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Illustration by Drew Shannon

We always had a puzzle on the go. Over time, the puzzles grew to pieces numbering in the thousands.

My Mom and sister would contribute their help. But Dad and I were fanatics, at it for hours, trying for just one more piece before supper. Five minutes would slip into 30.

After the tedium of right-siding every piece and general colour sorting on cookie sheets, the intensity set in. Edge pieces? Routine. But when it came to the filling in, that’s where Dad’s method and mine clashed. He was a precise man, an agricultural engineer. His preferred approach was to select a piece, refer back to the box’s image, find its exact location in the empty space, and place it on the table.

“This goes here,” he’d say.

My method? Casual. Organic. I’d look for the next piece to add to the already assembled. For Dad, the piece was the thing. The picture would embrace it eventually. For me, I could only expand on what was already there. Maybe he saw the trees and I saw the forest.

Dad’s approach rarely held up because I’d move them, not out of spite or mischief, but because this method just did not make sense to me, and I’d forget.

I left home “for good” (whatever that means) 30 years ago but I’ve rarely missed a weekend call with my folks. “What have you been up to?” I ask. When Dad was curling, we’d talk about his rink’s success. Sometimes he’d tell me that at least his team came second. Or they had played bridge or walked in the river bottom, went to Timmies, day-tripped to the farm.

In recent years, Dad’s dementia has tightened its grip on his mind. He stopped curling, out of what I think was his way of not letting the team down because he wasn’t his old self.

They say making puzzles can help keep synapses alert. So, we’ve been giving Dad puzzles for a while. They’re borrowed from friends, from the condo’s common room and bought from thrift stores if the box looks reliable enough to take a risk. When I buy them new, I look for scenes that are more particular than abstract: kittens and a bottle of pickled beans. A farm with some cows.

Dad and Mom work away at them. I can’t express both my gratitude and sorrow that Mom is now the caregiver; that my sister and her family are there to help guide our family through this new, always declining normal.

Now, our weekend calls have a new routine.

“How’s it going, Dad?”

“Not so bad for an old guy,” is his usual response.

“Have you got a puzzle on the go?”

In the past year or so, maybe less, whatever puzzle is “on the go” is, according to Dad, “the hardest one” he’s ever done.

“What’s the picture?” I always ask. Sometimes he knows for sure: flags or a map or a town. Sometimes the words escape him.

“It’s blue, a mountain, there’s a...”

“House?” I ask, trying to help.

“Chalet,” Mom will suggest, from the background.

“Snow, there’s snow. Oh my God,” he’ll say, and I can tell he’s shaking his head. “The pieces just won’t go together!”

“Sounds tough!” I’ll say. “Good luck!”

“We’ll do our best,” he replies. And they do.

On my most recent visit, he didn’t know who I was or why I was there. Yet we resurrected the pleasure of making a puzzle together. The pieces number in the hundreds now. It’s the same card table with the same cookie trays for sorting. We start with the edge. And 50 years later, my dad still builds the same way. He’ll select a piece and do his best to locate it on the box’s image. It is frustrating, sometimes. The box picture often shaves off a few inches from the puzzle itself. I try to help him match the piece to the picture.

“Maybe that’s the side of the house,” I’ll say.

Sometimes it is a triumph, sometimes a torment. Some of the harshest words I’ve heard him speak, ever, have been directed toward the pieces that refuse to be placed.

We ease into a new partnership. I search for the pieces that I think will fit next, calling up my old approach, adding to what’s already there. I try unobtrusively to place them where he’ll see them, near to where they’ll fit. I want him to enjoy success without insult. He’s my dad, after all, and I love him.

My folks have given me many gifts over the years: practical skills – sewing seams, changing tires. Stuff: bedding, dishes, toolkits. And ephemera: independence. In the late 1980s, Dad engineered an aerodynamic wooden box fitted to my second-hand Volvo’s roof rack. I packed as much stuff as would fit to start a year of grad school, halfway across the country. The box sustained three such trips – two with Mom and one with Dad. It was watertight to the end, served as a coffee table and held the real and aspirational things I imagined were required to “move on.”

Dad could design farm structures, and travel boxes, and fit together the pieces of almost anything, but there is a logic that escapes him now. I am both baffled and heartbroken. The shapes, colours and lines that seem so clear to me often now elude him.

“The bugger doesn’t fit,” he’ll say.

“Turn it around,” I’ll say. “Try it again. I think that’s going to fit. You’ve got it.”

“Well,” he’ll say. “This is the hardest one I’ve ever done.”

I’m glad that he is absorbed with the pieces, so he doesn’t see me tear up. His other harsh words – quite rare – are sometimes directed at himself, in his moments of deep frustration, when he senses something has been lost, without knowing entirely what it is or why. I don’t want him to know that I sense it, too, but of course we do both know it, for now.

I have my own unmade puzzle in my dining room, on loan from a friend, a scene of colourful hot air balloons. Whenever I stumble for words, forget why I came downstairs, wonder why I opened a new tab in Google, I glimpse the demons that might haunt me some day (or maybe already do). I haven’t yet opened the puzzle, although the distraction is tempting in this COVID world. In part, I’m afraid. I live alone and know I may not have someone who will help me get the pieces together.

“Eventually, they’ll all fit,” I tell him. “We just have to keep turning them.” And so I tell myself as well. Such reassurance comes easily with a puzzle; less so with other things. As best we can, we keep up with the turning, readjusting with rage, sometimes, but also with grace.

Barbara Darby lives in Dartmouth, N.S.

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