I recently had the honor of attending the ‘celebration of life’ gathering for my wife’s grandmother, Ruth. Ruth was an amazing, 97 year old, woman, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. As you can imagine, a life spanning 97 years makes many connections, creating a great ‘ripple of Ruth’ extending out to all she touched. I got to hear many stories from those she connected with along her path. Among the things Ruth enjoyed were puzzles. There were many puzzles at the gathering, and as I heard about all the different ways Ruth influenced the lives of others, the puzzles kept coming back to my mind.
The following day, my wife and kids became engrossed in some of Ruth’s puzzles. There was a rare quiet in a house with five people, including three young kids. I mentioned to my wife that it felt like the spirit of Ruth was quite alive as they quietly searched for each puzzle piece. Watching my family enjoy the quiet focus of their puzzles, I was drawn back to the many pictures, stories, and people, that were still fresh in my mind from the celebration of life.
For those of us still living our lives, those grieving for Ruth, missing her physical presence in our lives, or just trying to make sense of our day to day, we have no picture of the puzzle we are building. The individual pieces of our lives often make no sense in real time. The pieces might seem scattered, as if they don’t belong. Perhaps we constantly fear that some pieces are even missing, and some, of course, are. I imagine that Ruth, having been so active, taking care of a large family, guiding her own life, and the lives of so many others, through many experiences, found some peace in working on puzzles that had a picture to guide one to completion. I imagine that, for someone who had lived the great puzzles of her life with grace and love, the urge to continue the work of the puzzle was still there, but the unknown, the drama of it all, was not necessary for her.
Again, for those of us still here, the drama of the unfolding puzzle is all too real. How many pieces I could list if we had the time and space- all the things that make up the puzzle of our lives. Health, finances, family, all the great unknowns….one could go on seemingly forever. And, of course, there are puzzles within puzzles we are constantly shifting to, and from, as we navigate our daily lives. We make our way through innumerable smaller challenges as we simultaneously keep one eye on the bigger picture.
Ruth’s life, and her passing, are part of the infinite puzzle, her own puzzle within the great puzzle. All those moments in her life, moments I’m sure even she just couldn’t see past, came together to create a grand picture of her life, which we all came to celebrate, and tell stories of, from within our own. Think, for a moment, of all the amazing ways that we are all interwoven with each other, totally interconnected even when we may feel, at times, like an isolated individual. Our influences on others, and our being influenced by others, is inescapable.
As the stillness and silence of my family’s focus on their own puzzles focused my thoughts back to Ruth’s life, the end of her life, where she might be at this moment, all the different people and perspectives that made a great celebration of the person whom we all know, it was so easy to see that Ruth’s puzzle will never end. Right there at my dining room table, there was proof that Ruth’s puzzle will continue on. Our own puzzles will continue on.
As I said earlier, Ruth was not just a grandmother. Ruth was also a daughter, continuing the puzzles of so many who made her own possible. Beyond name, race, culture, or whatever other divisions we are often subject to, Ruth is connected by puzzles upon puzzles going back too far for us to easily comprehend. As a newborn daughter, Ruth continued the great puzzle. As a mother, she brought more into the world. And so the beauty of her past, present, and future are without an end.
From this perspective, even in the grief that is inevitable when someone is no longer alive with us in the traditional sense, how beautiful it was to see Ruth everywhere among those who came to celebrate her. From every story, person, smile, picture, every piece of the puzzle she created in this life, there was Ruth. Her creation was alive, still being built with us, even if, physically, she could not be.
This is not meant to diminish the pain of losing Ruth’s physical presence among us. The pain and grief of loss, no doubt, are part of each person’s puzzle. They can often cause us to hold on tight to one puzzle piece, not realizing the puzzle cannot go on until one let’s go of it. We fear that letting go will be a confirmation of the loss, a tacit approval of a pain we don’t want to accept, until we realize that putting the piece in its place, continuing the puzzle, is the only way to truly find what it is we’re really looking for.
Ruth, in her younger life, was a teacher. Students, from quite a long time ago, upon hearing of her passing, wrote about their beloved former teacher, a true testament to her affect on others. How incredible it is that Ruth is still teaching, still an ever present part of the great puzzle. I pray that for anyone feeling lost, in pain, grieving, searching in any way for a teacher, that Ruth is present for you, right here, in one small piece of the puzzle that connects us all.