Julia, you see, was a veteran volunteer at the nursing home where I now spend a chunk of my waking hours. A relatively young widow, she first signed up with its Activities Director in 1993, not long after the place opened. She was 67 then. And she continued serving there, two days a week, for the next 20 years, until back pain and driving difficulties forced her to hang up her “volunteer” badge.
Julia is the reason that I became a volunteer there myself, because it was also in 1993 that my mother moved in and befriended her.
“Julia was here today,” my mom would often report during our nightly phone calls. “She was wearing the most beautiful outfit, and here’s what we talked about.” Occasionally she would add something along these lines: “Julia is so kind. If I’d known how lonely it can be living in an old-ladies home, I would have gone visiting at one myself.”
What else could I do, when my mother died in May of 2000, than report for volunteer duty the following week?
Within days, Julia's path and mine had crossed, and we soon began visiting residents together. We continued to do so for the next dozen years. In fact, except for my husband, I spent more time with her between 2000 and 2012 than I did with any other human being.
On the surface, our routine didn’t vary much. We would meet in the lobby at around 9:30 a.m. Julia always got there first, even though she’d be arrayed in full makeup, elaborate upswept hairdo, stand-out jewelry and the flowing blouses and skirts that she’d found at Good Will; she slept from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and so had plenty of morning time to put herself together. Perpetually running late, I would race into the lobby, disheveled and breathless, to find Julia sitting there regally, often immersed in conversation with an admirer or two. She usually had an empty, three-shelf utility cart at her side to transport my silk flower arrangements. “I thought I’d save us a little time,” she would explain unnecessarily, “and look at the nice cart I found!”
We became a familiar sight, the two of us strolling down the halls, flower-laden cart in tow, making frequent stops along the way – sometimes just to say hello and deliver a new arrangement, sometimes to sit a spell to read Scripture, share the Gospel, catch up on a resident’s family or medical news, look through yellowing photo albums, even to play a game of Scrabble.
Julia and I would have lunch with the Activities staff, eating whatever the residents were having that day. Re-energized, we’d continue on our way through the building. There were always a couple of crabby residents we stopped to see only because we were Christians serving the Lord; but mostly we got as much pleasure out of our visits as the residents themselves did.
Sometimes a special assignment would be added to our agenda – for instance, we were occasionally sent out to try to warm up a particularly recalcitrant new resident (Julia was a master at softening hearts). And sometimes we invented our own special assignments, as was the case when a new resident’s daughter started a weekly Bible study. Julia and I attended her opening session to evaluate her doctrine, and could tell within five minutes that the teacher was a closet Jehovah’s Witness determined to convert every last attendee; over the next few weeks, we raised biblical objection after biblical objection to her claims, until she finally gave up and left the theological training to the genuine biblicists who frequent the home.
What wonderful times Julia and I had together! And for me, there was an important bonus: She taught me everything I know about service and sacrifice, about kindness, about when to be silent and when to speak up.
Perhaps the most important lesson she left me with is this: For the Christian, volunteering at a nursing home is a ministry conducted on behalf of the Lord Himself, and it therefore deserves to be treated as a top priority in your life. Of course, stay home if you’re sick. Otherwise, as long as you’re able to do so, just show up. Be there even if you’re feeling tired, or useless, or have better things to do. Schedule your life around the nursing home, not vice versa. Short of being germ-laden yourself or being faced with a loved one’s medical emergency, there’s really no excuse for missing your appointed rounds.
That’s how Julia approached her own time at the nursing home, and she taught me to do the same.
It was in the autumn of 2013 when Julia headed home to her apartment for the last time. I didn’t really believe she wouldn’t be back again, but she knew; the Lord had whispered it to her heart. We still saw each other fairly often. I’d pick her up for lunch, even bring her to a volunteer party at the nursing home, but she never again walked those halls to visit her old friends. She was failing, physically and mentally. She soon moved in with a son, and our visits and phone calls became less frequent.
Around Christmas of 2014, my calls began to go unanswered and unreturned, and in late January 2015 a mutual friend from the nursing home called to say she’d seen Julia’s death notice in the local newspaper. It was a blessing, of course; she was home at last, rejoicing in the presence of her Lord and Savior forevermore. She’s more alive than we are now, and I’m sure her new life includes plenty of fellowship with friends and loved ones who've gone before. In that joyful group I include the many residents she called on over the years – most especially my mother. And so I’m eternally happy for Julia, and cannot wait to see her again.
But until then, oh, how I miss my dear old friend!