Mending The Broken Ring
He was all alone. He was good at pushing other people away, and didn’t have any friends in the unit where he lived. School was a battleground, too, with him struggling with his classes and his teachers. Much of life was just a big disappointment. It always had been, I sensed, in listening to him talk about his life, as we played our games of gin rummy every week.
No one had come to see him these last several years, and family wasn’t part of his life anymore.
Several of the prison staff had asked me to start coming in to see him. I’m a volunteer. Mentor, I’m called, but my real job title is Listener.
One hard day, he was almost in tears, and even during our visit, he was shouting out insults and snarky comments to the other guys in the unit, and a staff member who stopped to say hi.
“What can I do?” I asked. “Looks like you need a little help in getting along with everyone.”
“Oh, I’m OK,” he said. He looked down at the table, and a tear rolled down his cheek.
“Just play cards with me,” he said. “That would be great.”
Just be my friend, that’s what I heard from this man child, who was trying hard not to throw down the cards and break into a long howl of misery.
I shuffled the cards and dealt a hand. He wiped his tear away and picked up his cards. He had a good hand, beating me handily. A smile crept across his face, and he looked at me.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re a good man,” I said. “I like to come see you.”
He nodded, his eyes glistening again. He sniffled, and took up the cards for a new game.
After that, we got along better, and he was doing better with everyone else, too. I got to see his smile again the next visit. I heard happier stories about his day at school, and what he was doing in woodshop and work crew, where he sorted trees and shrubs, getting them ready to plant along streams, helping out the young salmon.
It was good work, hard and sweaty. But, he liked it. He liked being outside, learning about plants, and helping the fish; making a difference in something bigger than himself.
We never talked much, about things other than cards. Most of my questions got one word answers, or a shoulder shrug. But, I got a big hug when I was leaving, and the cookies I brought were carefully carried away to his locker, his hand tightly clenching the box.
“I just need to show up, and be the card player, the listener,” I said to myself. “No one else comes to see Jonathan, and it’s a big deal that I’m even here.”
A few weeks ago, he greeted me at the door, the deck of cards and a score sheet in his hands.
“I can’t wait to beat you,” he said, his face lit up with a smile.
We played a few hands, and then he put the cards down, and pulled a ring off of his finger.
It was an old ring, beaten silver with a turquoise stone in the center. On the back side, the silver loop had worn through, and the silver was cracked.
He held it in his hand, with a tenderness I had never seen in him before. His eyes focused on the ring, never looking at me, as he told me its story.
It was his great grandfather’s, a present on the day he graduated from high school. When he died, his grandfather wore it, until the day he died. Jonathan remembered the ring on his grandfather’s hand, and heard him tell its story.
When Grandfather died, his father wore it on a chain around his neck. Then, when Jonathan was fifteen, just before he was arrested, his dad took it off, and was putting it into a jewelry box.
He asked his dad about the ring, and why he wasn’t going to wear it anymore.
Jonathan choked up, mumbling something about his dad not caring about the ring anymore, that it didn’t mean anything to him.
“Can I have it?” he asked his dad.
And his dad said yes, giving it to Jonathan.
There was more to that story, but I didn’t ask. I saw pain in his eyes, and it wasn’t the time or the place for me to probe.
I’m the listener, I reminded myself. Just let him talk.
After his arrest and sent to prison, his family told the prison counselor they didn’t want to see him anymore, that he didn’t exist for them now, that he wasn’t part of the family.
But Jonathan had the ring.
“It’s your only connection with your family, isn’t is?” I asked.
I teared up as his eyes glistened, and he wiped away a tear. We both nodded.
“Can you get it fixed?” he asked. “It’s broken.”
“Sure,” I said. “There’s a good jeweler in town. He’ll do a good job.”
He held on to the ring, clutching it tightly in his fist.
I pulled off my wedding ring, showing him where the jeweler had mended it, making it a little smaller, to fit my finger.
“See, he did a good job with my ring,” I said.
Jonathan nodded, then looked down.
Twenty questions later, he knew a lot more about my jeweler friend, and what it takes to mend something that’s broken. He started to hand it over to me, then pulled back, putting the ring back on his finger.
