On November 30, 2020, I lost my sister after a difficult and heartbreaking battle with the coronavirus. She spent her birthday and Thanksgiving in the COVID-ICU, non-responsive and on a ventilator.
It seems unreal to me that she’s gone. A dozen times a day, I pick up the phone to call or text her, and every time I’m shocked and saddened when I remember she’s not there to answer anymore.
While Christmas shopping back in September, I found two things for my sister’s birthday. One of those gifts was a Christmas themed jigsaw puzzle. She loved working puzzles, so nearly every year, I’d buy her a new Christmas puzzle as a birthday gift to help her get into the Christmas spirit, though that wasn’t really necessary since the Christmas spirit radiated from her all year long.
It shook me a bit when I discovered these presents in my top-secret hiding place for gifts. My husband and I decided working that Christmas puzzle in her honor and memory would help us keep her close during this Christmas season. We finished it last night.
I’m not nearly as crazy about doing puzzles as my sister was. I get a little impatient if I have to work too hard to find the right piece. I don’t love projects that can’t be completed quickly.
I’ve tried knitting, crocheting, and a wide variety of crafts. I feel anxious about projects in varying states of completion. They haunt me like a to-do list with things not yet marked off.
As my husband and I worked on this puzzle, I had two realizations. First, trying to put a puzzle together without the picture on the box to guide you makes the job infinitely harder than it needs to be. Second, when assembling a puzzle with another person, clarifying expectations and language at the beginning makes the job considerably less frustrating than it could be.
This particular puzzle has a deep purple sky, lots of snow, some buildings, and a few different types of trees. After I had sorted all the pieces, I let my husband have the box with the picture. I decided to start assembling the different buildings, thinking how easy it would be to match the puzzle pieces by size, shape, and color.
You probably know what I’m going to say next. It didn’t work. I mean, it’s possible I would have eventually gotten it. Still, the job was challenging without frequent reviews of what the completed puzzle should look like.
Not only did I learn that my method of flying solo made it more complicated than it needed to be, but I also learned that I wasn’t great at communicating with my puzzle partner either.
That stung, as I fancy myself a pretty strong communicator. I communicate for a living now, right? It should have been simple. But it wasn’t easy because I tried to use language that was unknown to him, then became frustrated when he didn’t understand me.
“I’m looking for a mostly white piece with a little green on one wing.” “Can you hand me that blue piece with two arms and one foot?”
Even after 37 years of marriage, I can still surprise him because my husband looked at me like I had suddenly started speaking German more than once. Finally, he said, “You’re going to have to show me what arms, feet, and wings look like.’ It seemed self-explanatory to me, but once I explained and we started speaking the same language, we saw real progress on the sections we were working on.
Now we were getting somewhere. Once we were communicating more effectively and both using the picture on the box’s lid to guide us, we found the process to be easier and more enjoyable than we had imagined.
Working on it together, talking about my sister and some of our favorite holiday memories with her, and seeing the project through to completion accomplished our goal of keeping her especially close this holiday season, our first without her.
It also served as an effective reminder for me of these important life lessons:
- Follow the directions, accept the guidance, pay attention to the picture on the box. I can sometimes be guilty of trying to go it alone, do it myself. I am often arrogant enough to think I can figure it out without input or assistance. I can make the process of working puzzles and living life much harder than it needs to be. I need to work on this.
- Keep communicating. Cover the expectations, make sure you’re speaking the same language, and provide visuals to accompany words when necessary to ensure everyone is on the same page. I can talk until I am blue in the face, but if I’m not speaking in an easily understood way, I’m creating frustration for all involved. I have plenty of room to grow in this area, practically, personally, and professionally.
I plan to keep this puzzle. Maybe I’ll work it annually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps I’ll glue it together, frame it, and get it out with the rest of my Christmas decorations every year.
Either way, I will keep it nearby during the holidays as one of many reminders of my sister, and to remind me of the life lessons I can learn from a simple jigsaw puzzle.