days, had taken it apart.

Up until that point, I hadn't cried very much.  Mostly on two days.  The day when I read the report of my mom's lung scan, translating the medical language I wished in that moment I didn't understand.  And the day when my doctor told me I'd need a minor surgery now, and a major surgery sometime in the future.  But both of those days quickly dissolved into days of organizing, rationalizing, and accepting.  Each one easier than the last, as we dealt with the practical and came to terms with the conceptual.

Then the puzzle came apart, and I came apart too.  I was so irrationally angry at my mom, my mom who never cries for herself, who never once cried that I could see during the months of appointments and procedures.  I cried over the puzzle, because all of the sudden I could touch the fragility of this picture, of all the pictures I have in my life.  I can climb and sort-of run again, and every step feels off and it may be that my ankle never returns to what it was.  My mom is steadily re-gaining her strength, and we live with the uncertainty of whether her cancer will return.  I can see my surgery as a kind of gift in the path to empathy, and I'd give a lot to not have to undergo the other one.  This knowledge lay dormant in me and it erupted with the loss of the puzzle.  You'd think that your thirties would loosen your hold on togetherness, but a physical puzzle can really make you feel that you alone can put things back together, and when that concrete framework is gone, so goes my image of structure.

My kind and generous friend who let my senseless self talk to him for two hours in the immediate aftermath of this sentinel event  (thank you) about the puzzle (the concrete one, and the metaphorical one) said to me: all the pieces are still there.

But they might not be.  Some could get lost or torn by the time I try the puzzle again.  And even if they are all there, the experience will be different, and so the end will be too.

Soon after the puzzle fell apart, so did my relationship and while that felt like the hard right thing, the parallel again felt obvious.  There's the heavy idea of starting over: it takes so much energy, and how do you refuel after a break?  After so many breaks--in bone, in health, in a relationship, in the idea of having your family forever--how do you have the faith to rebuild?

The thing about crying over a silly thing like the puzzle is that I haven't cried since and I don't feel like I'll cry for a long time after it.  I've all out mourned the loss of constancy and control.  While I'm sure that it will return in spurts because we're built to strive for stability, this full implosion freed me to love these breaks.  For what they are on their own: the serendipity of misfortune and the randomness of our narrative, which remind me how much bigger everything is than me.  And for the rearrangement that follows, for the renewed attention to different parts of ourselves and the challenge to heal differently each time.

Because it's kind of amazing that with the same set of pieces, there's so much new to be experienced.  It's never exactly the same, and that broader possibility is more expansive than our lack of control is limiting.  It reminds me of being in Japan and learning that they periodically intentionally tear down temples in order to rebuild them, because they value this mirroring of what happens in actual life.

I didn't share a lot of these things as they were happening, because after the visible ankle fracture that couldn't be hidden, I experienced somewhat of a sympathy overload.  Which is just about the best thing you could ever complain about.  Everyone has been so kind and loving, and I really felt it could last me through anything, that it wasn't necessary to ask for more.  I share it now not for sympathy, because there isn't actually anything to mourn. These breaks and losses are a reshuffling for newness and more range of perspective. I share it now for gratitude, that life can be this delicate and this worth breaking down and building back up.

1 comment :

  1. not the puzzle but the puzzlemaker whom we all love! :))


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