The Missing Edge

Working on the edge

Working on the edge

I sit at one end of a pale turquoise couch in my brother’s living room. At the other end of the sofa, my frail brother sits and dozes in his baggy gray sweats. His pale head nods forward. His chest rises and falls with gentle snores. My dog Willow sleeps on his feet.

Jim is tired after a busy day yesterday with two friends, his wife, his daughter, and me. He smiled and laughed, pleased to have us there. We were happy as he nibbled cashews and finished a big bowl of lentil soup. As he opened a gift, I remembered him opening a can of dogfood when I was four and he was eight. The food was for our puppy, Amigo, but Jim took a spoonful and tasted it, so I tasted it, too. I wanted to do whatever he did. I’m sure I drove him crazy, but he didn’t remember it that way. He didn’t remember the dogfood either.

Jim and Elaine 1948

Jim and Elaine 1948

Elaine, Jim, and Amigo 1957

Elaine, Jim, and Amigo 1957










He remembered Dad’s anger when Jim gave precious money to two demanding kids. I didn’t remember that. I remembered eye surgery and burning my hand on the chimney of the kerosene stove. Details differ, but we’ve known each other from the beginning of my memory. Jim was with me when I burned my hand.

Yesterday after lunch, we spread one thousand puzzle pieces across the dining room table beneath the big bay window. The puzzle box promised an image of three dancing geishas with elaborate flowers and parasols.

DSC04546The first job was finding edges. As always, I was willing to search, piece by piece. I noticed Jim was a tenaciousness sorter, too. Soon, we had a pile of edge pieces and tried to build a rectangular border. We didn’t get far.

After our friends left for their hotel, after my niece went home and my sister-in-law retired, Jim and I hunched over the jigsaw puzzle, determined to finish the border. At 9 pm, we gave up. Did we have missing pieces, mistakes, or both?

When I came upstairs the next morning, Jim was at the puzzle table with a cup of coffee. I made breakfast and sat beside him.

DSC04577“This is a damned hard puzzle. Something is wrong here,” I muttered.

He coughed and grinned as he studied the box lid. We found mistakes and a missing piece, but still didn’t have a finished edge. We wanted a clear line separating inside from out, like a fence with a shut gate. Like skin. Like the flat line on a heart monitor.

We moved from the kitchen to the couch and back to the dining room table. By 4 pm, we had flowers, headdresses, faces, and two sides of the rectangle. We strategized and decided to forget the edge gaps for now. Someone would sort out the problem later, but not me. I planned to leave the next morning.

DSC04569We talked about a strategy for his illness, too, but don’t have the pieces of information needed to see the whole. He’ll have scans in a month to see if the new treatment is working. Then, he, his wife, and his doctors will decide what’s next.

I plan to return in a month. Plans mean little in the face of mortality, but they’re necessary in this life. We move forward with the pieces we have.

Before I left for the long drive home, Jim and I puzzled another hour. We put together kimonos and a single hand holding an open fan.

The edge was still unfinished when I gave him a hug and drove away.


Have you been in a situation where life feels on hold because you don’t have all the information needed to decide what’s next? Birth and death put us in this position since they come and go in their own time without concern for our human plans. Jim loves the quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.” For other blogs about my big brother and me, see Waiting for Another Dance or Soul Care in Hard Times.

  1. Darn. When you can’t even get the border of the puzzle in place – darn. There ought to be things you can count on, like that the correct number of pieces will be in the puzzle box. There ought to be things you can control in your life, like putting the puzzle together without this annoying glitch. Especially important when you’re ill. And don’t let’s get started on signs and omens, as in “what does it mean that a piece has gone missing?” Predicting and preparing – aren’t they simply responses to the same need to control something in one’s life? Being deprived of that small glory of wedging in the final piece of the puzzle – darn.

    • Robin, there’s a kind of play frustration that goes with jigsaw puzzles. And lots of silly cheering when a piece goes in just right and whining when it doesn’t. We huddled over it with heads together like kids. Intimate and familiar. We’ve known for a long time that we aren’t in control of anything.

  2. It seems life is full of these moments. Right now I am in a similar situation with a friend who needs surgery to remove a tumor but there are missing pieces that need to be found before she can go forward. It’s hard. This what life is like. We wait, we go forward and wait again.

    • I agree, Joan. It’s the cycle of life and especially the life of a serious illness. I did not know cancer would require so much waiting.

  3. Thinking of you Elaine with love as … You… Me …. others navigate this road of love and loss! And missing pieces!!!

    • Yes, we do, Lori. And you’re getting it from many directions at the same time. When I feel whacked around like that, I go to a big red oak tree in my woods and lean into the trunk.

