Sunday, March 8, 2015

Survival by puzzle-ing

At this time last year, I spent my days grieving and researching PPROM, late-onset sepsis and brain hemorrhage in premature infants.  Each day, for hours on end, tears trickling down my face, I would cross reference the medical journals and papers with the over seven hundred pages of Zachary's medical records.  And, with every discovery or question raised (of which there were/are many), with every affirmation of the senselessness of his illness and the delay in his diagnosis and treatment, my crying would metastasize into trembling, head-throbbing sobs.  I was usually alone, or alone with C.T., at these times.  And it was extremely scary for all of us. 

It's strange.  People who stopped by in support of us during those first weeks and months might have characterized us as "managing" or "doing as well as can be expected" at that time, but let me tell you, it is the other 23 hours of the day, for the newly bereaved parent, that is worrisome.  The really ugly, the grappling not to fall or fade into total darkness, almost always happens in private.   

Despite the fact that several people were still trying to be physically and tangibly supportive at this time, it was not the love of family and friends that saved me.  And although it was suggested by several people, my head nodded in feigned agreement, it was not the living for B and C.T. that pulled me through this period of near death.  At some point, when I truly wanted to die in those first weeks, my swollen eyes happened to lock onto a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of elephants sitting high up in one of our office cubbies.  It had been purchased in November 2012, just before we hosted Thanksgiving that year.  I remember it pretty clearly because I was pregnant during that particular holiday season, flickering with secret hope, before I miscarried in January.  I digress...

B and C.T. were home when I noticed the puzzle.  I recall announcing that I was going to pull it down and start working on it.  I hadn't moved to do anything since Zachary died..., except to sob, write condolence thank you(s) and occasionally force down some food.  And suddenly, without conscious thoughts about why, I had the capacity to do this.  Contents dumped carelessly on the table, I began flipping the over-turned pieces, one by one, so that all were visible.  It was a tough puzzle, mostly shades of brown and gray.  I wondered why I was drawn to it in the midst of my devastation. 

B, C.T. and I immediately began assembling the puzzle.  I was surprised they wanted to help.  Over the next couple of days, an eye, a tusk, the snow-tipped mountain peak, took shape.  C.T. seemed to be soothed by the activity and patiently looked to match up edge pieces.  We sat in silence for hours, working and crying, and then muttering about some aspect of the puzzle that wasn't coming together.  The puzzle became a refuge for us, but especially for me as I worked on the research related to Zachary's demise.  I would be at the very end of my rope, overcome with despair, and then I'd trudge the ten steps to the kitchen table and shift the core of my focus for an hour or two.  The puzzle didn't care when I burst out in slobbering wails.  My tears and saliva wiped off easily with no damage to the work that had already been done.  The puzzle waited patiently to be put together, its still-free pieces moved to accommodate a meal, a meltdown, an aching head.  The work was without expectation or deadline and nothing about it felt pressurized or like I was being checked or gauged for how well I was coping with Zachary's death. 

Over the next couple of months, our kitchen table became our puzzling station.  Friends who visited our home realized this activity was just barely keeping me afloat, and soon found themselves on our bench, helping me put together five or ten pieces.  The tiger, which took over two weeks to assemble, was probably the most difficult one we did. 

Sitting in those hospital conference rooms after Zachary's death, shaking, sobbing and so angry that I could hardly choke out my words, I wanted to dissolve into the air and take everyone who contributed to his death with me.  I honestly don't think I would have followed through with all of the research and the post-mortem meetings with Zachary's care team and the hospital risk management people if it weren't for the respite of these silly puzzles.  While assembling those jigsaw pieces, somehow I salvaged the strength and calm to question Zachary's care and his death. 

Yesterday, Zachary would have been 14 months old.  Fourteen months old.  My sweet precious boy.  I still have to be his voice and I've been paralyzed with the prospect of it since it took me down in November.  I think I've come to the realization that I need to resurrect those puzzles, or some similar coping strategy, in order to follow through with next steps in advocating for Zachary.  


  1. I am so sorry puzzles became a way to get away from the devastation of Zachary's death. It seems like everything should be different, that puzzles should only have a few pieces and the sole purpose of amusing your son.

    I hope you find what you need now to go forward. It is so incredibly hard to dive back into what has happened. Many thoughts to you and your family. xox

  2. It is so strange what helps to cope. Oh, how I wish I was rather resurrecting C.T.'s old baby puzzles for Zachary - shapes and letters and wild animals and vehicle puzzles. To contrast what should be vs. what is, is just crushing. Thank you for the continued support, my friend.

  3. It's so weird what we latch onto in our grieving insanity. I didn't do puzzles but tried knitting. I read and blogged. If I had thought of puzzling it would have been a good idea. I'm almost drawn to it now, after reading this post of yours. I'm sorry you're not putting wooden letter puzzles with Zachary together instead.

  4. When you mentioned puzzles on Glow, it resonated with my husband and I. I also need a break from the incessant questions and guttural wailing.

    Zachary, your mum is helping Owen's family in Whistler, BC through the early days of their sadness. She is pretty awesome, but you know this already. <3