In the picture on the box, several hundred colorful birds perch, fly, and hover on a white background. All have stick legs that look the same on the thousand tiny pieces spread across our dining room table. My spouse Arline and I don’t, as a rule, do puzzles. We started one on a vacation a few years ago, but we didn’t have time over the weekend to finish it. Now we have time.
There’s a method to putting together a puzzle. Start with the frame. We turned the pieces face up on the table and picked through them, looking for straight edges. It took little time to assemble most of the frame, but four pieces were missing. We looked for them for days.
In late February and early March, dread clenched my jaw, a return to the debilitating anxiety of my late 20s, which were almost thirty years ago. Every week brought a new momentous decision. Should I fly to San Antonio for a conference? Should I put my final weeks of winter quarter online? Should we go to dinner with our friends on a Saturday in March? One of the friends, a doctor, said we would be fine if we went early and used hand sanitizer after reading the menu. Two weeks later I would learn she was right, but I was on edge the entire evening. The next day, the governor closed restaurants and bars. His order limited my options, framed them. I no longer had to make my own decisions, and for the moment, my anxiety lessened.
After establishing the frame, I sorted puzzle pieces by color. I assembled several red birds — a cardinal, finches — and placed them in the frame where they belonged, according to the picture. Arline gathered bird heads in one corner of the table. Now we could pick through the pieces with eyes and beaks when all we were missing was a head.
The geography of our life contracted to our co-op apartment with occasional forays to the grocery store and daily walks. We have the comforts of a separate room for my office, of tall windows looking onto a park, and of a courtyard garden, where the two smallest residents of the co-op toddled after Easter eggs. Our building is community-minded; people leave warm muffins outside each other’s doors, and one neighbor lends us her golden retriever. Arline, retired, bakes and delivers loaves of sourdough bread. I am mindful of even more significant privileges – a job that can be done online, good healthcare in a city of medical specialists, a governor who is guided by scientists, and a representative in the House who advocates for immigrants, the homeless, and working people.
But all of those bright birds – cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds – float on our dining room table in a disturbingly inchoate space, empty and ragged. Our puzzle-making has slowed as we stare at tiny fragments of legs, beaks, and severed wings.
By mid April, people in my Facebook feed were sharing their experiences with the virus, but they were far away. And then we got the news that someone close to us had tested positive. Arline and I looked at each other across the dining room table. How had we been lulled into thinking we wouldn’t know anyone directly affected? Of course, we would. We kept in close touch with the family, and my jaw tightened again. We lay awake in the night, dragged through the days. One morning we stood in line at Costco during senior hour to buy the family groceries. Weeks later, one member of the family has recovered and others have fallen sick. Every day we are grateful that the news isn’t worse.
I sit occasionally, listening to a book or music, and squint at the pieces. I look for one with a tiny patch of blue or red, the piece that will fit right here, that will make this bird whole. Sometimes I find one and, as it clicks softly into place, the fear eases. More often, I try to force together pieces that don’t belong. Bent over, my back begins to ache. I stand, scan the table, and remind myself that this one will take a long time.