Soon after the final pathology report, Lisa suggested we take Gabriella to Lourdes. Our daughter was little more than a year old when she had the tumor excised from her skull, with the frozen section indicating the growth was malignant. After an excruciating wait, we got the diagnosis we prayed for. It was benign.
It had been an exhausting sixteen months. We were relieved and thankful. After the Level II ultrasound, we were optimistic as well about Lisa’s second pregnancy, which was about halfway along.
We would take a pilgrimage to the holy city of southern France.
We chose Air France, in part because they guaranteed a bassinet on board the plane. In Paris we would transfer to Air Inter, their subsidiary for trips within French borders, for the connection to Tarbes, a short drive from Lourdes.
On the day of our departure, we went to JFK. An Air France representative met us at the registration desk and assured us everything was as planned. When we boarded, however, we discovered that the bassinet we’d reserved was broken. We told the stewardess we had counted on having a place to stretch out during the flight. “It ees not possible,” the stewardess said with a girlish shrug, not the last time we would hear that charming expression.
Fortunately, we had purchased a third ticket for each leg to ensure our daughter could take off and land in her car-seat. Lisa gave her Benadryl and brushed a quick sign of the cross.
After a while I asked, “Why aren’t we going anywhere?”
Then the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker, first in French, then in English. The flight would be delayed for up to an hour.
By shifting her between the car seat and my arms and Lisa’s and a blanket we stretched across two seats, we kept her quiet for that hour. And for the one that followed. One announcement led to another, with the third inviting passengers to get off the plane and wander the airport. So far, however, Gabriella remained calm, so we stayed put.
At last we took off. We had spent five hours on the tarmac, during which Gabriella remained quiet. But by the time we crossed over Boston, the Benadryl had worn off and her patience vanished.
She cried and screamed and complained the entire flight. We were frustrated and embarrassed. I remembered my own annoyance on airplanes when parents couldn’t prevent their baby from crying. Now that was us. It was everything I’d feared about air travel with our daughter, and it has put me off flying with her ever since.
We landed at Orly with a groggy sense of losing our way. Instead of getting in after midnight, our flight landed in early morning, and we had slept little. We also missed the last connection of the day to Lourdes.
Many people have nightmare travel stories, and this was ours. We worried about where we might stay without that connection, for the Ibis Hotel we had reserved included a refrigerator to chill our daughter’s formula. The airline said they could get us to Pau, another nearby city. We collected our bags and staggered through the airport, then caught the shuttle for De Gaulle, from which the Pau flight would leave. We barely made it and three attendants waved us through. Maybe they were impatient with our tardiness, maybe we just felt wretched by this point.
We got to our seats and fastened our belts and secured Gabriella’s car-seat. She was tired, already whining.
Then the steward came over to us. “You must hold the baby,” he said.
“That’s why we paid for the third seat,” I explained.
He shook his head. “It is French law,” he said. “The baby can not take off in seat. Mother must hold her.”
“She took off in this car-seat on the flight from New York,” I said, incredulous. “That was Air France.”
“It ees not possible.”
“We can’t take off with her unbuckled,” Lisa said. “It’s not safe.”
The steward had been conferring with a stewardess not ten feet away, and now she approached. “In France, the child takes off and lands in the mother’s arms,” she said and smiled at me. “Or the father’s.”
We refused. Tense minutes passed before the pilot or co-pilot came out. He again explained the French law.
“Look,” Lisa said. “We’re going to take off with her in her car-seat. If someone wants to arrest me when we land, that’s fine, but I’m not risking the life of my daughter.”
It occurred to me this was the defiance of a mother, a quiet strength I could only admire.
At last, the pilot nodded and they backed down.
We landed in Pau and no one hassled us, but they seemed glad to see us deplane. After a lengthy discussion at the Avis counter, trying to explain why we were seeking a rental there and not in Tarbes, we reached our Volkswagen Golf Twingo. There was just enough room in the “trunk” for our suitcase, but we squeezed bags of formula and baby food into the front passenger side and affixed Gabriella’s car-seat in the back.
We set off for Lourdes, but every time we approached the route out of Pau, we saw the same landmarks. Could that possibly be the riverfront, again? Gabriella, exhausted from the trip, arched in her car-seat. She wanted nothing more than to lie down with a bottle to her lips, not sucking but only mouthing, a warm wet pacifier. Finally, we found a gendarme and got directions to the National Highway.
We reached our hotel in Lourdes in late afternoon. The room was spartan, with the double bed and Gabriella’s cot leaving a six-inch margin of hardwood around much of the perimeter. “Where’s the refrigerator?” I asked, dread setting in again.
I descended to the lobby. The desk clerk smiled back at me. I explained that we were supposed to have a refrigerator. She said they had no refrigerators in their rooms. “We need it for the baby’s bottles,” I said.
She shrugged. “It ees not possible.”
After a while, she offered to store the bottles in the refrigerator of the hotel bar. We accepted with gratitude.
After a room-service meal, we all fell into a deep sleep. Gabriella woke up hungry in the middle of the night. I struggled into clothes and headed back to the lobby, dreading the inevitable message. But not this time. A young man fetched our bottle bag from the refrigerator.
By noon the next day, we were ready to venture out to the holy site. It was a comfortable walk to the shrine and the grotto, and we had the stroller. But it had started to rain, hard, and everything we had come for waited outdoors and unsheltered.
After much deliberation, we squeezed back into our Twingo and drove to the Information Center. It was closed until two o’clock. And the rain picked up.
We parked in a garage a few blocks from the center. When we reached the surface, the weather was unrelenting. We opted to wait it out, but Gabriella grew cranky, whining, complaining. We returned to the car and drove back to our hotel.
My nerves frayed. I wondered whether we would ever reach the holy site. I wondered if I cared any longer.