Love lost, read and found
It’s hard to decide what it is exactly I want to say in writing this piece except that I am drawn to the idea and so I have decided to write and let it take its own shape. I will simply start by saying that in all my life, whilst growing up, I was always very aware of Lourdes and its history of miracles but I never had more interest in it other than that and never thought there would be any reason that I might one day want to visit it of my own accord.
At school I believe we learnt something of St Bernadette and her visions of the Virgin Mary and later I remember when my older sister chose this saint’s name as the one she would take for her Holy Sacrament of Confirmation, so perhaps a little more of Lourdes status in the world of Catholics became embedded in me. That said, I had never had much other interest in Lourdes and in the first 20 or so years of my life the only thing that I could count of as knowing anything relating to Lourdes other than the above, was small snippets of things I had heard like ‘pools of freezing cold waters where the sick went to bathe in hope of being miraculously cured and of the many crutches that had been left abandoned at the side of the pools by those who emerged feeling like they no longer needed them’!
Much later in life at the age of 39 perhaps even 40, in my continued fascination with World Cinema film, I happened by chance to come across and watch a French film called ‘Lourdes’, directed by Jessica Hausner. It was a typically low key character movie, the type which I happen to enjoy very much. But more than just enjoy the movie and intricate portrayal of the main characters, this film gave me a more meaningful insight and unintentionally brought Lourdes more to the forefront of my mind.
I think going to Lourdes was something that had been discussed many years previously in our marriage but the opportunity perhaps did not present itself as timely and was later shelved, but it was always something my wife Katherine had wanted to do regardless. Perhaps I am wrong and we did not discuss it but I am sure that we did at one time in our lives, but as with most traumatic occasions in life, the exact details of so many things are often lost or forgotten or as I have learnt in more recent times, the mind is just not able to remember a lot of things when it is overwhelmed processing thoughts solely about just surviving. This sort of crisis I can now say I have faced more than once and I do not count them readily or too easily to sit along with most of life’s more routine ups and downs.
But Katherine had always expressed an interest in us visiting Lourdes over the years of our marriage and this interest was magnified to a need intensified when she was diagnosed with Cancer last year in early April 2012. Of course, without any hesitation I agreed we would go, and it was left decided that as soon as she felt stable and well enough we would book the trip and visit.
But as we had learnt in the past, plans can turn out sometimes to be nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of ‘might have beens’ and are so often wiped from their future before they ever even stood a chance.
With this tragic lesson learnt the hard way years before, some blink and you miss it years later when we were given the news about Katherine’s terrible diagnosis and its average two year life expectancy, I thought determinedly that I was hardly going to leave things to chance once again, only to face a lifetime of regrets later alone. But as too often is the case, it is hard to plan ahead to any degree or act decisively when all you can barely do in an avalanche is react to the things that are snowballing in front of you and threatening to snuff out any held preconceptions of what you hope life has in store for you. Within less than a few weeks of receiving the bombshell of the state of her health, we had a resolute determination that Kath and I would indeed travel to Lourdes before her illness got a grip and see her terminal decline. But as it turned out, fate had already set the wheels of her demise in motion and she was never really well again for more than a few days at any one time. Fate was repeating itself once more when it came to our plans to see Lourdes and barely seven months after receiving the news that obliterates all the hopes and plans in life you think you still live for, she died. My wife was gone! Along with so many other unfulfilled destinies still to live for, in the flesh, visiting Lourdes was not one she would realise.
Naturally in the immediate aftermath that followed, once again in my life, a darkness engulfed me that I did not recognise and was powerless to control. Despite my head strong belief that I was in total control of all of my faculties, I know now without any reservation, that I was not. I know also that I may have claimed to be so, in other pieces of writing that in recent times have flowed freely ‘from my pen I’ am drawn to say, but more accurately, that have poured from my fingertips into the keyboard at any given moment and impulse. Now being completely comfortable with making this admission without the need for inner remonstrations or any remote form of self-denial, I leave up to each individual reader who might happen to chance upon these many pages, to decide which, and if any, reflect the opinions of my darkness engulfed self or that of the illuminated mind that emerged finally on the other side!
Of this dark phase I add only this note on the matter: whilst I regret much of how I behaved and a lot of the things I might have said that led directly to any individuals being subsequently hurt or offended, and though much of it I have already taken back, my retraction and conduct is solely the product of the blackness that swamped me and I do not hold myself accountable in a way that I deem unforgivable! I have come to terms with my behaviour and forgiven myself, making allowances for the extreme nature of events that nearly swallowed me. In a frantic swim to tread water and fight the maelstrom that threatened and was rapidly sucking me down, I did everything my subconscious needed to survive and to later come out of intact. This was all instinct and I had no control as auto-pilot had kicked in, so I cannot now resent anything that my conscience did to protect me and ensure I survived from the devastating turn of events and vortex of dark and complex emotions until such time that any ray of light was to find me again. Whatever I did, good or bad, it helped save me!
