The 5 Ways Putting Together A Puzzle Is Like Being Sick

My daughter and her roommates recently visited us for a week. I showed them my two favorite bookstores in town. We spent a day at the pool. They got to see downtown. I cooked for them. We hung out and played board games. They went on a mining expedition and found some amazing specimens of quartz. We all watched the eclipse together. It was a lovely visit. Beyond all that, they managed to almost complete a 2000 piece puzzle that my husband and I gave up on weeks ago.

The puzzle is a picture of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and it takes up my entire kitchen table. I thought it would be a fun project for my husband and I. It wasn’t. One day, after weeks of getting nowhere, I threatened to put it all back in the box. My husband begged me not to, but while he was at work I took everything apart and packed it away. I thought he’d be annoyed, but after taking hours to even realize it was gone, he seemed pretty relieved.

Thank God, you got rid of it! I hated that thing!

My daughter and her friends have completed many of our puzzles on their trips back home from college, but this one they had to start right out of the box. They got far, but were unable to put together all 2000 pieces in just 7 days. When they left they made me promise that I wouldn’t give up. I made a solemn vow to complete it. They’ve been gone for a week and in that time I’ve managed to find the right spot for three whole pieces.

It dawned on me, while taking the Lord’s name in vain several times and daydreaming about how fun it would be to throw all the pieces into the creek behind my apartment, that putting together a puzzle has a lot in common with being sick. There’s the nausea, the utter despair, and the need for powerful drugs. There are other things, though, life lessons and character builders. Putting together a puzzle and being sick are not for the faint of heart.



So many pieces, so little time.

1.) Reality Eventually Sets In

After my diagnosis of a desmoid tumor I dug my heels in, raised my fists, and proudly proclaimed, “I GOT THIS!” Same thing with the puzzle. 2000 pieces? Big whoop. We can do this. Then the gravity of it all seeps in slowly until the stark realization that every single one of the hundreds of tree pieces looks exactly the same and you can’t figure out which blue pieces are the sky and which ones are the lake. Much like when I completed physical therapy and still sometimes needed to use my cane or when I found out my tumor had recurred. Ah, this is going to be a lot harder and take a lot longer than I thought. 

2.) There Are No Shortcuts In Puzzles or Tumors

I will freely admit that I have, more times than I can count, tried to shove a puzzle piece into a space where it didn’t belong. Fit, you fucker! No matter how much I want it to work, if it isn’t the time and it isn’t the place, it isn’t going to happen. After my surgery I wanted nothing more than to walk on my own again, but I couldn’t begin physical therapy until the drain was removed from my leg. I pleaded with my doctor to take it out just a few days after my surgery. He explained to me that doing so would only impede my progress. My leg would balloon with swelling and fluid. I sobbed. That drain stayed, sewn into my leg, for another three weeks, but that was what my body needed. All the pieces have a place, but they build upon each other. One can’t be set until its mate has been set before it. Skip a step and there’s nowhere for your other pieces to land.


It takes time, but when you do things in the right order the results are well worth it.

3.) You’re Definitely Going To Want To Punch Somebody

Whether you’re stuck in the house putting together a puzzle or recuperating from surgery or dealing with side effects from oral chemo, you’re going to get a little angry from time to time. It sucks. It’s frustrating. But you’ve got to own those feelings. I have had the exact same thoughts looking out the window at the big, wide world during all these experiences and a lot of those thoughts have not been happy and shiny. Look at those people out there enjoying life like the assholes that they are. All able bodied and not trying to cram tiny paper cutouts together. Carefree motherfuckers. Out soaking up the sun. I bet they all have adequate amounts of Vitamin D. Fuck them. I hope they choke on their fresh air. A pox on all your houses!

4.) You’re Gonna Need Help From Time To Time

I can’t tell you how often I’ve spent way too much time on finding that one particular piece for that one particular spot only to have my husband or son walk up and immediately find it and add it to the puzzle. And, I’ve tripped and fallen enough since my surgery to know now to ask for someone’s hand when the terrain is uneven or if my leg feels weak. Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to see the problem from a new angle. And, sometimes you need an extra set of hands to keep you steady. None of us can do it all on our own all the time.

5.) Sometimes Things Just Don’t Go As Planned

The plan for my tumor was to have a surgery, pop that sucker out, and get on with life like nothing ever happened. It was going to be just that easy. Almost five years later, I still limp when my leg is tired, I’m deep in debt, my joints ache, and I worry constantly I’ll have another recurrence. The plan for this puzzle was to sit with my husband every evening while he regaled me with stories of his trip to this very castle, feel enlivened by the challenge, and bask in the glory of success when we completed it. Months later, it’s been boxed up once, taken back out, almost completed, cursed at in at least two different languages, and still not finished even though no less than five people have worked on it. Don’t even get me started on the one puzzle that I spent a month completing only to discover a piece was missing. Even still, even when none of these things turned out like I thought they would, everyone survived and we found some way to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Cause, really, what the hell else are you gonna do?


I never did find that missing piece.