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Piece by Piece

Whenever my brother visits from out-of-state, I buy a new jigsaw puzzle. He loves puzzles and in the last several years we’ve made it a tradition to complete them together. Scenes of mountains, lakes, and cityscapes now lay stacked under his bed.

Jimmy takes his time examining the puzzle picture and reading its dimensions before unwrapping the cellophane. He reminds me of the way I eagerly read the front and back covers of a book before turning to the first page.

We begin by sorting pieces by color and then search for straight-edge pieces on the rectangular dining room table. The chandelier provides plenty of light and sunshine streams from two large windows facing the front yard.

Jimmy gets a yardstick and puts masking tape on the table pad to mark the four corners. Once the border is in place, he selects a section. “I’m going to work on the boat,” he says, adjusting his glasses. His focus is unwavering. Heads down, we sit elbow to elbow. The room is hushed except for an occasional sigh.

I've watched and learned from Jimmy over the years. He’ll work on a small section outside the border and then gingerly transfer it inside. He’ll saunter around the table, arms akimbo, to view it from different angles. He points, analyzes, and estimates. My approach had always been to sit in one position and look at the puzzle directly, as if that was the only way to solve a puzzle.

“Got one!” he announces with a tap-tap-tap of his forefinger on an elusive piece.

When approximately half the pieces have been laid, Jimmy takes the remaining ones that had been sorted by color and makes multiple neat rows.  When we’re down to the last fifty or so pieces, he arranges them by similar shapes. “See these two notches, Joyce?”

I’d never considered those techniques. Others may celebrate out-of-the-box thinking as a novel concept but my brother’s been doing it his entire life.

My 64-year-old brother has always had his own way of learning and accomplishing tasks. In the 1960s and ‘70s when he walked to school with me - his younger sister by one and a half years - he went to the Special Ed classroom. Diagnosed “borderline educable,” doctors set low expectations for Jimmy’s development. My parents ignored much of what the medical professionals advised and charted their own path for him. JImmy graduated high school, attended vocational training for three years, and worked various jobs at grocery stores. He even accompanied our father to work on construction sites. Jimmy modeled our parents’ work ethic, always early for work and rarely missing a day.

Retirement in his fifties brought uncertainty and worry for him and our family. However, Jimmy rallied. He taught himself how to use a computer tablet, took up golf, and has become a wizard at jigsaw puzzles.

The last time Jimmy visited happened before the coronavirus pandemic. He left before we were able to finish the 1000-piece puzzle. As I prepared to return the incomplete puzzle to its box, I paused and thought to continue on my own. I knew JImmy would ask if I finished it and I wanted to be able to proudly answer yes. The room felt empty. I missed the comforting, steady presence of my big brother.

Over the next few days, I circled around the table and examined the puzzle from different viewpoints the way Jimmy taught me. It made me feel close to my brother at a time when we couldn't be together.

Growing up, I assumed it was my responsibility to teach Jimmy skills that came more easily to me than to him. The truth is that he’s taught me many of life’s greatest lessons including compassion, creative thinking, and patience.