Our daughter died in my arms as we lay together in the emergency room bed. In my grief, while holding her lifeless body, I was taken back to the baths at Lourdes, where we had visited just over a month before.
My brothers and sisters, friends, and even strangers had paid for us to travel to the shrine at Lourdes, France to seek a miracle for our daughter and our son, both of whom had Leigh’s Disease, a mitochondrial disorder. My husband was so confident that Our Lady was going to do this for us; that she was going to make our children well and show the world that miracle still happen. I believe in miracles but I had my doubts about a miracle for our children.
Journey to Lourdes
We arrived in Lourdes on our daughter’s 6th birthday. We had traveled to Lourdes with the Lourdes Volunteers, a wonderful organization that takes families like ours to Lourdes for healing. We were staying at the hospital at the shrine, just a stone’s throw from the Grotto itself. It was quiet then; it was Holy Thursday and the pilgrimage season hadn’t begun yet.
On Good Friday we went to the baths. It was a cold, rainy day. I had seen a photo of the baths before I went and I was disappointed in what I saw. I had a grander image of them — more like a hot tub that you could step down into. Instead, they are narrow stone baths that don’t look like they can fit much at all.
When you go in through the doors of the bathhouse, there is a hallway where you find the doors to the individual baths. They are separated into a men’s area and a women’s area. Our smaller children, including our son and daughter went with me. The baths are staffed by volunteers from around the world. Some speak English, many do not. The women volunteers were wonderful and helped me and the children disrobe and ever so discreetly wrap sheets around our bodies.
I first helped our 8 years old son into the bath. The water was so cold, coming from the spring that sprung when St. Bernadette dug into the mud so many years ago. He stepped over the edge of the tub and bravely sat down in the frigid water. The kind women poured some of the water over our son’s head (pilgrims are not allowed to submerge their heads.) I helped him kiss the statue of Our Lady at the end of the tub (part of the tradition) and quickly helped him out. It was all so fast.
I looked at our son’s feet for the miracle. His feet lack muscle due to his condition and his toes turn out in a way that is not uncomfortable for him but unusual for the average person. His feet looked the same. My heart broke then and there. I dressed him, feeling sorry that I brought him so far for no cure.
Then I took our daughter into the bath. I knew she would not be as agreeable as our son was so I carried her into the bath and sat down in the water with her and held her as the volunteers poured water over her head. We jumped out quickly because it was freezing and because her screams were horrible. She was not pleased with the cold water! I took our other little ones in one by one believing that Our Lady would shower them with graces and then we all dressed and left the baths.
That Holy Saturday was one of the darkest days of my life. I was walking around the great shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, coming all the way from America at the expense of so many people and we got no cure. We had nothing to show for it all. Later that day we went into the Grotto and I knelt at the back wall and put my head against the stone and said, “Why? Why did you bring us all this way for nothing?”
But miracles do happen.
My husband and I, up to this point, had been operating together but not really talking the same language. He was so hopeful that our children would be cured and all would be OK. Meanwhile, I was the pragmatic caretaker watching for signs of the disease and what I could do each step of the way to handle it. I was handling it. But I couldn’t fix it.
Easter Sunday morning began early as the bells pealed throughout the shrine telling the world that Christ has risen. It was a beautiful sound that we will never forget. We threw open the windows for everyone to hear. The sun was pouring down and a joy radiated in my heart all day long. I felt hope.
Return to the Baths
On Easter Monday morning I took our son and daughter back to the baths to try again. I laugh at my hubris now, thinking that somehow we didn’t quite get it right or maybe Our Lady would be pleased at our extra effort of going twice to the baths. I couldn’t leave France without trying again.
We repeated the procedure. One of the women with us said to me, “Have you been in the bath alone?” I told her that I hadn’t. She said, “You must go alone.”
The women volunteers in the baths that morning took care of our son and daughter while I stepped into the bath. I sat down and the next thing I knew I was under the water looking up and seeing the sun shine through the top of the water. I was struggling to come up for air and finally I burst through the water and I was standing on the beach, looking out to sea holding our daughter in my arms with our son standing next to me looking out to sea.
I stumbled to the statue of Our Lady at the foot of the tub and kissed her and turned to step out of the tub. I was blinded by tears. I couldn’t stop crying. Our Lady told me what I needed to know. I had begun grieving my daughter then.
I stood in front of the shelf where my clothes hung and held onto the wood. I felt two hands take my shoulders and a head rest on my back. This beautiful, nameless soul just held me there and waited until I was able to dress. She had no English but we didn’t need to speak. All the women in the room looked at me with such love.
The pilgrims waiting in line outside the baths all looked at me and the children with such pity as I walked by them, still sobbing. I didn’t even care about what the people walking by us thought of me.
Finding my husband, I told him “Sheila is not going to make it. Thomas is going to live but I don’t know how long.” I told him what I saw in the bath. He looked at me and he believed me. My head never went under the water that day. I was never submerged. The baths are in rooms with ceilings.
From that moment on my husband and I connected about the children’s condition and their future. We both grew in acceptance of whatever it was that God had in store for us all. Our friendship and love for each other and our children grew. We spent the next month living life as usual, going to doctors’ appointments, sports practices, and lessons but now fully understanding that we are not in control; God is.
This happened 6 years ago this Easter. Our son is still with us. The disorder is taking its toll on his body but he is with us.
Many people receive physical healing at Lourdes and other holy places around the world. But most do not; rather they speak of finding spiritual healing. They are given the strength to carry on with the crosses they have to bear every day. We traveled to Lourdes, France to get a miracle for our children when it was I who needed the miracle all along. And I got it.