So in March 2013 with much of the darkness behind me, it was surely not by chance when the call of Lourdes came beckoning once more at my door. It is often heard said ‘the Lord moves in mysterious ways’ and this is certainly an example that fits into that category. It turns out that whilst Katherine was poorly and staying in hospital at The Royal Marsden during her ‘battle’, she was visited by more than a few from many a family and friends. It was during one of these visits that Katherine was telling my younger sister and one of our friends, of her intentions to go to Lourdes in the months ahead and how it had always been an ambition of hers. This sentiment was echoed by both of her visitors who had long desired to visit Lourdes themselves. Now as the months sped by that robbed Katherine of her wish, they found themselves talking about what a shame it was that she had died without fulfilling this wanting. They reflected on how easy it is for everyone to fall into the pattern of putting off the things we say we always want to do or achieve in our lives, and how the lesson to be learnt from this sad loss, was not to leave things for too late and to try not to have any regrets in life. With this discussion had and conclusion realised, they came to the agreement that they should themselves visit Lourdes, as they had too always wanted, and that they would not put it off and more importantly, that they would go in honour of Kath’s memory. They mentioned this to a few others and before long, a group of 14 in number had booked the flights and hotel rooms for a visit later in October of that same year.
My inclusion among this group I must admit was not without any reservations. I was still very sore and my emotions raw and so tender. I was being tough on the outside and in company and a wreck on my own and every minute in private. I was also being madly possessive of everything and every thought regarding Katherine and did not find it easy that others should talk of her in a way that made me feel like I was having to share what I was trying to hoard for my own consumption. During that phase, every gesture and visit, every conversation, any acts of support and offers of help, all felt like I was being stripped of more and more tiny bits of ‘My Katherine’ and that everything she had ever meant to me personally in my life, was now the property of those who pitied me. Initially then, I was not as positively enthusiastic about making my pilgrimage to Lourdes in what I might have thought to be diluting company. This you could say was a noticeable pattern in my conduct in the months that followed Katherine’s passing, with my immediate reaction to joining a similar group for a fund raising sponsored walk, being another example. (Royal Marsden Charity Walk – discussed more in depth in a separate chapter). What I realise here is just how much unfinished business, or loose ends perhaps is more appropriate, I still have to address or mop up from that phase in my life. In these two occasions and probably more, I made my sister undeservedly feel rotten at a time when she too was doing all in her power to come to terms with the loss of her friend and of course sister in law. Worse still, in her own hurting, maybe I couldn’t be there for her, but I made it hard for her, to be there for me, when it was clear how much she so wanted to be. I know she does not expect one of me, but I owe her an apology. Looking back at those two events, they have done so much to help heal me and given me ways to reflect on my wife and to address open wounds with a deft tenderness, giving me comfort in each case I would be loathed to have passed up. While it is true that similar things are also true of others in other ways and on other occasions and I hope my writing will let me address them all at some point, I do not want to let this moment pass by while writing about it without taking the opportunity to let my sister know how much I love her and thank her so very much.
The months immediately after the booking was made soon started to fly by and I was still never able to get on top of my daily schedules in any way that would allow me the luxury to plan ahead to any degree. I bought a wall planner that at the start of the year, with good intentions I put up in the kitchen so that I could keep track of appointments and upcoming events and not get caught out, but I am fighting fire all of the time and everything is piled on heavily, thick and fast and always when I am nowhere near to the planner. There are only about three entries made on the planner, all the rest was filed somewhere deep in my mind and often in a place called ‘forgot’! This exemplary organisation was only bettered by my meticulous attention to detail in dealing with all my admin and mail. These would stack up and only when the letter holder was crammed full and then when the bottom three steps of the corridor stairway by the front door was covered in mail, I begrudgingly set about opening some of the correspondence which at times I had started to accept for the door mat of our times. Upon doing so I would discover missed appointments, pending bills, expired MOTs, and letters from schools, doctors, hospices, dentists, tax credits, DVLA and endless reminders of over dues to name just a few. These would set off a sense of panic to add to the stress load that I already felt victim to all of the time. Needless to say and I don’t know why I still could not get into the habit of using the planner, but each of those pending dates or must do actions I simply logged in my head as something I must get onto, but not right now, later that day or perhaps later in the week, when I have got through all of the things today that yesterday I put off until tomorrow. Little did I realise that lost in all of this amongst other things, was my failure to act upon renewing my expired driver’s licence.
