There were diverse trials during this journey, but I do not talk about them to gain sympathy. I mention them because they were an integral part of the experience. They were the fodder for growth, for learning to trust, and for learning to accept that I am not in charge. Without the trials, I might have enjoyed myself more, at least on a surface level, but I would not have grown.
I had some idea of what I was getting into in this respect, but I didn’t come to Lourdes just to enjoy myself. And it wasn’t only Sister Gemma’s warning that alerted me. Archbishop Fulton Sheen also played a role. I had read his account of a visit he made to Lourdes. He said that Our Lady had taken care of his room bill and that he had asked her to give him a trial so that he could offer it back to her in thanksgiving. Shortly after that, he found himself marooned at a remote train station, late at night, hungry, and with no money. Bishop Sheen said he was delighted with his predicament because Our Lady had allowed him to show his appreciation. That story left me a little nervous, but not enough to rescind my offer to her, and what I found, as I faced one test after another, was that with each trial, there came a blessing. Some kind soul, sometimes several kind souls, would come along to help me out. There were simple problems and complex ones, but they never ended without grace.
LESSONS IN HUMILITY
It was very early into my stay at Lourdes when I encountered my first humbling experience. As I was applying make-up on my first morning there, I discovered that I had forgotten to pack my mascara. There’s a certain way I’m used to seeing myself in the mirror before I go out to begin a new day, and it is not without mascara. But, oh well, I thought; here’s a chance to practice humility! I didn’t buy any mascara. I didn’t want to pay the ten Euros I was sure that it would cost, and by the end of my visit, I’d grown used to seeing myself without eyelashes.
On my second morning in Lourdes, I washed my hair and then tried to dry it. But within a few seconds, the dryer became white-hot and suddenly stopped, never to start again. (Yes, I was using the correct adaptor.) I wasn’t going to buy a hair dryer, so I had no choice but to go with the natural look, which for my hair is a Dutch girl’s flip. Oh, even more practice in humility, I thought. And again I sensed Our Lady’s hand, even as I sensed her smile.
KEEPING THE FOCUS ON LOURDES
Communicating with the outside world proved to be a major trial, which was very frustrating because I thought I’d come prepared. I had inquired ahead of time about the availability of Wi-Fi at the Accueil and had been assured that I could get it. I was also told that there was a volunteer lounge at the Sanctuary with a computer for volunteers’ use. Access to the Internet was important to me. At the least, I needed to let my family know that I’d arrived safely in Lourdes. But I was also hoping to send home pictures, and I wanted to check my email, at least occasionally.
I went to the Accueil office to ask about joining the network, but I was told that there was no Wi-Fi availability for volunteers. I’m not sure why I’d been assured there was. I don’t know what had changed or what type of miscommunication had occurred before, but I was not going to be checking or sending any emails from the Accueil.
I went to the volunteer lounge at the Sanctuary and tried to use the computer there, but I was quickly locked out of my Yahoo and my Google accounts. Too late I realized that on French keyboards there are two symbols above each number on the number keys, so you can’t just use the shift key as you do on English keyboards. Instead there is a complex combination of other keys, which I still don’t understand. And to make matters worse, when you are entering your password, what you are typing shows up on the screen only as dots. So when I erred with the shift keys, the mistake was fatal and I was denied access to my account. What is almost funny about this is that when I returned to the United States, I had no trouble opening either of my accounts, and when I did, I found emails from both providers, informing me that someone in France had tried to access my accounts. Of course they had done me the favor of blocking those attempts. What is not funny but frustrating about this is that before I left the United States, I had tried repeatedly to contact Yahoo to notify them of my upcoming travel, just so this wouldn’t happen, but I was never able to get through.
