When Lisa told me she wanted to take Gabriella on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, I was skeptical. All we had gone through since her birth had left my relationship with God strained. But she felt we should try anything that might help, so we decided to go.
Now we had endured a difficult trip, only to find ourselves stranded in our cramped hotel, a short walk from the holy site. And it was pouring. I had hoped this journey would restore my faith, but I was having doubts.
It was not my finest hour. I had been negative as we sat for five hours on the tarmac, cynical as we raced across Paris to meet our connecting flight, and bitter as the setbacks mounted after we arrived in Lourdes. After a lengthy wait for the rain to slow, we abandoned the parking garage and returned to the Ibis.
The desk clerk handed me a message. Our travel agent had called, referring us to the tour packager in Paris. While I went back downstairs to fetch another bottle of formula from the hotel bar refrigerator, Lisa tried several times before getting through.
Coming into the room, I heard her expressing disbelief. Now what?
I tuned the conversation out, playing with Gabriella. I rocked her and whistled on the corner of the bed. Her smile broadened.
“There’s a pilot strike on Air Inter,” Lisa said after she hung up.
“What the hell does that mean?” She looked at me with pity. I had promised to watch my language, and here we were, so close to the shrine. But I was fed up.
It meant our return flight to Paris was canceled. We would have to fly back a day later, costing us our one afternoon in the capital. We had both been looking forward to that, figuring it might well be our only chance ever to see Notre Dame or the Louvre.
After more bitching, I resigned myself to spending the rest of the trip in this room, but I agreed to bottle my anger.
With our whole first day wasted, we headed to dinner. It slowed to a drizzle, and loading Gabriella in the car seemed like less of a hassle. Perhaps it was the reduced weight on my shoulder, with the massive chip hacked away. I only wondered how soon it would grow back, the way they said our daughter’s skull would close over her surgical site.
It was early and most of the restaurants weren’t serving dinner yet. The one open place we found was at no risk of earning a Michelin star. When we finished, it had stopped raining.
“Do you want to try?” Lisa said.
“To go to the grotto?” She nodded, and I added, “It’s after six-thirty, but we might not get another chance.”
Already it was dark, but a strange light flickered within me. This wasn’t hope, was it?
We parked near the holy site, unloaded Gabriella into the stroller and rolled down the narrow street to the bottom of the hill. The Pyrenees formed a rainbow of pastels on the horizon. The sun faded to brown, aided by a layer of clouds, but it appeared the weather would hold out. At least for a time.
I promised myself again to try.
We reached the outer fence. Many of the guidebooks portrayed Lourdes as a hotbed of commercialism, but this wasn’t so bad. A few vendors under umbrellas sold trinkets and shirts, hardy types who looked as if they’d braved the rain for hours.
Pilgrims rose into view on the entry ramp. People just like us.
Up the slope, a stone facing rose to a railed walkway. A narrow pipe leader ran along the wall, opening into taps every several feet. Lisa realized we had no bottles with us, even though she’d been planning to bring holy water to family and friends. We chose optimism, assuming we would get back in the two remaining days.
The piping wound back around the rock-face to a spot cordoned off by movie-theater roping. I was unsure what to expect, but it hadn’t been this. A few dozen pilgrims sat on benches on the perimeter and stood at the entrance to the ropes. Some were infirm, a few in chairs or stooped over canes or walkers. Compelled by pity and recognition, I wheeled to where I could get a better view.
The Grotto, riven into the rock-face, glowed with candles small and large and gigantic, all rising to the blue-robed figure of the Virgin Mary enshrined above. Dozens of flames, planted on the walls on both sides, twitched in the breeze. Dark clouds rushed overhead now, restless. I felt a sudden rush, plunging me to unknown depths.
All the torment of the past few days paled and faded, and then the anguish of months and years, the heartbreak of Gabriella’s short life. What it was – renewed faith, or joy, or something wondrous or mystical – I couldn’t define. But I saw my Christianity differently, a bright light as from within.
For an instant I was alone in the sweet light, apart even from my wife and child in the stroller between us, and yet also bound in something new.
What had conjured such a feeling, I couldn’t tell. Maybe it was the sight of pilgrims bent prostrate before the shrine, maybe the familiarity of the Madonna statue that seemed identical to the one we saw in our church every week. Had I needed to journey across the world to find the faith within me? I found it hard to believe it could be that simple.
We took turns taking our daughter up toward the Grotto. Lisa came back beaming and handed her to me, and her face split in a smile, perhaps because she knew she was going again. She gurgled happy sounds on our climb, and tears filled my eyes. At the top, a handful of pilgrims waited and we left them a respectful distance. Then it was our turn.
I carried Gabriella into the Grotto. Candles glowed in the night, with a smell like burning honey. Mary arched above, out of reach and yet able to touch us. Water dripped down the wall, natural – no spigots here. This wetness was purer, and it splashed onto my hand and then over the scar on her skull, nourishing the healing process. We circled the crescent, a slow and gentle sixty seconds, with holy mist filling the air. And then we emerged into the evening.
All at once I knew no guilt. For thousands of years, pilgrims of all religions had endured hardships and strife far more extreme than our few days to journey to holy sites and shrines. I had been weak, but my family had helped me overcome my obstacles and find my reward.
Within a few days we would begin a return trip that was blessedly uneventful, but first there was more to come at the holy site: Lisa dunking herself (and the son inside her) and then Gabriella in the famous baths; our visit to the basilica on the side of the hill; the three of us joining the candlelit procession to the underground church. But it was our brief time in the Grotto that gave me the foundation to rebuild my faith upon.