So back to Lourdes and with the trip fast approaching and the chances of forward planning and of being well prepared, starting to dwindle, it came to almost the very last day when I thought about addressing the car hire. The hotel had been booked months earlier and was set right in the heart of Lourdes and just minutes from all of its main attractions, so a car wasn’t really that important in the end. But as we were flying into Bordeaux and would have a three hour drive from the airport to our destination of choice, a car seemed only too logical. It was at this moment when I realised the predicament of my own making and discovered the price to pay for the efficiency of managing my affairs so diligently this past year. With an expired licence I was not able to secure car hire in my name, and now had to plan at short notice how I would get my daughters and I and naturally our accompanying luggage, to and from the not so local landing strip.
As it turned out, a perfectly agreeable solution was found without too much fuss. From the fourteen in our company, three were designated to be drivers of three hired vehicles, and one of the others volunteered to being the nominated driver of our family carriage. My sister’s brother-in-law had originally been set to be one of six and a passenger in the hired people carrier, but chose to come to our rescue and drive our car instead. All I had to do was to upgrade to a five seater and cover the cost as had been originally planned in the first place. Now with this last minute crisis averted I turned my attention to packing and planning what was needed for the next day’s trip and looked forward to the hassle free journey of being the front sightseeing and scenic admiring passenger instead. Well, that was the plan at least!
With our X9BNJ2 flight scheduled to leave from Gatwick’s North Terminal at 7.10am the next morning, it was imperative that I had a much needed early night and so I started the count back. Flight leaves at 7.10am so got to be there 2 hours before that and best leave an hour for the drive down to the airport, and probably a good idea if we have a light snack and a hot drink before we leave, etc, etc. Suddenly it dawned on me that we would have to be up soon after 3am and with it already approaching 1am and the cases still only half packed, another good plan bit the dust in the making. But anyway, fast forward a few hours and at about 5.30am in a blur, we were at the airport’s long stay car park and soon on the bus shuttle service to the terminal.
It was only a few minutes later that my daughters and I, in being the last to join the remainder of the group, completed the 14. Here the journey began in earnest and the would-be pilgrims became united as one envoy of our sad loss. Katherine may not necessarily have been everyone’s reason for going but her demise was certainly the catalyst.
Part of me just wants to get to the point and not tell this tale in such trivial detail, but that’s just the point. You see, all through my life and even now as we were driving down towards it, Lourdes didn’t really call out to me, I never really cared to be part of a crowd and part of me felt like I was going along almost as a tick box activity. To be fair though, this might not really have been down to the lack of allure that the trip represented to me, but just the motions I was going through. This past year since Katherine died part of me has been vacant and I can’t really remember anything much that I have taken from anything that I have done, and this is despite the fact that I have crammed in more things in this one year than I have done collectively over nearly a lifetime. I really should have an amazing amount to tell and remember and I know that I enjoyed every one thing that I did, but it is just hard to somehow keep it relevant after the fact and I don’t even know how much of it even registered. In this detached state of mind I had already come to accept, that the trip to Lourdes would be no different and indeed the rest of my life from now onwards. It was a long time ago since I recollect feeling properly connected to anything real or meaningful. I feel bad now, I don’t mean to imply that family and friends and special occasions haven’t meant anything to me, they have! It’s just as I have said in another one of my writings, I feel like a bit of a ghost in my own life since my wife’s passing and I haven’t quite reconnected with reality yet. I know I came here on this trip in her memory, but after all that I do, it is my memory that seems to discard the relevance of each new experience of any significance in my new life.
This is not me by choice, I know! My mind and my heart are in the trauma of recent bereavement and nothing but time will see it come back once again.
I did not expect anything personally from my time visiting Lourdes other than more chances to reflect on my late wife. This of late has been all that I have taken comfort from, and any lasting pleasure I have known has come only of writing about her, so getting in touch with more emotions that remind me of her was the only incentive really for me, in going.
Our hotel when we arrived was only a few minutes from the heart of Lourdes and ‘The Grotto’. The place where the Virgin Mary first appeared to Bernadette over 150 years ago but was believed by so few people around her. Now today to see churches built on that bedrock and people flocking in pilgrimage and miraculous water flowing up from the rock and on tap, it is hard to argue that some miracle did not happen back then, when the miracle is still happening in front of your eyes today. I am not saying I witnessed any miracle healings of the physical nature myself, but there are many ways to measure things and sometimes they are not always visible even if they are staring you right in the face.
The person standing the closest in life, often has the worse view! It is only when you step back a little that you are able to see this. If for example you take a close look at yourself in a mirror, you will see your eyes. Pull back a bit and your face comes into view and stand back a bit further, your whole body. This is true of life and the further you are from an object or situation the more you see of it and its relation to its surroundings or of its effect on others. The person at the back often gets the best view as they get to see the whole picture. It is better to see a picture in context, than a close up in minute detail.
I can’t explain what or where exactly my enlightenment was or started but that first night watching the procession of thousands of people marching in the night holding up candles and singing ‘Ave Maria’, something in me already started to stir.
