Puzzle Without a Picture
I spent last week with my dear friend on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in a house perched on the sea. Each sunrise filled the sky with colors of increasing extravagance and the promise of a new day.
At the beach house, we drank tea scented with bergamot, vanilla and mint, ate the very healthy regional specialty, Scotch Bonnet fudge, and stayed up far too late putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle called “Half Life” made with “whimsy” pieces.
Mornings, I searched the beach for what I called “non-worry” stones, smooth reminders to live in the moment as much as possible without letting fear crowd the mind.
Our freewheeling conversations ranged from lighthearted to sobering and sad. We laughed about memories of mild infractions we’d gotten in trouble for as children, crimes like unauthorized nail polish use and inappropriate aim of a garden hose. In exchanges about our long-gone mothers and fathers, we learned new details we’d never discussed in the 50 years we’ve known each other. Our talk shifted from these reminiscences to weighty discussions of dying, what happens to the spirit when the body isn’t here anymore, the loneliness of illness, the specifics of hospice and palliative care.
My friend has been living with metastatic breast cancer for two years. In many ways, she lives as she always has, with great fortitude, grace, generosity and kindness to everyone she encounters. Yet her life is profoundly altered as she manages cruel side effects of medication meant to slow the disease but not cure it, because there is no cure. She must mete out her limited energy carefully each day.
Before I returned to California, my friend gave me the book, In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer, by Teva Harrison. Harrison’s illustrated memoir is dark, heartbreaking, funny, uplifting. Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 37, Harrison died last month at 42. Like Harrison, my friend is a gifted artist living fiercely each day.
In an apt metaphor, the company that created the “Half Life” puzzle also produces “mystery puzzles” carved in the same “whimsy” style, but with no picture of the completed puzzle on the box. Only the number of pieces is revealed, along with a general hint like “Impressionist painting.” Imagine trying to fit together a puzzle with no picture for reference, without knowing whether the piece you’re holding is a morsel of sky, a corner of a building, a snippet of flag or a bit of someone’s hand, and with no clue as to where it belongs in an overall scene.
None of us can divine the future, so in a sense we all piece together our lives unsure of how the fragments fit or when our time on this earth will be finished. But people like my friend who live with a terminal diagnosis shape their remaining time with uncertainty, frequent anxiety and a daily struggle to be here. There is no way to know how long the medication will work, whether side effects will become too burdensome to withstand and whether — or how much — to hope that a more effective drug will be found in their lifetime.
Tomorrow my friend will have her next PET scan. The fervent plea is that the scan will show stability, no progression in the disease. This result will purchase for her more sunrises, additional days that we pray are good quality, and for us, more chances to express how much we love her.