If stress were a river, I’d be living on a houseboat. I don’t always realize when it’s coming; it gradually builds, and the next thing I know, my shoulders are up to the tops of my ears, I have knots in my neck, and it crawls up and makes a nice little migraine nest on my head. Worst of all, my mind won't shut off. And the thoughts bombarding me aren’t usually pleasant.
Recently, we made changes to Cowboy's medical protocol. The results were impressive - an unprecedented increase in focus when sounding out words while reading, more interest in reading, more initiating conversations with me, less impulsivity, and, most importantly, the best card playing skills he’s demonstrated to date. But, as often happens with autism, the good comes with the bad. Soon, the Dark Side of autism reared its ugly head, and full-blown anxiety was wreaking havoc with my son’s peace of mind. And mine. So, we prayed for guidance, tweaked his protocol again, and I, as well as Cowboy’s doctor, have spent hours researching how to help Cowboy regain balance.
Being a veteran of the Anxiety War fought in the trenches of autism, I knew what could come next for me. When Cowboy’s happy, Mama’s happy. When he’s anxious, well, I follow suit. But, unlike my bout with the Stress Monster several years ago, now I know better how to take care of myself. I increased my essential oils, to the point I was slithering across the living room floor. I deleted unnecessary items off my to-do list. I watched Friends. I watched Frasier. I practiced deep breathing, until a telemarketer accused me of being an obscene phone call answerer. Still, the shaking under my skin remained – one of my signs of high anxiety. I needed a distraction. Something different. Something to take my mind off glaring reality.
Several weeks prior, Cowboy and I made a trip to a thrift store, which is rare; I don’t usually have the time it takes to look through everything. After picking out a couple of books, we found the game and toy aisle. I was thrilled to find so many brand new games; in our closet full of 250 games, there's always room for one more. Cowboy picked out a couple of things, then I found a jigsaw puzzle. It had been years since I’d worked one.
Growing up, I loved puzzles. Mom's last-supper-sized dining room table had plenty of room for a puzzle-in-progress, with enough room left over to eat at the table. She also had a smaller kitchen table, just in case more places were needed for eating. So, the puzzle could stay out for weeks. But at my house, things are different. We have one regular-sized table for eating. Of course, being the epitome of Norman Rockwell’s family-themed paintings, we usually use TV trays. So, there would be no problem working the 1000-piece puzzle on my dining room table.
The picture on the front of the box showed scenes from several Pixar movies, all in one puzzle. No big deal, I thought. It’s Pixar, so it’s kid-friendly. Cowboy will love it.
And so, a couple of weeks later, when my StressFest was in full bloom, I knew it was time to start our masterpiece. Working with his hands helps Cowboy calm, and I thought it would do the same for me.
I decided to forego the dining room table, in case we got a wild hair and decided to eat there. But mostly, I decided that sitting in the dining room, which is approximately three feet behind the couch, would not be as warm as sitting on the couch while working. The temperature outside was a balmy 68 degrees, so survival skills were at full bore. I pulled our long folding table out of the garage, and set it up in front of the couch. Which took up one-third of the living room. Everyone, meaning Flash, would have to adjust.
“Cowboy,” I asked, “would you like to do our new puzzle?”
“Yes,” he answered.
I pulled out the puzzle, and proceeded to dump all the pieces onto the table. We began flipping pieces and sorting them by color.
“Wow, Cowboy,” I said as I looked at the box lid picture, again, “a lot of these movie clips have similar colors.” This might be a little more challenging than I thought, I warned myself. The more we tried to determine which shades of colors went with which movie scenes, the more I thought perhaps the puzzle creator was passive-aggressive. We made an edge-piece pile, but two hours later, we still didn't have even an eighth of the edge done.
It was then I declared, “Okay, Cowboy, we’re not doing edges first this time. There’s no law that says we have to,” although I pictured Mom in heaven, shaking her head at the idea; she was always an edgy person.
Every time Cowboy or I found two pieces that fit together, it was a celebration that rivaled the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. When Flash came home that day, he found Cowboy watching a movie, and me, still in my pajamas, staring blankly at the 1,000,000,000-piece puzzle in front of me.
“You want to help?” I asked Flash cheerfully, hoping for any assistance I could garner from a third person. Earlier in the day, I’d contemplated inviting our friendly mail carrier lady in to help us out.
“Oh no,” Flash said, making a sign of a cross before him as if he were warding away a vampire. “Those things stress me out.”
“Really? They relax me.” Which was true. As long as I concentrated on the puzzle, which took me into an otherworldly trance, I didn't think about any problems or stress at hand. My biggest problem was finding the red piece that fit into another red piece that looked like the other 500 red pieces. I wished that all my problems could be puzzle related from then on.
Every day and night, I worked on that puzzle. For six days, I labored. Cowboy had moved on, joining the rest of the human race in the land of the living. Occasionally, I would ask him if he wanted to help some more, and he would oblige. But when the puzzle going got tough, he’d eventually quit after three hours or so. Lightweight. It was clear that I was on my own.
