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Love, regret and picking up pieces of the puzzle

‘Do you have a receipt?”

The chic teen, leaning on the counter in a savvy bowtie and leather sports coat, made me wonder why a teacher with five years in and two master’s degrees made less money than a Nordstrom shoe clerk half my age.

He waited.

I shrugged. Then I clicked the silence button of the phone vibrating in my coat pocket.

“No problem. I’ll give you cash, or a gift card for ’em,” he said.

He saw my look of disbelief. “Don’t worry,” he added. “Whatever works.”

I liked the answer, almost as much as I doubted the viable business strategy of the line, “Whatever works.” I tapped the buzzing phone again.

Two things entered my mind while I hunkered under the store’s awning 20 minutes later, with a new pair of shoes on my feet and a receipt for the $45 difference I paid for them in my hand.

The first was a self-reminder to never again doubt Nordstrom’s ridiculous hassle-free exchange policy. The second came when my phone buzzed for a third time.

My mother’s voice was muffled by the sound of a motorcycle in the background. “Nana . . .”

“Can you repeat that? I can’t hear you.” I couldn’t hear her. I hate it when I can’t hear my mother.

My mother repeated. “Nana is on hospice.”

Moments like this live like a movie on pause. A frozen space above your head. Like you are frozen above your head.

You see, Nana is 96 years old. If we had a doubt in our minds that she was immortal, it left our thoughts sometime after her 92nd birthday. The drive to her house was always filled with the awkward anxiety over how I could possibly start a conversation with someone who was (literally) old enough to remember the beginning of time . . . zones.

“I’m not dead yet,” Nana responded in her typical fragile spunk.

“I know,” I chuckled. I sniffed up a sadness that suddenly felt out of character.

“How do you do that? Make me laugh when you’re dealing with all this.”

“I’m very much loved,” she said. “And I love back. You can’t get very far without love.”

Love wasn’t what I had in mind. Mine was regret. Two years had passed since I’d communicated with Nana and the rest of my family. No visits, no phone calls, no family dinners. All in an attempt to appease a girlfriend who’d more than once left me and a garbage bag of my clothes on the curb. Two years, and I was anxiously trying to pick up the pieces.

“Nana, I really hurt you. I didn’t mean to, but I really hurt you . . .”

“I really hate jigsaws,” Nana interrupted.

There was a point to this comment. There’s always a point. I took a breath. Then I smiled.

“I hate ‘em too.”

“I just don’t have the patience for all those hundreds of pieces,” she continued. “But you know, over time, I’m always impressed by what those pieces become.” Her wrinkled finger pointed to a fictional puzzle on a kitchen table inundated with half-ripped medical receipts, caregiver schedules scribbled on napkins and a binder of post-stroke mouth exercises.

I nodded my head.

“It’s just one piece. That one piece you can’t find a place for. But you put it aside for a while. Then one day . . .” Her blue eyes lit up. “It suddenly makes perfect sense.”

I choked on my words. “I’m really sorry I hurt you.”

“It’s OK. I knew you would come back one day.”

She said it so matter-of-factly.

“How did you know? I don’t get that.”

She put her veined hands on mine. “Because you know what love is, Mario. Because you were born to love. We all are.”

I lost it.

I punted for a subject-change that I couldn’t think of. And then, as if in retreat, I rested my head on her shoulder.

Something about that missing piece.

Mario Penalver has master’s degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. On Twitter at @astramario.