I had now been in Lourdes for three days, but my family didn’t know whether I was in Lourdes or floating somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. And to further aggravate the situation, I needed to reserve a hotel room in Toulouse. I’d learned from the train ride to Lourdes that if I took the train from Lourdes to Toulouse on the morning that I intended to fly home, I would not have time to take the shuttle to the airport, check in, and get to my gate before flight time. I needed to leave Lourdes the day before. Using the computer in the volunteer lounge, I’d been able to find an inexpensive room in Toulouse, but for some reason, I could not book it. I needed to have my son reserve the room for me, but I couldn’t get in touch with him.
In case of an emergency where I needed to speak with someone instead of emailing, I had brought an international calling card along with me to France. I was hoping to call my son with it, but I needed a working phone. Soeur Marie-Catherine kindly offered me the use of her office phone, but the card’s access code wouldn’t work. I went to a nearby shop and bought a phone card for fifteen Euros, which I was assured would work internationally, but I couldn’t get that card’s access code to work, either. I don’t know if the problem was with me, or with the cards, but I had reached a dead end with communications and I was very disheartened. My gracefulness in accepting trials was being strained to the limit.
Fortunately, when I explained my dilemma to Bernadette, the office manager at the Accueil, who speaks decent English, she picked up her cell phone and asked me what number I wanted to reach. She said she had an international calling plan. I gave her my son’s number and sighed with relief when he answered the call. I’m always happy to hear his voice, but I was particularly happy on that day. I assured him that I was fine, and while we were talking, he went online and reserved a room for me in Toulouse.
I don’t think the total communication breakdown prior to that call was a coincidence. I think it was Our Lady’s way of keeping me immersed in the experience of Lourdes, instead of having one foot in France and the other still firmly planted in Arizona. It was only after I pleaded with her to be able to talk with my son and let him know I was okay, only after I promised her that I wouldn’t try to communicate again with anyone outside of Lourdes for the duration of my stay, that I was finally able to reach him. I kept my promise, and that call was my only contact with the outside world until I set foot again on U.S. soil.
ACCEPTING MY LIMITATIONS
On the third day of my stage, I was assigned to the fourth floor kitchen. The first floor, where I had started out was now empty; its guests had gone home. It was very close to the end of the season, which runs from Easter to All Saints Day, and there were no more groups expected so the space wasn’t needed.
On this day, my assignment was to help with the cleaning, drying, and putting away of dishes after breakfast. Stagiaires do not bus dishes or clean tables. Volunteers who come with the groups that stay in the hospital do that work. For example, a chapter of The Knights of Malta would organize a pilgrimage for their sick and disabled parishioners. Then that group would bring along volunteers to help with the care and transport of the malades. These workers would serve meals, clean the tables after meals, and bus the dishes to the kitchen. Our work began where theirs ended.
It was during kitchen duty that I faced my next trial, which was far more significant than having plain eyes or crazy hair. It was about on par with my communications problems. When I’d worked on the first floor, Emily, the head of housekeeping, was my immediate supervisor. She was very easy going and smiled a lot. Emily asked another volunteer and me to take the bed linens down the elevator to the laundry. I replied that I would take the steps and meet the other volunteer at the elevator. “Peur?” she asked, which means afraid. I nodded my head; she smiled and walked away. My new supervisor, Soeur Therese Agnes, was not so easy going. She was a nun who hailed from the Congo. She was young, maybe thirty, and though basically friendly, she was all business. Soeur Therese Agnes had loaded a cart with a tub of French bread that was left over from breakfast, and she directed two other women and me to take it, in the elevator, to the bakery in the basement.
I do not ride in elevators, ever. Maybe if I was unconscious, in a hospital, and someone wheeled me in on a gurney, I’d get into an elevator. But other than that, I do not go into elevators. As politely as I could and in my best French I told Soeur Therese Agnes that I was going to take the stairs and that I would meet the other volunteers in the basement. Soeur Marie Agnes was not as amenable to this plan as Emily had been. I’m not sure why it mattered to her, but Soeur Therese Agnes pointed her finger toward the elevator and told me to get in. I shook my head no and I told again that I’d take the stairs. In French, which is all she ever spoke, though I’m quite sure she understood English very well, she asked the other volunteers if I was afraid. One of them said yes. Sister Therese Agnes threw her hands in the air and walked away.