“It's Pixar, for Pete's sake,” I explained to Flash on Day 7. “That means it caters to children. Why is this the hardest puzzle I've ever done? Where are the genius 8-to-10-year-old children who could have done this in one or two days? At this rate, I’ll be taking this sucker to the grave with me.”
To make things more difficult, the puzzle included two different scenes from Toy Story movies. One was from Toy Story, the other from Toy Story 2. Which meant there were two pictures of Woody and two pictures of Buzz Lightyear. And the green colors in A Bug's Life looked a lot like the greens in Monsters, Inc. Someone in Puzzle Land has a cruel sense of humor. Eventually, Cowboy lost interest completely. Either he got bored, or he was a little afraid of my obsession with my stress-relieving activity.
Finally, on Day 10, the heavens parted, and the Lord of the Jigsaws smiled upon me as I put the last piece into the puzzle.
“Cowboy, do you want me to put this back in the box?” I asked a week later, after conducting a formal viewing for any who wished to see my equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel work.
Cowboy shook his head and said, "No."
“Do you want me to hang it on the wall? I asked
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay, let me look for my puzzle glue,” I replied.
But, dear reader, I had no idea where the puzzle glue was. And, because getting more glue would have involved getting out of my warm cocoon and driving to the store on yet another arctic day, the puzzle remained on the folding table for the next five days.
In the meantime, I needed another project. So I pulled out an old Peanuts puzzle that had been Mom’s. It’s a different type of puzzle; the pieces at the bottom are large, and the pieces in the middle and at the top are smaller. The picture is of Charlie Brown and his gang, including Snoopy on top of his doghouse. The background is trees, grass, and blue sky. One picture. No multiple scenes with similar colors. It would be a piece of cake.
“Cowboy,” I asked “would you like to do another puzzle?”
“Yes,” he said.
Once again, we were flipping pieces and sorting by colors, on the half of the folding table that wasn’t covered by the first puzzle. But by Day 4, we needed more room. So I moved the Peanuts gang to the dining room table. At which time, Flash decided he wanted to eat at the table that night. So I slid it onto the back of a Wahoo board so I could transport it throughout the house. Of course, Cowboy had found other, less complicated entertainment for himself. Like Charlie Brown so often is, I was on my own.
As I sat on my bed attempting to put together another children's puzzle, my back hurt from bending over the board. There was nowhere else to do this puzzle except on the folding table.
“Cowboy do you still want me to put this Pixar puzzle on the wall?” I asked, hoping he’d say no.
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you sure you don't want me to put in the box?”
“No,” he repeated.
“Okay, well, I still don’t have puzzle glue, and I need the folding table for this other puzzle. Are you sure we can’t put it in the box?” I nagged. I was a desperate woman; I had no other thoughts than finishing that Peanuts puzzle, to avoid thinking about anything else.
And so, being a wonderful mother, I assured Cowboy that if we took the Pixar puzzle apart, I would put it together again and glue it, and we would hang it on his wall. What I didn't say was that it would probably be in the next decade or so. Cowboy seemed to enjoy tearing apart the masterpiece, most probably so I would shut up about it.
On Day 7 of Peanuts, I was tired of sitting on the couch. There were two too many people in the living room watching the most uninteresting shows imaginable; I needed to be alone with my craft. And the folding table was starting to get in the way. When company dropped by one day, we had to move the table up against our credenza, just so guests could sit in the living room. So, once again, the puzzle went back to the Wahoo board, where it remains. I carry it around the house and in the car while I run errands.
Fourteen days have passed since I began the Second Puzzle of 2019. Lucy, Linus, Charlie Brown, Sally, Schroeder, and Snoopy are intact. But, after listening to countless episodes of Columbo while I worked, neglecting making many dinners, and seldom traveling the road to my shower, it remains unfinished. Right now, it’s sitting in the guest room until I can bear to look at that never-ending blue sky. I had to take a break from it; it was starting to stress me out.
At times, my houseboat still tosses and turns. Cowboy has improved some; I’m still experiencing residual effects. But it’ll be okay; Charlie Brown and his friends are waiting for me. So quiet, so patient, waiting for my problem-solving skills that don’t involve anyone's health. No medical research. No consequences other than going to bed with some of the pieces not yet joined. I'm in no hurry. One day, I'll finish the World's Largest Jigsaw Sky, and it will be over. If for any reason I need it done sooner, I'll find a couple of toddlers to help me finish it.
And then, I'll move onto a new puzzle. Maybe Bugs Bunny or Scooby-Doo. Anything without a sky. Or maybe a chunky wooden puzzle, with each piece having a small wooden peg attached to it, for easy lifting. Whatever it takes to keep my hands busy, my stress at bay, and my mind quieter.