I pass the wall with the puzzles hanging on it a million times each day. Time at the Johnson Adult Day Program goes by in a blur. One summer morning, I see Harold perched at his usual spot, and I slow to take a peek at what he is doing. As Harold senses me approach, he prepares for the grand reveal. Harold’s hands tremble as he places them on the edge of the blue table cloth. There is a determination with his every move. He pulls back the cover and proudly displays an almost completed puzzle, an autumn scene of a pumpkin farm.
Like clockwork, the next day I find Harold in the same spot. I approach him expecting his pumpkin farm to be tucked among a stack of completed puzzles to the right while he works on a new puzzle. Instead he’s disassembling his autumn scene from yesterday, neatly stacking puzzle pieces to the side, mumbling something about missing pieces. I take a seat and help Harold reassemble the puzzle.
Harold reaches for a small box and produces a collection of cutting tools. His second heart attack left him with very limited movement and coordination. It seems he’s been trying to cut substitute pieces where there are holes in his puzzle, holes left by pieces lost or damaged in the past. Harold is intent on his vision of wholeness, cutting somewhat distorted pieces from the cardboard puzzle box top to fill in the gaps in his scene. Every day is a forgotten experience to Harold, but he’s determined to fill in the holes. I look down at the pencil, paper, and x-acto knife, grab the pencil, and begin tracing replacement pieces.
“Too much here, but not enough there,” I grimace to myself as I struggle to cut out pieces from the cardboard box. There is a certain imperfection to the way I navigate the x-acto knife, yet Harold looks on, grinning. In the end, the piece somehow manages its way into the missing spot of the puzzle. Harold hasn’t moved an inch for a good 5 minutes, and I ask him if it looks alright. Only his mouth moves, and as his lips rise into a smile, I get my answer.
I still think about those crude mismatched replacement pieces. Makeshift misfits: a depressing thought considering the flawless angles and vibrance of the original pieces, now lost in memory. Still, I relentlessly chip away at the edges seeking a magical moment when everything comes together in my eyes so that Harold’s memory is once again whole.
I finish cutting out the last cardboard piece and maneuver it into place. I close my eyes and run my fingers over the completed puzzle. I expect a fluid breezing of my fingers across the finished piece, but instead I’m surprised to feel the incoherent groves of my replacement pieces. I feel as though I am missing something and that I have failed, but as we lift up the finished puzzle onto the wall where it joins the other puzzles, its story holds its own. As Harold and I admire our work, I see how one piece recalls another and how each piece completes the whole.
It’s another day, and I walk past the puzzle. I’m brought back to that autumn farm. The misshapen pumpkins in the center of the piece stare down at me, and I think about Harold and our journey from the scene with the gaping holes. Harold still keeps his x-acto knife close by in his box. I’m not sure he recognizes me today, but I smile when I see him sitting in that same seat, guarding our masterpiece.