Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Jigsaw Puzzle and Three Lessons Learned about Parkinson's Disease

It appeared on the family room coffee table a few days before Christmas. The mystery was born as a jumble of a thousand uniquely-shaped pieces of pressed cardboard. Sure, there was a picture on the box of what it was supposed to look like when completed, but there was no guarantee of the outcome. To make something out of the seeming chaos of colors, shapes and sizes required faith, curiosity and a commitment to complete the task at hand. Regardless of the varying degrees of interest, virtually everyone who entered our family room participated in locating necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Slowly, after hours of painstaking piece by piece assembly, the perimeter straight edges were all located and put in place. This defined the dimensions and potential for the remaining pieces, the frame within which, assuming all went well, the picture would take shape. Critical though this fundamental step may have been, it was hardly much of a conquest. But that didn't stop those of us present at the time from expressing our common feeling of accomplishment.
From then on, the puzzle became a common compulsion, a mission that recruited one member or another of our extended Christmas time family. From time to time, whether casually or in earnest, friends and family would lean over or kneel beside the table and stare intently at the small colored cardboard cutouts. Even PJ, my three-year-old grandson, got into the act. "I can help with the puzzle, Grandpa", he insisted, picking up pieces at random and attempting to press them indiscriminately into place. Easily bored with the concentration required by the adult distraction he found his own puzzle of some 25 pieces. "See Grandpa, mine is finished", he announced, as if to chide us for our own retarded progress. Of course, we were not driving matchbox trucks and cars over his puzzle as he did over ours, scattering well-placed clumps of emerging images onto the floor and who knows where else.
More than a week after it was begun, the puzzle was finished. Or at least as finished as the remaining pieces would permit. There were three noticeable holes in the completed picture, which we deduced was due to three pieces having gone AWOL with a three-year-old boy. Searching unsuccessfully in every conceivable hiding place, I wondered out loud when, if ever, those missing pieces would reappear in someone's shoe, trapped in the trunk of some hidden toy car, or stuffed into Mr. Potato Head. Regardless, we had gone as far as we could, having spent countless hours striving to place those little puzzle pieces in their perfect places to form the picture on the box lid.

Some might characterize the task of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as senseless behavior; a mundane and meaningless, yet addictive, activity leading to an anticlimactic achievement, after which it would be returned to its former condition and placed in some darkened closet, most likely never to be seen again. A look at the history of jigsaw puzzles suggests otherwise.

The jigsaw puzzle was invented in 1767 by John Spilsbury. It was a wooden map of the world with each country cut out as a separate piece, thereby designed by the English mapmaker for teaching geography to children. The puzzles continue to be used for teaching children and did not catch on with adults as a means of entertainment until more than 100 years later. Over the past week I have begun to see that jigsaws have stayed true to their original purpose and can still teach lessons about life, and about Parkinson's disease. Some things to ponder as we end 2011.

1.      We all start life as a mysterious genetic jumble of potential. Humanly speaking, the final image constructed upon the chromosome limitations we inherit is never known ahead of time. We are a work in progress. In effect, our puzzle is being assembled without a clear picture on the box lid. We must simply do the best with what we have been given, as and when discovered, be it defective dopamine-producing cells or otherwise.

2.      The best way to put together a puzzle is by having the perspective and participation of numerous people, all contributing their concerted, or even casual, efforts towards development of the final product. Some of them may never see much more than the early outline of what we are to become, while others are only present to see the triumphant placement of the final piece. Just as our lives are best constructed by the contributions of many, so too is our perspective on living with Parkinson's disease. Despite the fact that progress may be slow at times, we can be encouraged by the fact that the placement of one "piece" can be enough to allow many others to fall in place.

3.      We are all exposed along life's way to mishaps and mischief, both of which can result in us lacking or losing some apparently needed pieces. As a result, the picture may never be perfectly complete. But the missing pieces, like a diagnosis of PD, are part of our story.  Will it be a bitter one or a better one? Will it tell of resilience or resignation? Those choices are ours.

"More often than not the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is your life will come together in a manner beyond your currently ability to imagine…. The right pieces will come together at the right time. It’ll all work out." Stephen Cox, "The Jigsaw Puzzle of Life".

1 comment:

  1. We love to do puzzles at Christmas (days after Christmas when presents are all put away) and once it is completed, we glue it together and get it framed, and one of the family takes it home and hangs it in their rooms as a memory of that year's puzzle time. We never ever put them back in the box and stuff them in a closet. So our lives should be, once we are formed and grown, we should never we shut away and forgotten, but continue to be seen and loved and appreciated. I love reading your blog and having new puzzle pieces added to my frame.