My Aunt Linda has a house near the city where Tobin goes to school.
We used to stay with Linda sometimes when she lived there, but she moved a few months into our new adventure. She kept the house, however, and allows us to stay there when we need or want to.
My Aunt Pam (Linda’s sister) drives up there from her own two-hour commute and stays with us on the evenings we stay, and the three of us have Good nights filled with laughter and food and conversations and connection. This house is a sacred space for me for so many reasons. One of which has to do with the puzzle that sat on top of her kitchen counter from September 2016 until April 2017, when the boys and I put the final piece in its place.
It sits framed in our dining room now, reminding us of this year of healing and restoration and the making of all things new.
We were spending more time in the city last fall, and I had bought a 1000-piece puzzle for Knox and I to work on during our time there. We both really like jigsaw puzzles, but when we broke open the bag and saw what a real-life 1000-piece puzzle looked like, we realized just what novices we were.
It seemed impossible. It was impossible.
So many tiny pieces. This picture on the box staring at us and the pieces scattered everywhere—we didn’t even know where to begin.
But the only way to begin is to begin, so that’s what we did.
We started with the corners. Then the border. Then we tried to find the different characters but some of the characters repeated themselves, so we started grouping the pieces into colors. But there were so many pieces. (Have I said that yet?)
We came up with a plan to put the majority of the pieces in the box and only take out colors we wanted to work with, knowing the white section at the bottom would be the worst so we’d save that for last.
Knox hung on as long as he could, then he switched activities. I hung on as long as I could and then got frustrated and sat down. It just really seemed that there was no way to put it together.
But then my Aunt Pam came up.
And we started working together on the puzzle. She saw some things I hadn’t seen and put some pieces together I couldn’t find. And we laughed when we put Thor’s head on Groot’s body. She reminded me that I had done puzzles before and that this actually wasn’t impossible. She had me look at it from different angles, and had a way of making me laugh when I wanted to scream at the mess.
Tobin joined us for bit and this often ended up with pieces falling to the ground or back up on the counter a little wet from being chewed on. And Knox and I were revived and went back at it, starting with the Iron Man characters, then moving to Hulk and Captain America.
Mom and Dad spent time on the puzzle.
We all sat around talking about life and staring at the characters put together, trying to find a common color to group some more pieces together so we could start putting new ones together. Dad was good at finding the patterns and consistencies. Mom kept us encouraged when we kept talking about how impossible it would be to put things back together.
But Brian and I?
So many hours we spent staring at that thing. What a mess. Shapes that seemed to go together but didn’t. Shapes that didn’t seem to go together but fit perfectly. The boys doing their thing around us while we pored over these pieces.
It became very clear that the success of this endeavor would also depend on others.
Because sometimes you have to enlist the help of people who have seen puzzles like yours. People who have seen messes like the one you’re looking at. So that’s what we did.
We called in some “experts” to come and point out some things we hadn’t seen. Some parts we thought we’d put together all wrong, but were actually exactly as they should be. Some parts we thought were exactly as they should be, but we found out they still needed some tweaking. Those people gave us strategies to take next steps. Steps to take when we wanted to give up.
And sometimes you need people to come around you who have no idea why things are a mess. People who look at the puzzle and say, “Wow. That’s hard. I’m not sure why there are so many pieces. But you don’t have to explain. I’m with you. I’ll sit with you while you work. I’ll hold your hand if you need me to. And if you get frustrated, I’ll be here to take a turn.”
My Aunt Linda came into town this spring and I apologized for the puzzle on her counter that had been there through her last two stays over the past few months. She replied, “Oh, I’ve seen that puzzle. I worked on it a bit myself.”
I had no idea.
But then I looked. Sure enough, that corner wasn’t there before. Spiderman’s hand finally found the slot it was supposed to be in, and that little Ant-Man? Now I could see where he fit.
Because sometimes there are people working on the puzzle behind-the-scenes. Shifting and turning and moving things into place. And you didn’t even know they knew things were in pieces.
It seems if I’ve learned anything at all from this process, it’s that it takes community. It takes a village of people who will come alongside you and say, “This is hard. But I am with you. No matter how deep in the trenches you go, I will go, too.”
Sometimes we would spend hours on the puzzle and nothing would come together. Then all of a sudden something would line up and things would start moving, sections would come together.
Soon we started to gain momentum.
And pieces became people again. People made whole. And those people joined up with other people and the picture started to come together.
A few times someone would bump into the counter or little hands would grab a few pieces and we’d have to start that section over.
But the more time we spent on it, the more we kept showing back up to work on the puzzle, the more sections would come together.
One night the entire top came together—and we realized we were missing a piece. One single piece. We had prepared ourselves that this could possibly happen with little ones playing around, so we breathed and knew it would be okay if the one piece never showed back up.
We would just keep doing the work. Regardless if the puzzle ended up looking exactly like the box. What mattered was the process.
We began on the white section.
Oh, man. Seriously.
I’ve seen jigsaw puzzles on Amazon called “Jigsaw White Hell.” I see why they are called that. There are no anchors here. Nothing to guide you as you try fit the pieces together. It’s nothing but unknown, uncharted white space. And this smallest section of the puzzle became the hardest.
So. Incredibly. Frustrating. It was as if the entire white section belonged to another puzzle somewhere because none of the pieces would fall into place.
So we took a break from working on the puzzle.
My Aunt Paula and Uncle Fred stayed at the house one weekend a couple months later. When I returned the following week, I saw a note on the counter: “We found your missing piece.” On top of the note was the missing piece we needed to complete the top part of the puzzle.
Someone else had found it and let us have the satisfaction of putting it in to see the picture complete.
It was just the motivation we needed.
Brian and I set aside a weekend in April to bring the family to Linda’s and finish the puzzle. After the boys went to bed, Brian and I stayed up late, determined to put this together. We talked over the puzzle. Laughed over the puzzle. Reminisced about when we had started the puzzle and just how far we had come. How familiar it was to stand around the counter poring over the project, but how different we had both become from doing the work. The light after the heavy.
That night we got it down to one piece. And we waited until the morning to put the final piece together so all four of us could be a part of it.
It seems to me that we all have some sort of puzzle we’re working on.
Maybe it’s a 20-piece, maybe it’s a 1000-piece, maybe it’s one of those 3D skyscrapers, maybe it’s a “Jigsaw White Hell.” Because life has a way of handing us different pieces in need of restoration. It’s part of doing the work while we’re breathing.
And however many pieces, whatever different shapes and colors and textures, sometimes the pieces get put back in the box and on the shelf. Or in the trash.
with the help of others,
with the commitment to just keep showing up, to keep fighting for the vision,
with the power of God and the belief in miracles,
if you keep moving toward love,
the pieces come together.
POST SCRIPT: I love that the puzzle was superheroes. Not only because our family is big on Marvel, but because we know that while love is the biggest risk, it’s also our greatest superpower.