It is the year 2011. The hospital is an ugly and sombre place to be in at any time. It is so for visitors who come here for a few minutes then return back to their own comfortable homes. It is worse for patients who stay here for days or weeks or months and, often times, do not return back home.
The bright light from the hot mid-day sun filters inside through the large windows of the room where four patients lay in their beds. Some are surrounded by relatives giving them comfort. Others are alone, loneliness showing on their faces.
“Are you a relative of our patient Delia?” the nurse asked me. “Yes. I’m her son”, I reply. “I am afraid she is not well today”, she remarked. “Her health has deteriorated these last few hours. How old is she?” “Ninety six”, I reply in a subdued tone. “I think that you should inform the rest of the family to come and be with her at this moment. She is, you know, fading away slowly”, the nurse continued.
Our story now goes back eighty years. Joseph was a master craftsman, a man of many talents who could do anything with his hands. He hailed from the old town of Birgu which was the seat and the capital of the Knights of St. John after they arrived in Malta in 1530.
Until the years before the beginning of the Second World War, the people of Birgu were seafaring, earning their livelihood from small boats plying the harbour. But Joseph was different; he was good at school, had passed the Dockyard apprentices examination and was therefore employed at the Dockyard, then considered as the best employer on the island.
He had met Josephine some time after he had started working. She was from the nearby town of Bormla, the eldest of three sisters. Their father and their brother had emigrated to the United States some years back, leaving their mother to raise them up by herself, but with much love and fair discipline, as was common in most Maltese families in those days.
Besides the three sisters and their mother, the household consisted also of two aunts. As the master of the house was in another continent, thousands of miles away, Joseph was a frequent visitor at their house in the narrow many-stepped Strada Buongiorno, calling daily after a day’s work at the Dockyard. In these circumstances, being the only man in the house, he was always looked for to give advice, to carry out various works and to do other duties normally carried out by the man of the house.
As their courtship prospered, their love for each other grew so much that they were engaged to be married. Her mother and her sisters were delighted for Josephine. Joseph gave her a gold ring which she proudly and happily put on her finger signifying her devotion and love to him, as well as a promise to marry him and live happily together for evermore.
In Joseph’s eyes Josephine was beautiful. He believed that a beautiful person is not one who has a beautiful face or a beautiful figure, but one who has a beautiful character and a beautiful smile. He believed that the face and the figure are just the outward signs of your personality, while the character and smile are the inner signs of your own self. The face and the figure may deceive but the character and the smile show who the person really is.
Only a few weeks before they were to be married, tragedy struck. Josephine became ill and she got worse as the days passed. She knew that her days were numbered and that she would not, as she had ardently hoped, be a lifelong companion to Joseph.
He was always by her side, comforting her, giving her courage to beat her illness. He was a pillar of strength to her and to all the members of the family during this ordeal.
One day she felt that her end was near. She called her younger sister Delia and spoke to her about Joseph. She told her that he is a good and honest man and, if she could love him as she did, they would make a remarkable couple. Her love for this wonderful man and her dream of a life together with him would be carried on by her younger sister. Delia cried seeing her sister ebbing away slowly and painfully under her very eyes.
Josephine’s task was not yet finished. She called Joseph by her side and told him not to be afraid as she would be looking after him after her death. She told him about Delia, what a remarkable couple they would make. Before her last breath, as he held her in his arms and cried, she gave him back the gold ring he had given her some time before and told him, “It would look nice on Delia’s finger!” Those were her last words as she died, still in Joseph’s strong arms.
Days and weeks passed since this tragedy when all the members of the family, as well as Joseph, grew closer together during their bereavement. Although Joseph and Delia had been pushed towards each other by Josephine before she died, they found that they could relate naturally toward each other. They found solace in each other and love quickly blossomed between these two young persons.
They were eventually engaged and married in 1930. They set up home in Bormla and during their happy marriage had two sons and a daughter. The Second World War forced the family to evacuate to Rabat where they remained for three years. Their house in Bormla was destroyed by enemy bombs but the family held together for a new dawn when life could return back to normal.
After the end of the war they returned to Bormla, built their house again and continued their life together. Joseph, a happy and likable person, was loved by everybody. But the good Lord had other plans for him. He died in 1961 at the age of 56 after thirty years of a happy marriage to Delia. It was a tragic loss as he was the most important cog of the whole family.
It is 2011 again. My mother is in her death bed. The nurse calls me again. “She asked me to give this to her family”, she said as she placed a small folded tissue paper in my outstretched hands. Later, with other members of the family, I watched the last few moments of her 96 year life ebbing slowly and silently away.
Two days after her death, when she went to meet my father who had been waiting fifty years for her to rejoin him, I remembered the nurse’s words and slowly unfolded the tissue paper. There, in yellowish gold and shining bright, was the ring that my father had first given to Josephine and then to her sister, my mother, eighty years ago.
As I sat, sad and lonely in my chair, my mind, as it has a habit of doing, went a-roaming. Like a flash back from the past, I saw the whole story of the ring, as recounted to me by my mother herself many years ago, unfolding before my eyes. I marvelled at the role this small metallic object had played in the destiny of three good and gentle people.