I didn’t know Julia well.
The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the far end of the table around which our language class met. Although I knew the instructor, Chiara, it was my first day with this group of students who for years had gathered in Chiara’s dining room to discuss classic books in Italian.
That day I was the last one to arrive, and when I entered the room the group was already engaged in friendly pre-class conversation. As I took my seat, six pairs of eyes looked up at me, six mouths chorused “Piacere” with American twangs, and six hands reached across the table to shake mine.
But the person I noticed most was Julia, a trim woman about my age with a strawberry bob and a smile like a lamp.
Since I was new to the class, Chiara asked the veterans to introduce themselves: Filippo, Becca, Davide, Laura, Carla—all genial, interesting people who loved everything Italian.
But again, it was Julia who drew me. A psychologist with a PhD, she seemed warm, spoke Italian perfectly, listened to others with attention, as if they were the center of her world. Of all the members of the group, she was the one I hoped to make my friend.
Before turning to the novel we were reading, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, Chiara asked us students what we’d thought of our first assignment. Several confessed they had busy lives and for them the week’s reading was too lengthy—seventy pages requiring eight to twelve hours. But Julia said she’d had no problem—she’d even read ahead—having too few diversions in her life and too much time on her hands.
Really? A woman like her?
We discussed La Storia for a couple of hours. It focuses on the life of Ida, a Roman widow who carries many crosses: epilepsy, rape, single motherhood, a half-Jewish pedigree during World War Two, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death of two young sons. Ida’s a very complex character, and Julia zealously engaged in our analysis of her. She seemed to identify with Ida, her voice becoming gentle whenever she mentioned her name.
When class ended, everyone stood up, that is, everyone but Julia, and a man I hadn’t seen before entered the room. “Ciao Roy,” the others said while packing their belongings. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, Roy nodded and smiled, then made a beeline to Julia. From her chair, Julia looked up at him, and from his height, Roy looked down at her. That’s when I first saw it: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.
“You doing okay?” Roy said as pushed her chair from the table. “Yes,” she smiled. Then he slid his arms under her thighs, and with her shoulder leaning on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder, he tenderly picked her up, carried her out of the room, through the front door, and down the porch steps.
Outside, a wheelchair had been parked and Roy settled Julia in it, making sure she was comfortable. Then he wheeled her to a waiting car and slid her into the passenger seat. After stowing the wheelchair, Roy climbed into the car and sped way.
I was shocked. How could Julia be in a wheelchair? Such a smart, sparkling person. How unjust it seemed. No wonder she identified with Ida. She too carried a cross. No wonder she welcomed distractions. She was trapped in a metal chair.
Chiara told me her story. Julia and Roy had been married more than thirty years. They had met in a dance class in their twenties and become inseparable. They’d always led an active life, doing everything together—dancing, walking, running, watching movies, traveling in Italy.
But when Julia was in her fifties, her legs began to tingle. Over time they progressively weakened, becoming paralyzed. Her doctors diagnosed a syndrome that could potentially interfere with her breathing and eventually take her life.
Her case, though, wasn’t wholly hopeless. Many people with the same syndrome survive and recover completely. Since that could take weeks, months, or years, Roy and Julia were optimistic. Maybe she would be among the lucky ones.
Still, at the moment, Julia needed full-time care and Roy provided it. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her, did all the household chores. He carried her to the toilet, onto the airplane for vacations, and into Chiara’s house for class. And each time I saw her in his arms, I was moved by their obvious affection, the way she nuzzled against him, the way he rested his chin on her head.
How I wished I could wave a magic wand and cure Julia’s illness. How I wished I could see her stand and walk hand-in-hand with Roy.
But I didn’t have a magic wand. So I resolved to say a prayer for Roy and Julia at the base of the Cruz de Ferro when I walked The Way of Saint James.
The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to reach the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some do it for sport, others for contemplation, others to pray for miracles. In September 2013 my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We began our walk in León, trekking 200 miles in twelve days.
Our first day ended in Hospital de Órbigo, a village with an arched Gothic bridge, our second took us to Astorga, a small city with a gorgeous Gaudí palace, and our third finished in Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square.
On the fourth day of our Camino, we rose before dawn and departed Rabanal. As we walked a country road beneath the moon and stars, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.
We arrived in a village called Foncebadón. There, in the eleventh century, a hermit named Gaucelmo had built a hospital, hospice, and church for the pilgrims on the Camino, but these had fallen into ruins, which we passed as we left town.
By midmorning the day was growing hot, and we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a thirty-foot, weathered, wooden mast that marks the highest point of the Camino. According to tradition, Gaucelmo had built the cross too.
The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by a hillock of stones amassed through the years by pilgrims who perform a special ritual there. They bring a stone from their homeland, or one they’ve picked up along The Way, and add it to the hummock.
Each stone is symbol of a burden a pilgrim wants to leave behind before leaving the Cruz de Ferro and beginning life afresh. Some stones have messages written on them, others the names of towns or people. Some have paper notes or photos tied to them, others stuffed bunnies or bears.
I’d come prepared for this moment. From my backpack I sifted a pebble I’d brought from my garden at home. Holding it in one hand, I climbed the hillock of stones, which shifted and clinked beneath my feet. When I reached the base of the mast, I looked up along its length at the turquoise sky. There, high above my head, the iron cross glinted hazy in the sunlight making me squint my eyes.
I kneeled at the base of the mast, pressing my forehead on the wood. I thanked God that I had legs to walk and vowed to finish the Camino for Julia, whose legs no longer worked. I prayed for Julia’s healing, that she could soon leave behind her wheelchair, symbolized my stone. Then I placed my stone among the others, stood, and descended the mound.
There, at the bottom of the hillock, I saw a young woman and man who had just arrived. They were standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming although they were smiling, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. That’s when I saw it once again: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.
I didn’t know the couple’s story and I didn’t need to. For me, they were Julia and Roy, the way they’d been before the wheelchair, the way I’d prayed they’d be again.
I never told Julia or Roy about the Cruz de Ferro, prayer, or stone. I never tried to befriend them; the timing seemed all wrong. But I continued to go to Italian, each week more moved by their bond.
One day towards the end of class, Julia was commenting on a character when she began coughing and gasping. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring around at us in terror. Someone grabbed a glass of water, another took her by the shoulders and tried to calm her down, another seized a phone.
Roy arrived at that moment, and the rest of us moved to the sides. He crouched before his wife, looking straight into her eyes. He asked her to match his respiration—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—as husbands often do with Lamaze. Soon Julia was breathing, and Roy carried her away.
They never came to class again. Julia died, her breathing having failed her, six months after my Camino.
I don’t picture death, though, when I think of Julia and Roy. Instead, I see them standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming as they smile, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. The sun shining overhead, the wheelchair now discarded, they are free from their iron cross.
First published in Good Letters.