I hurried down the steps and met the other women at the elevator just as its door was opening. We delivered the bread and then one of the women told me that we were finished for the day and so I left. I was upset. That was not why I left: I left because we were finished, but I was upset. This was not a good start with a new supervisor, especially when she was one of the nuns who ran the Accueil, and I worried that it would create long-term problems. I climbed back up the steps and exited at the first floor, but as I went, I wondered why it took three of us to deliver one bin of bread, anyway.
After this morning shift, I was scheduled to meet with my formateur at the volunteer offices on the Sanctuary grounds. This was my first progress check with her and it was a time to discuss any problems I was having. Marie Saint-Frai, though considered part of the Sanctuary domain, is located a couple of blocks from the Sanctuary proper, and I walked there with great frustration. I was mad at myself for saying no to the Sister and upset with her for insisting that I get in the elevator. I wanted to do what I was asked, but getting in an elevator was one directive I just could not obey.
I explained this to Our Lady as I walked. I told her I really wanted to be obedient, but I just couldn’t do that, and I told her I hoped she wasn’t too disappointed in me. Right then I looked down and on the sidewalk in front of me was a tiny, beautiful, blue medallion of Our Lady of Lourdes, dangling from a pin. Clearly someone had lost it, but in a town teeming with pilgrims, I was not going to find its owner. And at any rate it was obviously not expensive, only beautiful; I’d guess it cost less than fifty cents. I felt like it was a sign from Our Mother that she was not upset with me, so I picked it up and attached it to my lab jacket. I felt better.
I walked to the Sanctuary as briskly as possible while weaving my way along sidewalks crowded with pilgrims meandering and staring into the windows of shops that lined the narrow street. When I reached the volunteer offices and sat down with Bernadette, my formateur, I explained to her, as calmly and rationally as I could, the problem I was having with Soeur Therese Agnes. Bernadette smiled sympathetically as I spoke. Her response was kind and understanding. She offered to meet with Sister Therese Agnes before I returned for lunch duty. I felt a bit like a child whimpering to her parent, but I was also very grateful for the help, and with her reassurance, I left the office, stopped for a quick lunch on my way back to the Accueil, (bread and cheese at a sidewalk bakery), and went back to work.
Sister Therese Agnes, who had by then spoken with Bernadette, treated me exactly as she did the other stagiaires, with firmness and frequent corrections, but she was not hostile. She smiled at me as she took the spoon from my hand and showed me the correct way to dry it, and as she demonstrated the proper way to stack dishes, and as she showed me the right way to put silverware in a drawer, etc., etc. She was exact and persistent, but she never rebuked me, though I saw her do so to other stagiaires. “Volunteering here is worse than joining the military,” said one of them. Those words were probably was not far from the truth. But even at that, from what I’ve heard, Sister Therese Agnes was easy going when compared to the Sisters managing the other floors.
THE THORN IN MY SIDE
For the most part, I got along very well with my fellow volunteers. There was one woman, however, who aggravated me to no end. She was about my age, early sixties, and had come to Lourdes from San Diego. She was originally from somewhere in South America, though, and I believe her ethnic background was Italian. Annie spoke French, Italian, and English. I mention this because though she usually spoke French while we were working, when she wanted to complain to Sister Therese Agnes about me, she spoke in Italian. I’m pretty sure this was because she knew that I spoke a little French and she didn’t want me to understand what she was saying. It was obvious when Annie was complaining about me, though, because Sister Therese Agnes would stare at me the entire time Annie was speaking to her. Annie’s complaints weren’t with my work; they were with my work assignment, with when and how long I worked. I know this because she told me that she had to work harder than me and that “she was tired and not feeling well and that I’d just have to take over her evening shift”. She said this on more than one occasion. Sister Therese Agnes never did address me about the complaints. After all, I was doing everything she asked me to do and when she asked me to do it. And rather than confronting me or assigning me more work, she seemed to give me more liberty after each time Annie protested.