  4. A truly, insightful article Elaine, for reading your story has clicked with me on many levels. As a child I greatly enjoyed puzzles, and goes some way I guess in explaining why 20 years ago I followed my vocation to become a psychotherapist. The missing pieces in the history of my own family story still hold fascination yet when I met Jung 7 years ago, aged 45 years those missing pieces I noted, began moving slowly away from my outer life puzzle and began working themselves on my inner puzzle. An deeply, mysterious puzzle that I feel I have been working on ever since, and no doubt will do until the very end of my life.

    I love these lines …“Plans mean little in the face of mortality, but they’re necessary in this life. We move forward with the pieces we have.” Thank you for sharing your stories Elaine, I feel honoured to read and learn from them. Thank you for gifting me a lost piece of my own puzzle. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. The jigsaw puzzle provided a quiet intimacy and playfulness–a good match for my hearing problems and my brother’s subdued energy. I’ll cherish those hours with the puzzle and this childhood game. I haven’t asked if my brother and his family are still working on the puzzle or if it went back in the box when the table was needed for something else. I don’t care. It as there when we needed it and I’m grateful for the small pleasures.

  5. Ah, the puzzle – in front of you and the missing pieces – . I find it to be a time when working on a puzzle even as I know it WILL frustrate the hell out of me, to let the ego take a back seat as the borders/edges slowly come into focus and finding that missing link before tackling the middle, even if it takes forever. What an apt metaphor it is for our lives Elaine, thank you for this.

    May the missing pieces be found in terms of your brother’s treatment and may the new medicine work for him and he be restored to full health. May the geisha’s hand holding the fan waft over him while the puzzle comes into wholeness.

    Yes, life does get put on hold from time to time and we’re forced to pause before the next step –

    • Thank you for all your good wishes, Susan. The frustration of the puzzle was purely playful at a time of big struggles and waiting–just right for two people who want to be together without too many words. It’s always good to give the fretful mind a job.

  6. How perfect, the puzzling… missing pieces or not. A perfect distraction (missing pieces included). I agree that it matters not if the puzzle were finished after you left, it gave you and your brother exactly what you needed during your visit.

    “We move forward with the pieces we have.”… This really stood out for me. Moving forward (with a missing piece) is something I’m struggling to do, and yet, on thinking about it, I am moving forward. Puzzles are puzzled…and (despite my not wanting to here it when it seemed EVERYONE was saying it) life does go on.

    I’m so sorry for your heartache Elaine, and equally happy for you, that you were able to spend such quality time with your brother recently. That there was peace, and laughter, and welcome distractions included in your time together.

    I hope the news with regard to treatment is positive when it comes. All the best. Kimmie. x

    • Thank you, Kimmie. It’s good to remember the small things that make us feel OK in a messy life. I spoke with my brother today and learned that the puzzle is on the table and lots of progress has been made. His wife has joined him in puzzle-mania. He told me they are wasting lots of time on the puzzle. I insistently disagreed and said that it isn’t a waste of time because it makes everyone feel connected as they work on something that isn’t life-or-death together and are physically in the same space. Play is good in an all-to-serious world–and I have to remind myself of that as much as anyone. He heard me out and agreed. In any case, the puzzle is an ongoing family project.

  7. Thanks, Elaine, for this Profound Piece. I adore how you trace the edges of psyche and embodiment!

  8. You were with your brother, now in physical decline, and I was with my brother last week, putting the pieces of his life puzzle together, so to speak. My sister and I as trustees of his share of our mother’s estate are overseeing dental appointments, plans for a newer car, etc. Taking care of such business, though important, eats up most of our time though we did play one game of Uno, a mindless card game. Trying to put a 1000-piece puzzle together would have put me over the edge – almost!

    All good wishes on your upcoming trip to Sarasota. Safe travel, Elaine.

    • Marian, the jigsaw puzzle was easy compared to what you’re doing for your brother. I’m glad you slipped in one game of Uno. Mindless is sometimes just what we need, because these minds won’t stop causing trouble as they try to figure out what can’t be figured out. Thanks for good wishes for my trip. I leave a week from today and I’m trying to get all those little ducks in a row.

  9. Elaine,
    What privilege to partake of the joys of finding pieces, the silly talk, and edgy subject of life and death. The mystery piece could be right on the table or inside our broken hearts.

    • Thank you for being part of this. You have the best ideas for where to find those mystery pieces–right in plain view or deep within our grief. The puzzle is still a work in progress. With love to you.

  10. -That first photo is precious. The second one studying the box is nice too.
    -So adequate the comparison between puzzle pieces and our lives in your story.
    -I find you such a good loving sister, being creative and finding ways to connect. I learn from your ways.
    -Sharing between friends and family.
    -Sure he enjoys these meetings. I wish him happy days.
    (My brother died three months ago at 67 but he was not ready to share and we didn’t have nor found, from long distance and broken hearts (as Lourdes says), a way to break his probably thin shell. It’s ok.)

