Julia entered the nursing home, signed in on the volunteer form, and then, as was her custom, made her way to the chapel on the first floor. Ever since she had started volunteering there several years earlier, she had made a habit of stopping by to pay a short visit before embarking on her visits. Part of it was upbringing. Her mother took her to visits to Church all the time when she was little. They would go, spend a few minutes, light a candle and pray. She had always loved the quiet and peace she had found in those moments.
Part of it was fear. She loved to come and visit the residents, read to them, and listen to their stories. It gave her life a small sense of purpose and she was happy to help, but it took all of her courage to walk into those rooms. As she herself aged, she found it even harder. No longer was she an indestructible young woman. Well into her thirties, she knew that the years passed by like a speeding train and that this was what life might hold for you as you headed for your final destination. In the resident’s faces, she saw her own future. Time passed quickly and it scared her to death.
And so, she sat in the quiet and prayed for the strength to help bring some comfort to those who were lonely and suffering. She then picked up her stack of books and climbed the stairs to the third floor.
At the top of the stairs, she punched in the security code, unlocking the door, and entered the dementia ward. This was the hardest floor to visit, but Sr. Elaine, the volunteer coordinator, had assigned her one resident up here to visit with.
Julia rushed through the entry room. A few residents sat near the nurse’s station. Some stared into space. Others cried out to her, thinking her some long-lost friend or relative coming to visit. She kept her head down, avoiding eye contact. She never knew how to respond.
“Good evening, Julia.” Charlie, the nurse on duty, greeted her in his polite southern drawl. “How nice of you to join us this evening.”
“How are you doing tonight?”
“Can’t complain,” he smiled. “It’s a beautiful day and praise the Lord, I’m here to see it.”
“I don’t know how you do it. Every time I see you, you’re always so happy.” She looked around at the residents. “I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
“God’s in his heaven. What do I have to be sad about? My being sad isn’t going to help these people any.” Charlie radiated joy. Julia couldn’t help but smile.
“Going to see Miss Jennie?” he asked.
“She’ll be happy to see you. It’s the highlight of her day when you come.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Jennie, short for Eugenie, had been a stage actress when she was young. She had a special love of English literature. It was for this reason that Sr. Elaine felt that Julia would be the perfect volunteer to visit with her. Jennie never said much, nor did she remember Julia from visit to visit, but twice a week she would come and introduce herself and read to her from Jane Austen or Shakespeare and Jennie would close her eyes and smile and sometimes say the lines she had long ago memorized out loud, accompanying Julia while she read.
They were currently making their way through Sense and Sensibility. Julia was more than happy to spend some time reading about the plight of the Dashwood sisters. After reading for almost an hour, Julia wrapped up chapter eight and closed the book.
“That’s all we have time for this evening. I’ll see you on Thursday.”
“Oh, yes, dear, that would be nice.”
As Julia exited the room, she looked back and saw Jennie staring out the window at the evening sky. Julia walked with a purposeful stride toward the exit.
“See you next time,” Charlie beamed at her.
“Not if I see you first,” Julia said. Charlie laughed.
She was almost to the door when a hand reached out and grabbed her right arm.
“Where did you get my ring?”
Julia tried to release her arm to no avail. She looked up into the dark eyes of the white-haired woman who had latched onto her with a force completely incompatible with her frail appearance.
“I asked you, where did you get that ring?”
“It was my grandmother’s,” Julia stammered.
“No, it most certainly was not. It is mine. Joe gave me that ring.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you are talking about.” She still couldn’t loosen the woman’s grip on her arm.
“Miss Elizabeth, you need to calm down.” Julia was so relieved to hear Charlie’s voice. “Let go of her arm.”
“But, she stole my ring.”
“No, she didn’t. It’s her ring. Please let her go.”
Julia relaxed as Elizabeth released her powerful grip.
“My Joe gave me that ring. He’s going to come back for me,” she insisted.
“I’m sorry,” Julia said as she started slowly backing up.
When she felt she was at a safe distance, she spoke to Charlie.
“Thank you. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Is your arm alright? It looked like she was squeezing mighty tight.”
Julia rubbed it. “Yeah, it will be fine.” She looked over at Elizabeth, who was sobbing with her head in her hands. “Will she be okay?”
“She’ll be fine. Her anger has passed. She’s just sad now.”
“I feel so bad. I didn’t mean to upset her.” She fingered her ring. “She must have had a ring that looked like this.”
“Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow, she won’t even remember.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t really make it better, does it?”
“No,” Charlie shook his head, “I suppose it doesn’t.”
“Do you know who Joe is?” Julia asked. “Was he her husband?”
“No, I’ve never heard her mention him before. She never married. No family ever comes to see her.” He paused. “No one ever comes to see her.”
“That is so sad.”
“That’s just the way it is – even with the ones who do have families. This floor doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors.”
Julia took a last look at Elizabeth, who was slumped over in her chair, and glanced at her watch. “I need to be going. I’m late for my next visit on the second floor.”
“Let me walk you to the door,” Charlie offered.
Julia nodded and they made their way to the exit. As they walked by Elizabeth, Julia heard her whisper through her tears. “That ring is mine. I don’t know who you are or how you got it, but when the war is over, Joe will come home to me.”
From The Rose Ring