I was terribly annoyed with Annie. There were other irritations, but what bothered me most about her was that she didn’t seem think I knew when she was complaining about me. That insulted my intelligence. After she’d lodged a complaint, she would stand next to me as we dried dishes and chatter away as if everything was fine. She’d interrupt others as they were answering the questions I’d asked them, telling them not to worry, that she’d help me. I hate pretentiousness and hypocrisy. I’d rather have someone be nasty and act like they hate me, if they do, than to feign friendship. I can respect that. I avoided this woman whenever I could, and when I couldn’t, I ignored her. But even then, I knew it was wrong to harbor resentment and I worried that my negative feelings would overshadow my overall experience of Lourdes. I was too preoccupied with my irritation toward her. I prayed to Our Blessed Mother about this. I apologized and I asked her to help me to work past my animosity and to lose my negative feelings.
The day after that prayer, we were cleaning all of the beds on the 4th floor, which was now closed. We were working in teams of two, going from room to room, washing and drying bed frames. I was paired with Sister Therese Agnes. Annie was working with a volunteer in another area, washing mattresses. For some reason, her partner had to leave early and so they came to tell Sister Therese Agnes. Sister looked at me, and then she pointed at Annie and said, “You go help her.” She said this in French, but I understood her perfectly. And as I walked away, under my breath I said, “Thank-you, Blessed Mother,” but I didn’t say it sincerely; I said it in the way I’d thank someone for giving me the flu.
Even if I wasn’t elated with her technique, Our Lady had answered my prayer, and I did become less hostile toward Annie after that time we worked together. While we cleaned, we chatted about the real estate market in the U.S., our grandchildren, and other safe topics, and we found some common ground. I doubt she would have ever become my good buddy, but at least I wished her well.
There was a trial (or rather the same trial many times over), which literally caused me sleepless nights. As I mentioned before, my bedroom window looked down over a busy street of Lourdes. Among the shops that lined it were eateries and brasseries, some with outdoor seating. On my third night there, I’d gone to bed early. I was tired from the busy day, but I was also suffering from jetlag and I really needed the rest. At about 11:30 P.M., I woke to the sound of raucous singing, which was actually more like musical shouting. It wasn’t just one person, either. From the sound of it there were two groups of young men, and I thought they might soccer fans singing pep songs, first one group, and then the other one answering it. (I am not a soccer fan and I have no idea of whether this was even soccer season; I just know they were very loud and boisterous.) The sleep-robbing rants went on until about 2:00 in the morning. By then I was crazed. I couldn’t understand why the police hadn’t come and shut them up. Then I reminded myself that I was in a foreign country, and that maybe this kind of behavior was acceptable there. When I’d almost given up on getting any rest at all, the level of loudness began to gradually decrease and I could tell that the group of men was moving down the street. I was incredibly relieved, and I finally got a few hours of sleep, though getting up the next morning was still tough.
It was hard to believe that it was actually happening again, when I woke to loud singing at the same time the next evening. And as it had the night before, the noise continued until around 2:00. At breakfast the following morning, I asked if anyone else had been kept awake by the noise. One woman said that she had been and that she finally gave up and took sleeping pills. She offered me some, but I preferred an honest, well-earned fatigue to the stupor caused by those sleep aids. However, that night, I stuffed cotton in my ears. It helped a little, so I did the same for another two nights before the late-night noise finally stopped. I learned later that the singing came from a group of young Italian men who were also volunteering in Lourdes. I was glad their pilgrimage was a short one.