    • Thank you for your comments and reflections, Nati. I’m glad to connect with you here.
      Some might say I’m a pushy sister, but I’ve learned that it’s OK to push a little. I learned that in my marriage. If we don’t connect now, then when?
      Puzzles work well as a non-threatening way to be together–huddling close as we passed the box back and forth, complained about nothing, and joked.
      I’m sorry you lost your brother recently. At 67, he was the same age at his death as Vic. Ah, those broken hearts and lost pieces. It takes two to connect outwardly. Sometimes it just can’t happen except in the inner chambers of our heart. As you know, we can still send our love with prayers.

  11. It is such a joy and honor to be privy to this conversation. with great thanks to Elaine and all of you for opening your hearts. My brother and I are estranged, but this conversation reminds me that he was in my dreams last night. Perhaps i’ll reach out to him.. Elaine I’m sorry we are missing each other again… see you later in the month I hope. Many hugs.. L

    • L, I’m a big fan of reaching out again and again. My brother and I were seldom in contact for many years. We drifted apart with busy lives at a distance, but that turned into hurt feelings with a sense of estrangement. When there was trouble in his family, I reached out–in a slightly pushy way because I insisted on being there. I’m so glad I did. When Vic got sick, my brother came through for us, and after that we stayed in close touch. It’s been important thing for me to heal this relationship.
      I’ll be in touch in a few weeks. Hugs are always appreciated.

  12. Yes, thank you ♥

  13. Beautifully used metaphors with life and puzzles Elaine. Wishing healing for your brother and comfort for you all in the journey.
    Your brother/sister photos reminded me of myself and my own brother when we were each other’s best friend at that same age range.
    Wishing you a safe and prosperous trip to Florida. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debbie. I’m finishing FL plans as my stay there shifts a little and falls into new and lovely patterns. After the workshop, I’ll have three days on the Gulf Beach near a wonderful aquarium. A three day vacation! The workshop is polishes, although I have some final touches this weekend.

      Speaking of brothers, when a family isn’t in the greatest emotional shape, as mine wasn’t when I was a kid and as yours wasn’t, it’s quite a gift to have a sibling/friend.

      • That is so true Elaine. And I’m very glad to hear that you’ll be extending your time in FLA for a little leisure indulgence. Travel safe and enjoy. )

        • I’m here. Ummm…it was about as warm in NY State as it was in FL today. It’s supposed to stay in the 50s and even 60s in upstate NY this week. My usual worry with March travel is snowstorms. Nothing like that happening this year. What’s with this global warming?

  14. Beautifully written as always, Elaine, but the emotional piece of the puzzle was the centerpiece. I am grateful for the wonderful way you nestle meaning and feeling side by side until the picture shows up. See you soon!

    • Therese, when my brother and I spoke on the phone a few days ago, he said his wife had joined him in working on the puzzle. “I’m wasting a lot of time on this puzzle,” he said. He’s a serious intellectual guy, so a puzzle isn’t his usual style. I protested and said how close and intimate it felt to do the puzzle together while we didn’t think about doctors and illnesses, didn’t solve the world’s political problems, didn’t do anything except sit together in a light-hearted silly way. He agreed with me! The puzzle continues. I look forward to seeing you next week.

  15. Reading about your big brother and the puzzle got me thinking about my big brother, who was 12 years older than I was when I was born. Thank you for those memories. Now I want to write about him and the world he grew up in that was so different from my childhood.

    • Hi Lloyd. It sounds like a great project to write about your brother and the differences in your worlds. When my brother and I talk about our childhood, it sometimes feels like we grew up in different families, but there is always a deep familiar bond. Thank you for taking time to comment and say a little about your writing plans.

  16. A difficult puzzle with some of the pieces missing is an apt metaphor for how difficult it is to plan for the un-planable, Elaine. Dying, much like birthing, is unpredictable and hard to make peace (piece) with until the exact moment when everything comes together. I have not lost a sibling but I have an idea how hard it will be. Sending much love to you and your brother.


    • Thank you, Jenna. After March 17, my schedule lightens up. I want to dig into writing about what I’ve been thinking about, I love time to garden and be outside in the summer, but mostly I want to be able to see my brother and his family often. It’s a good time to stick close to family. I’m sorry you aren’t well enough to come to FL for the workshop, but I hope to see you another time. Sending healing love…

  17. A very moving piece, beautifully realised. My son-in-law’s father is now in the early stages of this illness….very frail with Parkinsons. It is heartbreaking to see his decline..though whenever he sees his small 2 yr old granddaughter, something magical happens….

    • Thank you for taking time to read and respond, Carol. My brother has incurable cancer which means constant treatment to keep it at bay. It wears a person down, but he keeps popping back. That won’t continue forever–as nothing does. I’m so glad you son-in-law’s father has his little granddaughter to open his heart to joy. Yes, magical.

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