The next morning as we sat through a two hour Latin Mass, I found myself in a meditative state absorbing the atmosphere through closed eyes. The hypnotic and solemn hymns washed over me like they were bathing stains off my resistant soul.
The rest of that day we did all of the site seeing and main attractions, the chapels and churches, the mineral water sources, the river, the castle, St Bernadette’s home which was a tiny one room in total, the full sized Stations of the Cross and then the Grotto itself where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to her. Each one bettered the previous in different ways but the real revelation was how cathartic the humbling experience turned out to be. At each of these places was signs of the sick, people desperate for a cure, people praying for a miracle, people looking to find peace or resolve, souls looking for composure, lost loved ones looking back, and of course happy tourists just soaking up the sites.
I would find myself looking at one of the sick or pale looking people there on their own, looking on sadly or in anguish and it cut through my soul. I pictured the conversations they might have had with their loved ones or the ones that they were still finding the strength to somehow have, and the place was so full of prayer. For everyone heard out loud there were thousands more said in silence!
That evening we bought our visit keepsakes and local holy water containers and we were on the way to join the masses in Procession in song and prayer when among all the thousands of tourists and sat in between two shops, was a homeless old man and his pack relying on whatever he could beg. I gave him what I could spare and I thought it sad that here in such a place, a person could be so desolate.
Moments later with our candles lit we joined in the procession and walked with them held up high. It was a magical thing the like of which I have never experienced before. It was soothing and humbling and almost other worldly and in a kind of a melodic trance, I could have happily gone on that way all night singing ‘Ave Maria’ and feeling like I meant it from every part of my soul, even when it was sung in so many different languages too.
By the time my daughters and I started to make our way back to our hotel, all the many gift shops had shut and the place that just hours earlier was so bustling with people, had become a closed down ghost town with no one in sight and it started to rain and rain hard. Within seconds we were all soaking wet, when we passed that same homeless man wrapped up in a bubble and sleeping just inches from the heavily splashing rain and it made me hurt that no one had taken him in, or that despite whatever donations he had managed to beg, the wet street was all it could buy. It put a big dampener on my whole experience and that night in my hotel bed I found myself praying To God and to Mary, cut up that I should feel that way. Cut up, to where I found myself in my life, and cut up not knowing where I was going to anymore. But most of all I was cut up feeling that now I was praying because I found myself so in need whereas for so long I had prayed without ever hearing my own words and I kind of felt ashamed. The next day we were going to be flying back home but I made up my mind that I wanted to make the Sacrament of Confession to make my visit complete. I had not been to confession in over 15 years since just before Kath and I were married and for whatever reason it had lost any appeal, but then being humble and confessing your sins is not the easiest thing to do. Looking inwards and admitting your faults is hard enough but having then to share them with a stranger is quite a thing when and if being humble is not what you are used to being.
I got up early enough and before long I was sat nervously thinking of all the dark thoughts and things I was wanting to confess, things that were weighing heavily on me, and if I was going to be able to talk about them without it cutting deeper into me.
Confession is a very private thing so of course I won’t demean its sanctity by divulging anything much more than that, but as I am writing to highlight my experience with loss, with grief, and experiencing the horrible rapid demise and death of my wife to a horrible disease, it would serve no justice not to mention that during the battle with terminal illness, you are taken to many dark places in your mind and even your soul. Sometimes you are weak, and before your partner has lost the battle they are still fighting, you start wondering what your life might be like when they are gone.
I got it all off my chest and then the Father asked me why I had come to Lourdes in the first place and I told him how I had come to fulfil Katherine’s unmet wish, and then he told me I was forgiven and gave me my penance. I thought for sure that after 15 years I would be saying many ‘Our Father’s’ and ‘Hail Mary’s’, but he told me this instead.
“Go back to the Grotto and pray to Mary asking her to help families like yours and in same or similar situations” and then he wished me the best, told me I was meant to come to Lourdes and he was glad that I had and then he bode me farewell.
I left there amazed that just as easy as that, my faith had wiped away all that I had confessed and that those sins would no longer count against me, but as I walked back towards the Grotto I was more moved by the selflessness of the penance I had been given.
For such a long time, my prayers had all been about me, my suffering about me, my loss about me, and my plight going forward; all about me. But now I was asking Mary to help others like me and it comforting in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps others here were praying for someone like me. Perhaps everyone here, was someone like me! Perhaps I was meant to come here all along, to see all those hurting souls and people like me and in that moment I knew I was no longer alone, no matter whatever else I might ever feel. I came on this trip because of my wife and without me knowing it; losing Kath turned it into a pilgrimage I did not know I was making.
I was not looking for Lourdes or for her Lady, but in my hour of need, she found me just the same and I am grateful she did. I am sorry Kath and I in the flesh never visited Lourdes together and by the time that I did, she was laid in her grave, but her heartbeat has slept embraced in my arms and I know in spirit, we came here together.