On Friday, the final day of formation, all stagiaires attend a group meeting with their formateur to discuss their experience: what they’d learned, what they’d enjoyed most and least, what problems they’d encountered, and any other issues they want to discuss.
Bernadette started our meeting with the question: “What are you taking with you from the experience?” I’d already spent much time pondering that question, but there was just too much for me to process before I could answer it. “I suspect it will be some time, maybe a month, before I can find the meaning in it all,” I said to her.
I doubt volunteering is a vacation for anyone who serves at Lourdes, but as I noticed the expressions of confusion on the faces of some other stagiaires, I wondered if I was the only one having trouble understanding what it all meant. “I can’t answer that yet,” I said, “but what I do know now is why I was never called to be a nun.” I paused and then I said, “I’m just not obedient enough.” Bernadette laughed and replied, “Neither are many of them.”
Early on Saturday, the day I was leaving Lourdes, I walked to the Sanctuary to say goodbye. It was about 5:30 in the morning and it was still dark outside. I went to the Grotto, hoping it might be quiet and empty, but it was not. A large group had already gathered there and they were celebrating Mass in Italian. I stood back from the crowd so that I could have some privacy during my final visit with Our Lady, and I thanked her again for bringing me to Lourdes. I said I hoped I’d given her an acceptable gift and that I was sorry if I’d disappointed her in any way. I was full of emotion and yet somehow numb at the same time. I stood still for a good ten minutes, contemplating the beautiful statue of Our Lady. I didn’t want to leave there, knowing that this might be the last time I’d ever gaze up at it. I didn’t want to leave, but a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me that there was still packing and cleaning to do and that I couldn’t postpone the inevitable.
As I blew Our Lady a kiss and turned to go, the emotions that welled within me are very hard to describe. The closest I can come is to ask you to imagine turning your back and walking away from someone you love dearly, knowing the chances are very good that you’ll never see them again. I couldn’t cry, and as I walked toward the exit I felt lost and confused.
When I got back to the Accueil, I finished packing and then I went to the custodian’s closet to get the supplies for cleaning my room. I followed the detailed instruction sheet, which had been left in the room for departing stagiaires. I followed it almost to the letter. My only omission was the cleaning of the top of the wardrobe closet, which I couldn’t reach, even with my chair.
When I’d finished cleaning, there was still time left before my taxi was due. I considered walking to the Sanctuary for one last visit, but I didn’t. It seemed better to let goodbye be goodbye, and instead, I decided to sit outside on the steps of the Accueil Marie Saint-Frai and wait for my ride. But the trick was getting downstairs. I’d lugged my suitcases up four flights of stairs when I came to the Accueil, and now I had to carry them down but with the added weight of all the Lourdes water I was taking home with me.
Going downstairs with luggage is harder than going up. If you try to roll the suitcase on its wheels, the downward momentum will work against you and you could easily find yourself sprawled out with a suitcase on your back. On the other hand, carrying two bags and a purse while trying to look down to see where the next step is didn’t seem like a wise idea either. My solution was, for each flight of stairs, to take my carry-on bag and my purse down to the next landing, set them there, and then run back up the steps to bring the larger bag down. That meant that I was actually going up and down eight flights of steps with suitcases. By the time I’d finished, I was happy for the chance to rest a bit before heading to the train station.
I sat on the steps in front of the Accueil for about a half hour, watching the people walk by. I wondered how many of them were just beginning their visit to Lourdes, and I thought back to the joy I’d felt when I first opened the door to my little room. A gentleman stopped and asked if I knew where the cart rental was. I told him the Accueil was now officially closed and I directed him to the Sanctuary. Telling him that brought a sense of reality to me, a verification that my time in Lourdes had ended and I felt a stab of sadness. But at the same time, I was beginning to feel the anticipation of going home.
The train for Toulouse left Lourdes in the early afternoon. It was nice to finally see the country between the two cities. In my three trips to Lourdes, I had never made that journey during daylight hours and I had missed all of the centuries-old farmhouses and churches that line the way. The trip was peaceful and relaxing, but when I got to Toulouse, things changed.
