I stood in the aisle at Fred Meyer and surveyed the boxes in front of me. Five-hundred, one-thousand, fifteen-hundred, two-thousand. The number was critical. Too many and she’d never finish. Too few and it wouldn’t be a challenge.
There were images of buildings and landscapes and works of art. I needed something bright. She was 86 years old. Her vision wasn’t what it used to be. The brighter the better, I reasoned.
There was a beach scene. Fifteen-hundred pieces. A snapshot taken under palm trees in Hawaii. The sun lit up the photograph. This would work. I grabbed the box off the shelf and went to pay.
When I was about eight or nine years old, I was cleaning my room one afternoon and got frustrated. I couldn’t move my toy box. It was too heavy and no matter how hard I tried to lift it or drag it across the room, I just wasn’t having any luck.
My grandma was watching my brother and I on this particular day. She heard me struggling with the toy box and found me sitting on the floor, upset. She asked me if I needed help. I grumbled my reply. She picked up the box like it was nothing and moved it across the room.
I was in shock. My grandma stood five-feet tall and weighed ninety pounds.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
She responded by explaining how as we get older, we get stronger. One day I’d be like that, too, she said.
I nodded and went back to cleaning my room. She folded my clothes for me. I wasn’t frustrated anymore.
I handed her the gift. It was enveloped in the same tacky Christmas wrap that my girlfriend and I had owned for three years. We got it at Costco. The day it ran out would be a blessing in disguise. Or perhaps just a blessing. No disguise.
The tag read “For: Baba / From: Alex.” From the time I first learned how to speak, I referred to both my grandmas as “Baba.” It was all I could say as a toddler.
She opened the package. The brightness revealed itself to her. The palm trees, the beach, the sunlit backdrop. Fifteen-hundred pieces.
She beamed. She was a puzzle fanatic. This was right up her alley.
A few days later, she opened the box and dumped the pieces on the dining room table. All fifteen-hundred of them. Give or take four or so.
She had been in the hospital too many times recently. A result of not eating enough, usually.
My mom and dad would get upset with her, tell her she needed to eat more. She’d fret and say she wasn’t hungry, but eventually pledge to do her best.
We started taking her lunch, my brother and I. She liked fast food, McDonald’s and Taco Time, especially.
I would call her from my office at work, ask her what she wanted to eat on that particular day.
“Oh, something small,” she’d always say. She wasn’t very picky.
Her house was ten minutes from my office. Her two favorite restaurants were on the way. Most days, I’d grab Taco Time. Two crisp beef tacos. She only wanted one.
“I got you two, Baba. You can have the other one for a snack later. Put it in the fridge.”
“It can be my dinner,” she’d say. This wasn’t much of a dinner, but I relented.
We’d talk about nothing, talk about life, talk about the Mariners (she watched every game). Eventually, we’d get around to the subject of those fifteen-hundred pieces on the dining room table.
“So, how’s the puzzle coming?” I’d ask.
She’d take me into the dining room and display the work to me. It was coming along slowly. She was having a hard time figuring this one out.
I’d sit down and we’d piece some things together before I had to leave again. That was how the puzzle worked. Everyone chipped in. My mom, my dad, my brother, uncles, aunts, cousins, guests. If you stopped by the house, you were roped into the puzzle. No one got away. I’d levied this burden upon the whole family. Methodically, it was beginning to take shape. Sunlight began to shine on the dining room table.
It was June. I had to tell my grandma that my girlfriend and I were breaking up. After I broke the news to my parents, my mom told me I needed to deliver the message to my grandma myself. She needed to hear it from me.
This wasn’t your typical relationship that was ending. My girlfriend and I had been together for more than five years. We were supposed to get married. This was the plan. My whole family believed this. Her whole family believed this. But we had drifted apart. And at 25 years old, it was now or never. We weren’t ready for now. So it was over.
I went over to my grandma’s house. I told her. She was without words for a minute. She stammered. I hung my head, then lifted my eyes. If I wasn’t okay with this, she wouldn’t be okay with this. She was disappointed. Not disappointed in me. Just disappointed about the situation in general.
She wanted the best for me. If I was happy, she’d be happy. I assured her I’d be happy.
We worked on the puzzle.
During family events, she had a sneaky way of hiding her addiction.
She would leave the puzzle pieces on the table, but cover them with a tablecloth. To the untrained eye, there was nothing there. To the rest of the family, a secret lay beneath the fabric.
The dead giveaway was the smattering of amorphous cardboard cutouts laying like wounded soldiers on the floor. Pieces would plummet from the table to an unfitting resting place on the carpet below. Every now and then, someone would pick up a piece and slide it underneath the tablecloth, back where it belonged, back with the other fifteen-hundred.
The puzzle was becoming a running joke. Why had I done this to my poor grandma? It had been months without verdict. Months without resolution.
She should just give up. Start a new puzzle. Put this one away. It was a good try. They laughed when they heard how long it had been. Seven months, eight, nine. Would it ever get finished?
She refused to cave. The puzzle would remain. She chipped away. The border was done. A palm frond was complete. Brightness inched its way across the stained oak.
I took my grandma two crisp beef tacos. We started to eat, then stopped halfway through the meal to look at the puzzle.
She was excited now. In the past few weeks, she had made significant progress. Only two sections of indiscernible color remained. The end was near.
We finished our food, then spent ten minutes piecing things together.
“You got anything over there?” she asked.
“Oh, a couple things,” I’d reply. And it was true. I had finished off half a section. We were that much closer.
I had to go back to work. She’d be done by the end of the week, she figured. I laughed. I hoped so.
Two days later, I picked up my phone and saw that I had a missed call and a voicemail. I listened to the message. It was my grandma.
“Hi Alex this is Baba guess what I finished the puzzle!” It came out in one long sentence. I smiled and filled with pride.
I called her back. We celebrated over the phone.
She left the puzzle on the table for a week-and-a-half. She wanted me to see it before she tore it apart. I took her lunch on a Friday. A Happy Meal from McDonald’s.
I walked into the dining room. The puzzle sat there like a trophy. A new puzzle — this one a Christmas gift from my brother — was already being crafted in the corner. I shook my head and laughed.
The beach scene was complete, minus four pieces that had gone missing somewhere along the line. Fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-six cardboard cutouts by final count.
She was 87. She had stayed out of the hospital for more than a couple months. She had persevered through another losing season by the Mariners. She had attended my brother’s college graduation, celebrated a year’s worth of birthdays, and had completed this. There was more, of course. This jigsawed creation was only a piece of the puzzle, so to speak.
She beamed. If she was happy, I was happy.
I took a picture to preserve the achievement. One year and four weeks of effort. It was unlike anything I had ever paid witness to. Even if it was just fifteen-hundred pieces of sunlight. Give or take four or so.