“I don’t know,” he said, finally. “I have to think about it.”
“I’ll call you tonight, after you talk to the jeweler.”
“This is all about trust, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, after a pause. “Yeah.”
It was just the two of us in that room, him now alone in the world, locked up for something stupid he did when he was thirteen, and sent away to prison for four, maybe five years. And, everyone he’d ever known had walked away, leaving him to make his way, now a felon, a sex offender, the throwaway son.
I thought maybe Grandfather was there, too, the old man who let Jonathan sit on his lap, as he told him stories about great grandfather, and the ring, going to high school, and remembering good times, and a few successes in life.
When I left, the ring was still on his finger, the crack growing larger, the need to make amends and repairs still on his agenda.
A few weeks later, I showed up with some cookies, ready to play cards again. He showed me the ring again, telling me I should take it, get it repaired. After our card game, it was time for me to go. He slowly pulled the ring off of his finger, and handed it to me.
“Take good care of it,” he said. “It’s all I have of my family.”
“I know,” I said. “And, I will.”
On my way home, I stopped at the jeweler’s. Well, it was out of my way, but I was on a mission.
“It’s a beautiful old stone, real turquoise,” the jeweler said. “But, the break is beyond my talents. I’ll send it to a friend of mine. He specializes in this kind of work.”
It would take a few weeks, and he’d call me with an estimate.
Jonathan and I had talked about the cost. He was willing to spend a couple of hundred bucks. Money earned digging holes and planting trees, cutting blackberries. Hard, sweaty work, earning top prison wages, six bucks an hour.
That night, Jonathan called me, eager to hear what the jeweler said.
His voice dropped when I said it would take two weeks, and we needed an estimate.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve had the jeweler’s friend do work on a ring. He’s a real pro.”
Jonathan’s voice was soft. I could tell he was about to cry.
“It’ll be OK,” I said. “We just have to be patient.
The next few weeks flew by, at least for me. But, every time I went out to the prison camp, Jonathan would come up to me and ask about the ring.
About a week later, the jeweler called.
“It will cost $75,” he said.
“Do it,” I said.
The price was a lot cheaper than we’d imagined. It was time to move ahead.
Jonathan was amazed at the news, and he smiled at the price.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “I really can afford that.”
A week later, the phone rang. The ring was ready. I headed into town, my mission clear.
It was beautiful, no trace of the break, the ring now complete, whole. What was a torn gash was now a shiny clean band of silver, looking new. I slipped it into my pocket, and headed off to the prison, hauling precious cargo, family treasure.
“I have the ring,” I said, as I walked through the door.
“Let’s see,” he almost shouted.
The other youths gathered around. The ring had been a topic of his for almost a month now, and we circled around for the unveiling.
Jonathan tore open the small brown envelope, then paused to slowly pull open the tissue paper that was wrapped around the ring. His ring. His great-grandfather’s ring. His treasure.
It sparkled in the light, as he held it in his palm, carefully turning it this way and that, examining its newness with an intensity deserving of its treasured status.
“It’s beautiful,” he shouted.
Everyone else agreed, nodding with relief.
The treasure was back home.
“It fits perfectly,” he exclaimed.
He held his hand up, and then thrust it in the face of anyone who was willing to take a closer look.
He smiled, again, and let out a whoosh of air.
“Ah,” he said. “I got my ring back.”
Everyone smiled, as he danced around the room, clutching his ring to his chest.
This week, we’re playing cards again. I’m sure we’ll talk about the ring, and how wonderful it is now, all mended and shiny. And how it fits perfectly on his finger.
He’ll worry about me getting the check from the prison, his hard earned money paying me back.
But, I’ve already been paid, several times over. And, so has the jeweler. I told him Jonathan’s story, about his great-grandfather, and everyone else in the family, and how the ring is the only thing left for Jonathan when it comes to family.
The jeweler choked up and shook his head. And, I did too, on my drive out to the prison, thinking about that young man and what he has left in this world to remember his family by, about being broken and mended, and the lessons we’ve all learned.
The ring is whole now, just like when Great Grandfather wore it. It’s shiny and bright, just like new, just like Jonathan’s heart.
–Neal Lemery 4/25/16