My first task was to find the shuttle bus stand. When I’d taken the bus from the airport to the train station, the driver had dropped everyone off at the curb, so I had never seen the stand. I asked several people for directions to the airport shuttle and I got a little closer to it each time. Then finally a man walked by me and as he did, he said to follow him; he said he was going to the airport. He didn’t talk more than that with me or even walk with me; he just let me follow behind him, which was good enough.
I was taking the shuttle to the airport instead of taking a taxi to my hotel for two reasons. First: the shuttle is much cheaper than a taxi, and since my hotel was less than a mile from the airport, I thought I’d save money. Second: I wanted to make sure there were no last minute changes to my return flight reservation, as there had been on my outgoing one.
Inside the busy Blagnac Airport, I searched for a sign with the word Lufthansa on it. I would have asked for directions, but no one was moving slow enough to get their attention. I finally saw a sign that said Lufthansa, with an arrow pointing upward. I was on the first floor, so I looked around for an escalator. I found one, but it was broken. I had two choices. I could climb those frozen, narrow steps or I could take an elevator. I imagined myself in a square can, pressed firmly against the back of it as more and more bodies and bags were jammed into it, until every breath of oxygen had been displaced. I didn’t need to imagine the enveloping shock of that mass of humanity, when the elevator seized up and jolted to a stop. I gasped for air and then I proceeded to lug my bags up step after exhausting step of that stationary escalator. I was close to the top but drained of all energy when a young man behind me said, “Give me that,” and grabbed the large case from me. At that point, I didn’t care whether he was stealing it or not; I was just glad to be rid of it. However, he did drop it at the top before he walked away. After being weighted down for only those few steps, he probably didn’t want it either.
At the far end of the corridor, I found the Lufthansa desk, but the agent behind it said he wouldn’t open for another forty-five minutes. He suggested I do some shopping and then come back later. So, I found a bakery and bought a sandwich. I don’t know what it was, exactly, something French and flakey with cheese, but at least it saved worrying about dinner. When I’d finished eating it, I went to the ladies room and managed to get stuck in a tiny stall. All of my bags went into it just fine, but I when I tried to leave, I couldn’t pull the door open wide enough to get back them out. I finally stuffed the big one between the toilet and the walls, opened the door, and then unceremoniously pulled it out. There were a few women at the sinks, acting like they didn’t notice the fiasco, but their facial expressions said otherwise. I couldn’t be the only one that’s happened to, or maybe I could, but perhaps they should put a sign on the stall’s door, showing a bulky suitcase with a red line drawn through it.
Having escaped, I went back to the Lufthansa desk. It was still twenty minutes before the agent would be open for business, so I asked him if I could stand there and wait. I didn’t know where else to go. He was nice enough help me right then, instead of making me wait, and I got my boarding pass for the Toulouse to Frankfurt flight. I couldn’t get the other two I needed, but the agent said not to worry, that they’d be printed when I checked my bags the next morning.
I caught a cab from the airport to the Best Western Hotel (in Toulouse?), and the driver charged me ten Euros. When I checked in at the desk, I asked the clerk for a room on the first floor. He said there weren’t any. “Can I have one as low as possible, then,” I asked, mentioning that I don’t take elevators.
The agent skimmed his book again. “Wait, here’s one,” he said, “Room 104.” Then he processed my receipt and handed me the key. Relieved, I went to the room, dropped my bags on the floor, and went to use the toilet. Right away, I noticed that the floor didn’t look clean. Then I noticed that the toilet had definitely not been cleaned. I went to the room with the shower and the sink, (they are in separate rooms at many European hotels), and I looked into the shower. The floor was wet and there was used soap and an open bottle of shampoo in the soap dish.
