Jigsaw puzzles have been selling like hotcakes. I’m tempted by the hotcakes, but I’d probably be better off doing a jigsaw, pandemic weight gain being what it is. I gave a 1,000-piece puzzle to my son for his last birthday. This was BCV (before coronavirus) but it has since come in handy as he, like the rest of us, is looking for something soothing to occupy his mind. Jigsaws have the odor of convalescence. My father and I used to do them on a bridge table when I was 15, home sick with hepatitis, my skin jaundiced and peeling. Daddy was a stamp collector, so he had the necessary eyesight and patience for detail. Me, I was never all that keen on looking for the straight-edged blue of the border pieces with puffy clouds that you could string together to create the sky over Paris. Now, reconstructing the broken world on a table seems all too appropriate. When the puzzle is complete, I can see the horse-chestnut trees along the Champs-Elysees. I can reassemble the fragments into one satisfying whole. In what other world does everything fit together so perfectly?
Each of us is a part of the puzzle. The little rounded male of us inserts itself into the gaping female of the adjoining piece. Now the picture is somewhat more complete. This is what I’m learning from the pandemic. Each person brings an essential quality, a color, a shape to the complex weave of the corona carpet. Without the person furiously baking pecan pies, the picture would not be complete. Without the person swimming in disinfectant, the picture would not be complete. And without the person sitting in perfect stillness, the picture would not be complete. We are all essential workers laboring in spirit together, crafting our own offerings out of vigilance and lovingkindness. As Pope Francis has written, “rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit.”
This morning, I was thinking in particular about my friend Virginia, a precious piece of the puzzle. I haven’t seen her since she moved to an assisted living facility in New Jersey about 18 months ago. In 1998, when I first met Virginia, an irreverent Irish Catholic spiritual director, I was lost in the wilderness. She seduced me with her streetwise, almost belligerent style, inviting me into an encounter with the sacred that was as honest and direct as she was. Virginia and I began looking for God together, turning over rocks and searching high in the branches of flowering trees. We dug down into family stories, meeting every few weeks for more than 15 years to talk about the inner life. I was born into a secular Jewish household and initially found the subject unfamiliar and embarrassing. We did not do God where I come from. But Virginia was matter-of-fact. God was an old friend she wanted to introduce me to, to make a shidduch, an arranged marriage. She was not at all like a proselytizing zealot, more like someone extending an invitation to the best party in town. I couldn’t get enough of her.
Months ago Virginia, now 88, stopped picking up the phone in her room. I would connect to the nurses’ station and they would wheel her out to take the call. I knew that was no longer possible in the time of corona, but I hoped they had a phone they could bring in to her this morning. The nurse said no, I needed to call the family for information. I said I wasn’t really looking for information; I just wanted to say hello and tell my dear friend that I love her. Again she turned me down and added ominously that Virginia wasn’t there. Virginia, her daughter later explained, had tested positive for COVID-19. She is in the ER, all alone, blind and bewildered. There is nothing anyone can do.
The puzzle feels incomplete without Virginia’s audacity and grit, her capacity for making common cause with a person like me — so different, so unlikely. She marched out of Easthampton, Massachusetts, a mill town studded with churches for the Irish, churches for the French, and embraced me, a Jew from New York. She said I was a natural. We shared an understanding that was outside of history.
Once years ago, I brought her to a Jewish Renewal shabbat service in Manhattan attended by 800 people. Afterwards, inspired by the sight of all the davveners swaying in their talitot, the men and women sitting together, she went up to Reb Zalman of blessed memory and said in a voice right out of Fenway “you made one Irish Catholic girl very happy.” And Zalman said, in his cozy shtetl-inflected diction, “sometimes it heppens.”