PIECE 53—OTHERS, PUZZLED
Late Christmas afternoon, Steve, Daniel, David and I went to my dad’s home to visit him and his wife for the holiday for our annual gift exchange. Two of my sisters, Dora and Sally, and Sally’s husband Kevin joined us. Everyone sat around chatting in different rooms.
My sister Dora and I were in the kitchen assembling a complex new coffee machine we had given my dad. When we figured out how to operate it successfully and brewed a single cup of cappuccino, we went into the family room to join my dad at the table where Daniel seemed to be working on a jigsaw puzzle.
Earlier in the month, I had given my dad the 1500 piece “Proverbidioms” jigsaw puzzle for his birthday. I had searched for and found it through the internet. I had seen a poster of the same image at The Program. They used it with the guys a few times to discuss illogical phrases, such as: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” (The puzzle image pictured a woman literally reaching inside a man’s ribs with her arm in up to her elbow.) It illustrated hundreds of other idioms that are especially difficult for people like Daniel to process.
Dad seemed to love the puzzle, especially its subject matter of the proverbs and idioms. It was a hit at his birthday party, all of his thirteen grandchildren gathered around the image identifying phrases from the little scenes. My dad, my sisters and I enjoy working jigsaw puzzles together; it’s the only activity I can think of that keeps my sports-loving, always active dad still for an hour so we can actually get in a good visit with him!
I felt pressured to get that puzzle completed ASAP. We were overwhelmed by a puzzle of 1500 pieces; I usually preferred simpler puzzles with 300 or 500 pieces; 750 at the most!
My sister Dora had spent Christmas Eve at dad and Babe’s house. Maybe Dora had also felt the unspoken pressure to help complete the jigsaw “chore.” She and Dad had already spent hours on the puzzle. The two of them had laid out about half the pieces in a determined arrangement. They had placed the straight-edged pieces around the outside border, the dark pieces to the left, light pieces to the right, and pieces with recognizable images near the top. It was obvious there was an orderly plan underway.
After 15 or 20 minutes of our idle chit-chat, Dora suddenly realized that the puzzle-in-progress looked substantially different than she had left it. She noticed that Daniel, instead of collaborating with the team and contributing productively to the process, had decided to start from scratch and apply his own idiosyncratic method. He had removed most of the pieces from the table and combined them back into the box to sift through, along with the other 1000 loose pieces. He was starting a fresh mound of what he considered to be significantly identifiable images.
Dora’s cheeks flushed; she was livid. She stood up, speechlessly gesturing and stammering, attempting to explain the perfect logic of what their intended method had been. She gasped and exhaled in frustration at the destruction of her efforts.
Daniel, never glancing up, showing no remorse, said “I probably messed it up.” He continued with his sorting method.
My instinct was to calm Dora, to soothe her, to gently rub her shoulders and say, “That’s all right, there, there. It’s just a game. It’s just a puzzle. Don’t get so upset.” At the same time I realized I felt as aggravated as she did. How idiotic Daniel had been! How stupid he was to change what someone else had started without asking permission or even announcing his intent to sort through the puzzle.
Dora stormed out of the room, furious, obviously needing time to seethe. I felt embarrassed, exasperated, and responsible for making it all better. I wanted to “fix” it. I wanted to say “I’ll stay all night and put it back the way it was.” I wanted to heal the wounds. My habitual response was to play the family peacemaker. Instead, I watched myself practice my newly learned behavior of “staying out of it;” of “minding my own business.” I didn’t say a word to try to intervene or to manipulate. I just sat there feeling sheepish. The room was quiet. The only sound was Daniel rattling pieces as he shook the puzzle box.
After a while, Steve wandered in from the other room. He sat down at our table. I was flipping through a magazine. Dad was reading his book. Daniel was arranging puzzle pieces. I explained to Steve that Daniel had changed the puzzle as it was in progress and that Dora had left the room in anger.
Steve (Clueless Character #2), instead of parentally correcting Daniel’s errant childish behavior, laughed aloud! He joked about how that’s how jigsaw puzzles should be… everyone comes in and revises what the last person has done. He rambled on and on, inventing rules for his creative new game. I wanted to punch him in the nose.
More time passed with everyone doing their own thing. I continued to feel awkward until it was time to go home. Steve and Daniel said goodbye and waited for me in the car.
I apologized to Dad. “Sorry about the puzzle. I don’t know why Daniel did that.”
He shook his head quietly, “Oh, that’s okay, no big deal.” He kissed my cheek and hugged me goodbye.
When the three of us, Daniel, Steve and I, sat down for dinner that night, Daniel told Steve, “Wow, Dora was really angry at me. I might need to make some sort of peace offering.”
Steve asked incredulously, “Was she really mad?” Again, I resisted the impulse to punch Steve in the nose.
Inside, I was pleased, no, relieved, that Daniel was actually aware of Dora’s emotional response and that he comprehended somewhat the intensity of her anger. I was glad that he mentioned he should take a step to make amends. I suggested, “Daniel, you could just apologize to her.”
He shook his head firmly and said, “No. I’m not going to apologize.” He gave an adamant stare and continued to eat.
Puzzled, I dropped the subject. The conversation changed, but I continued to wonder… What did Daniel mean “make a peace offering” if it didn’t include an apology?
The next day when I saw Dora I asked her how she was doing.
“I’m tired. I didn’t sleep very well.”
“You didn’t? I’m sorry to hear that. Was it the bed?”
She shook her head no.
“Was it being away from home, in an unfamiliar room?”
“Was it something you ate for dinner last night that upset your stomach?”
She muttered “no” and hung her head. Eventually it came out that she had tossed and turned about the puzzle incident. “I know I shouldn’t have gotten so mad and I shouldn’t have been so angry toward Daniel. But all during the night I was thinking about you and how what happened with the puzzle was only a tiny fraction of what you’ve endured.”
“Yup, that’s my life.”
It was as if a metaphorical light bulb had appeared above her head powering on her understanding of Asperger syndrome for the first time. It was like she finally had a grasp of what this condition is about.
She continued to mumble about it, trying to put words to it… “But he’s so intelligent. It’s not that he’s retarded.”
I said, “Yes, in some ways he is retarded, if you are using the word in its literal meaning—which is ‘slow.’”
She said, “Well, I mean, he doesn’t have a low IQ, like, he doesn’t have a mental handicap.”
I said, “Right, but he’s both. He’s intellectually gifted and he’s socially disabled.”
Over the last few years, I had spent hours and hours trying to explain Daniel and Asperger syndrome to Dora. She doesn’t have any children of her own, but she is a devoted and very involved aunt. She adores her nieces and nephews, including Daniel and David. I always assumed she understood. I have given her examples. I have explained things in detail. She listens attentively. But I realized she still had no idea what I meant until an incident happened directly to her. It was like all the language in the world had floated by her without impact. It took a personal experience for it to make sense.
Isn’t it ironic that all this came about because of a jigsaw puzzle, which is a symbol commonly used to represent autism?
Daniel’s Answers (Age 29)
“Her response was blown out of proportion. I mean, it’s a game! Not even just a game, but a puzzle, that there is no right way to do it. It’s the only game that doesn’t have rules, and yet we have to impose rules on it! It’s the only board game you can purchase that doesn’t have a set of rules that come with it.”
[Why do you think you didn’t want to apologize to her later?]
“This is another example of instead of not talking about stuff, to just talk about it.” [When it happens.]
© Nilla Childs 2012