On the sink, there were fresh towels and the bed was made, but I questioned whether the sheets were clean. I sat down on the bed, wondering what to do as I scanned the room for bedbugs. I wanted a clean room, but I didn’t want to carry my suitcases up one more flight of stairs. I decided to stiff it out. I put on my long pajamas and left my socks on. In the morning, I wetted a clean towel and used my antibacterial hand wipes in place of a shower. Then I packed everything up and went out to the lobby to wait for my cab.
While the ride from the airport to the hotel had cost ten Euros, the driver who took me back asked for twenty. “Twenty Euros?” I asked.
“Airport fees,” he said. What could I do? It was 6:00 in the morning and he had my luggage. I paid the man.
I’d gotten to the airport in plenty of time, just in case, and I was the first person in line to check my bag for the flight to Frankfurt. It should have been a simple thing—I show my passport and booking number and the agent gives me my boarding pass and claim ticket. But she kept typing, and pausing, and typing some more. This went on for a good ten minutes and I finally said, “Looks like you’re having a problem.”
Without glancing up from the monitor she said, “You have several reservations and the computer doesn’t know which one to use.” My old problem with the reservation, the one from the very beginning of my trip, had come back to haunt me. The agent typed on for probably another ten minutes and then said, “I can check your baggage to Denver, but I can only print your boarding pass from here to Frankfurt. You’ll need to check in at the gate at Frankfurt to get the rest of your boarding passes.”
“Do I have to go through security and passport control again?” I asked.
“No,” she assured me. “Just go up to your gate and the attendant will be able to help you.”
There was still an hour left before flight time, so I bought a roll of bread and a cup of hot water and I went to my gate. A man and woman who were about my age came and sat down next to me, and for some reason, the man asked if I was from the United States. I still wonder what it was about me that made it so obvious—maybe my lack of European class and style. Anyway, the couple was from Northern California, near the Sierras. They’d brought their bikes with them and had toured France, from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. I was very interested in their story because my son and daughter-in-law are avid travelers and cyclists who are always seeking new adventures.
As I listened to the man, I was keeping an eye out for my plane to arrive, but departure time was getting close and no plane had pulled up to the gate. Nor was there any sizeable group of passengers waiting to board a plane. “I’m wondering if my flight’s going to be on time,” I said. “We should be boarding soon and the plane isn’t even here yet.” As I was saying this to him, I looked down at my boarding pass. I was sitting at Gate 33, which is where I thought I should be, but the boarding pass said Gate 35. “Oh, no!” I gasped. “I’m at the wrong gate! I’m going to miss my plane!” I jumped and ran, and I don’t think I even remembered to say goodbye. Fortunately Gate 35 was nearby, and I got to it just before they commenced with boarding.
Other than the Italian family who insisted on fighting over who should take which seat and where everyone’s bags should go, all of this as they were standing in the aisle and blocking everyone else from getting to their own seats, the flight to Frankfurt went well. But when we landed and our plane came to a stop, we were a good half-mile from the terminal, honestly; it might even have been more. This was a huge concern to me because everyone on that plane had to de-board and get settled on a shuttle bus before we could travel to the terminal. Time was of the essence. I still had to get a boarding pass before the forty-minute deadline for check in had passed.
When we finally got to the terminal, I rushed up the ramp and stopped at the first gate that had an agent present. I explained my boarding pass problem to him, and he tried to help, but he couldn’t print the pass either. He told me, sympathetically, that check-in had closed for my flight and that the plane would be boarding in twenty minutes. But, he said, if I could get to the gate before then, he thought they would help me. I was at the A Concourse. I needed to be at the Z Concourse. He gave me directions and I ran, as best I could, with my bags and purse.
In order to get to my gate on the Z Concourse, I miraculously made it past security, passport control, and a boarding pass checkpoint, with no pass. When I got to my gate, there were only minutes left before boarding time and there was a line of passengers at the desk. I walked to the back of the line, praying that the flight would be at least a little delayed. Just then, the agent announced that she was not entertaining questions at that time, only problems. “I have a problem!” I called out. “I don’t have a boarding pass!”
