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A Little Bit Puzzled

A 1500-piece puzzle missing a single piece helps the author make sense of the sudden death of a friend.

It’s not like I wake up looking for profound meaning. Sometimes a game is really just a game.

So when the box promises a complete picture in 1500 pieces, that’s what I expect. Open it up, dump the pieces, start with the borders, and keep working until every last piece fits into place.

For a compulsive organizer who moonlights as a control freak, this should be my game. I should love doing puzzles. Creating order out of chaos is normally my raison d’etre. I am a mother, after all. 

In our house, however, everyone but me likes this pastime. I hate it and I’m bad at it. Or, put another way, I’m bad at it and I hate it. Whatever part of the brain facilitates looking at strange shapes and mentally rotating them in order to fit them together is missing from my gray matter…

…which doesn’t matter, because my contribution to the family puzzle is vital, as evidenced last week. While others gathered around the table and looked to fit the final pieces into place, I hit the floor. Thanks to an intricately patterned dining room rug, dropped puzzle pieces risk being lost forever. My job is to lie prostrate on the floor and search, scour and sweep the silk patterned netherworld for the one or two missing pieces that, when discovered, will provide completion. I submit to this lowly endeavor for two reasons. First, I accept that each of us has a purpose, and in puzzles, this is mine. And second, I really cannot tolerate stuff on the floor that doesn’t belong. To everything there is a season, and a cupboard, a shelf, a hanger, a hook, a box, or a place. That’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea.

The most recent attempt to make order from chaos turned out to be a lovely image of butterflies, depicted in 1500 pieces minus one. Yes, from the carpet I did manage to find three puzzle pieces hiding. But that last piece? Gone. 

This is the third puzzle in a row for us with a single missing piece. It makes me wonder: Is this some kind of frustrating joke, or is something larger at play?

While still struggling to accept the inevitable, that our dining room table featured a disappointing1499 near-masterpiece, I learned that a friend had died unexpectedly.  

It felt like the puzzle pieces of the world got dumped into a heap. There was no making sense or order from this tragedy.

Our friend was a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and during the funeral ceremony it became clear that, though it can be difficult to understand, there is a divine plan and therefore some shape and organization to the chaos of life here on earth. The church offered solace in a time when logic could provide none. 

For many, deep faith provides the framework and support to navigate the deepest emotional despair. Where do those of us go for answers when we do not subscribe to organized religion? 

I kept staring at that 1500-minus-one piece puzzle, and I began to think it meant something profound. Try as we did to finish these puzzles, there was always a missing piece.

Look at any puzzle near its completion, and you can see what it’s meant to be. It is beautiful even without all its pieces, though the urge to make everything fit perfectly seems universal, even to those of us lying on the floor looking for what’s missing.

When I returned home from the funeral, I took another look at our puzzle-minus-one. In light of the passing of our friend, it started to make more sense. There’s always a space left when someone we love dies. But maybe that space isn’t empty. Maybe that space is worth embracing.

Days after the funeral, I look at the puzzle and want desperately to find that one last piece. And then I take a breath, and sit down, and think about the fact that as much as I feel the need to finish the puzzle, the more important goal is to learn to accept it with its missing piece.

It’s a game I’m still not good at.

Note: This column is dedicated to the loving memory of Jim Alex.

DB June 09, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Given this heartfelt saga of the link between life and puzzles, I have a confession. I have a problem and have for years. I am a puzzle piece stealer. This afflication is more common than people realize. Those of us who feel the devilish need to imagine the faces of friends, family and frankly anyone who spends hours organizing puzzle pieces only to have one ( or sometimes I admit) two pieces missing are linked worldwide by a website www.youhavetobekidding.com. Truthfully, we all agree that it is wrong to use time in friends homea to snatch a puzzle piece but we cannot help ourselves. Please try to feel like a member of our club if you finish a puzzle and are missing one final insertion.
Karen June 09, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Wow, DB, that is really nasty. Before we were married, my husband and I spent an evening at a mountain lodge doing a jigsaw puzzle. Somewhere near completion, I took a piece and tucked it in my hand so I could put the last piece in. When we were nearly done, we were missing two pieces and suddenly realized we had each hidden a piece. Mutually busted, we knew we were a good match!
David Greenberg June 09, 2012 at 09:39 PM
Sorry to hear about the loss of your friend - my condolences. As for the missing puzzle pieces - you wouldn't happen to have a cat would you? When I was in college, I had small things go missing (puzzle pieces included), and one day discovered that my cat was hiding them in the back of the couch (she'd squeeze between the cushions, get into the back of the couch and had a stash of stuff there...). Or it could be a mischievous house elf :-)

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