“Well, you do have a problem,” she replied calmly, and she brought me up to the desk.
Fortunately, that agent was able to unravel the mystery of my reservation problems and she printed my two remaining boarding passes. Then as the passengers began shuffling along to board the plane, I chatted with a very nice woman who was in front of me in line. I told her about the problems I’d experienced and how I’d managed to get through three checkpoints without a boarding pass. I said I was pretty fortunate to be boarding that flight.
The woman seemed to be familiar and friendly with many of the Lufthansa staff members and they frequently greeted her as we walked along. To me, that gave credibility to her words: “Well, I’m so glad you made it onto this flight, because it’s the last one that will leave Frankfurt before Lufthansa goes on strike today.”
Strike?! Suddenly, all of the woes that had previously seemed so monumental now appeared trivial. I still cringe when I imagine an extended stay in Frankfurt, Germany, knowing no one, and speaking about ten words of the language. I was enormously relieved when our plane was finally in the air, and I have never felt such joy at landing on our good old U.S. soil, as I did when we touched down in Denver.
Customs was a breeze; security was a breeze; and the wait for the final leg of my flight, from Denver to Phoenix, wasn’t that long. When I arrived in Phoenix, I was happy to reunite with my baggage. It hadn’t been lost yet during my trip, and I was praying that this wouldn’t be the time. My son arrived promptly to pick me up outside of Baggage Claim and we had a nice, peaceful conversation on the way home. My dog hadn’t forgotten me and was uncontrollably excited when he saw me. My parents seemed very happy to see me also, but maybe that’s because their dogsitting duties were over.
I’m back to the real world now and back to my real world routine. But I still think about, and I’m still grateful for, every single person who graciously gave of their time and energy to help me through the rough spots in my journey. I’ve gotten some distance from the experience now, and so I try to make sense of it all, to understand it all. I’ve sat myself down and questioned myself, and I’ve been given some answers but not all of them. Why did I go? I felt drawn. What did I go to do? I went of be of service, to be close to Our Lady, to give her a gift, perhaps one as primitive and unrefined as the earliest picture a young child draws for her mother, but one that is offered with the same, pure love. What did I gain? I don’t know. Maybe I never will. Maybe Our Lady called me to Lourdes to help heal someone else, even though I don’t know who that is. But I have to believe that even if that is true, in the process of helping others to heal, we are healed, as well. What did I like the most? I loved and savored the solitary roaming and the time it allowed for contemplation and the opportunity it gave to feel the presence of those I couldn’t see but that I knew were walking along with me. What did I like the least? I grew impatient with the tedious cattiness of the women (and I am one) as we worked. Am I glad I went? Yes, I’m glad and grateful. Would I recommend the experience to others? Yes, definitely. But having said that, I would recommend to those who are considering volunteering that they carefully study themselves and the positions available and then try to get a good fit. I would also recommend that those who are not seasoned travelers consider volunteering with a group like the Lourdes Volunteers of America. It could have a significant effect on their mood. And finally, I would recommend that those who have a phobia of elevators consider seeing a psychiatrist before beginning the journey. Will I return to Lourdes? I don’t know. Right now, I feel like this chapter is most likely closed. I have a great love for Lourdes, and part of me did stay behind. But I think of Saint Bernadette. She loved Lourdes with all her heart, particularly the Grotto, and yet, once she’d moved to the monastery in Nevers, France, she never went back to Lourdes, though she admitted to missing it terribly. I think there’s a lesson in that, a lesson about doing what we’re called to do and then accepting when it’s time to move on. I contemplate that often. But though I doubt I’ll return to Lourdes, if Our Lady wants me there again, she will invite me and I will go.
Loving mother of the Redeemer,
Gate of Heaven, star of the sea,
Assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.