What really happened in the baths at Lourdes
This is part of a series about our 2017 pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Order of Malta American Association. You may want to start with the first post, or see all the posts about our family’s Lourdes pilgrimage(s) in reverse chronological order.
After lunch on Friday, we began our third procession of the trip, and this one was the Big One: we were going to the baths. We had been in Lourdes only about 24 hours, and I was still jet-lagged and foggy. Only our Malades and caregivers were entering the baths that day, but the entire pilgrimage of 400 people had processed with us for the occasion. We stood along the river’s edge in a long, long line. Our team was near the back.
I was having a hard time talking or swallowing. The staggering anticipation made me feel detached from my body. Our line crept forward slowly, slowly, and I don’t remember if we talked or not. We waited nearly an hour outside the gate. Inside the gate, Oscar and I were separated from Todd and sent to plain wooden benches to await the children’s bath. A Knight of Malta stood at the podium leading the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary while I sat. The poignancy of meditating upon the Agony in the Garden was not lost on me: Jesus asked His Father to be spared from the suffering and death he knew was coming, just as we were asking Oscar to be spared. I felt suffocated by my powerlessness to control the outcome.
A mother and child came out with a volunteer, who turned and beckoned to me. I stood, Oscar snoring quietly on my shoulder, and walked behind the curtain.
I entered a small changing area. Directly in front of me, a second curtain separating the dressing area from the baths stood wide open. I locked eyes with Kim, who was standing in the farthest corner. Our Kim. Oscar’s Kim. She had come to the baths early to volunteer, with the faint hope that she might be able to be in the children’s area. She was, she told us later, the very last volunteer chosen from the pool that day.
The woman at the door greeted me with one word: “Italiano?” I said “English” very stupidly–ugly American!–and she gracefully switched to lilting English. An American volunteer next to me lifted Oscar, still sleeping, from my arms and began to undress him. He woke and fussed feebly.
The foreign woman at the door was clearly in charge. She gently held my elbow and said “For babies, we don’t put them in the bath, we do it this way.” She reached underneath the changing table and pulled out a shallow green bowl, made of plastic, full of water. She put her hand in the water and lifted a few drops. “The baths are so cold. This is the same water from the spring, and we just put some over his head while you say your prayers. It’s very beautiful.”
My internal monologue was short and to the point: “Are you kidding me?” I hesitated for a moment, already exhausted and stressed from the long wait outside. But we had flown all the way to France, and I knew it was not for a Tupperware bowl. Finally, I said flatly, “No. He’s going in the bath.”
The woman in charge acquiesced very graciously. They asked me to start undressing on the other side of the room and made gentle conversation. “What’s his name?” “Oscar,” I replied robotically. The American woman turned around swiftly. “Oh, this is Oscar? The doctors are very worried about seizures. They really don’t want him in the bath because it’s so cold.”
I answered again, far beyond any pretense of politeness. “He’s going in the bath. His seizures are not related to cold. He’s never had a seizure that had anything to do with temperature changes or sensory issues.”
I was shaking by this point from the numerous confrontations, added to the pile of anxiety that had been mounting all afternoon. Even though my modesty was carefully guarded, I felt so exposed, so stupid, so sure, suddenly, that I had done everything about this whole experience wrong. When I was finally unclothed, the volunteer wrapped me in a blue towel, and the American who had been tending Oscar handed him to Kim. They helped me down the steps between the two baths, and Kim guided me toward the little children’s bath, a concrete rectangle about the size of a crib, holding water about eight inches deep.
Kim stopped me gently. “Take a moment to recollect yourself and think of your intentions. We’ll wait until you’re ready.” I stood there blankly. I had left every thought and prayer at the door. I think I finally managed to pray lamely in my heart: “Please heal my son.”
I nodded to Kim to show that I was ready. As she lifted Oscar away from her body, I removed his diaper, and another volunteer removed his blue towel and replaced it with a white sheet, wet with cold water from the bath. Oscar began to whimper and squeal loudly, and I nearly lost my nerve. Kim said, in a voice calm and even, “We’ll do it together. We are going to lower him into the water, but his head won’t go under.” She held his body and head, and I took his legs. My eyes were full of tears and my body was shaking.
When his body hit the frigid water, his eyes went wide, his arms and legs all flew straight out, and he made an almost inhuman yelp.
It looked exactly like he was having an infantile spasm seizure.
I was nearly beside myself, even after he cried a few seconds later and I could see that it had just been the shock of the cold, not a seizure. The next moments are a blur of broken images in my memory. As Kim tells it, she pulled him from the bath and instructed me to take some water with my hand and put it on his head. I thought, “I don’t want any more water to touch him,” but I did as I was told. He melted and calmed instantly, looking about him with eyes suddenly bright, not sleepy and vacant. That is what she remembers. What I remember is being stuck in an endless loop, replaying his whimpers, the spasm, the crying. I missed the transformation she witnessed. My heart was so aching with worry that I missed our first miracle.
Kim handed Oscar back to the volunteers in the dressing room and walked me a few steps over to the adult bath. By this point, I was a quivering wreck. They wrapped me in a wet sheet, as they had Oscar, and I stepped into the water. My mind was again an empty slate. I stood there, dumbly, waiting, pretending to pray. Finally I managed, “You know what my intentions are. For all the people who have asked for our prayers.”
Kim and the other volunteer each stood on opposite sides of the bath, grasping my forearms. We walked to the far end of the bath. Kim said, “I want you to sit down, like you’re sitting in a chair. Don’t lean, we will take care of everything else.” I didn’t feel the water as cold anymore, but more like an embrace.
I have no memory whatsoever of the next few moments. Kim told me (a few days later) that she poured some water into my hands, and that I bathed my face and drank a little. Even after she recounted this, I could not recall even the tiniest inkling of that happening, or of turning around, or of walking back to the steps at the head of the bath. The next thing I remember is standing on one of the steps, realizing that my feet were so cold I could no longer feel them.
I stepped out of the water, and was rewrapped in reverse: wet sheet off, blue towel on. I was no longer anxious. I wasn’t anything. I felt empty and tired. We had come to bathe at Lourdes. It was over, just like that. I just wanted to get dressed and leave.
After dressing, clumsily, I turned to pick up Oscar, realizing with anguish that he had been with these strangers all along, while I was having an out-of-body blackout experience in the next room. Realizing, in the same moment, that he did not seem perceptibly different. His body still flopped heavily against my chest. I reached for his pacifier and started to put it in his mouth. The volunteer in charge poured a small cup of Lourdes water from a nearby pitcher and told me to dip his pacifier before I gave it to him.
I walked out in a daze, feeling different than when I had walked in, but not lighter. My own intention, written for myself before we even departed, had been for spiritual healing. I longed for a return to simple, wholehearted trust in God. I have had many powerful, moving experiences of God’s personal presence in my life. This had not been one of them. This had been almost the opposite. I felt like the entire thing had happened without me. The baths felt like a let down, and I couldn’t understand why.
This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. I walked out feeling empty because I was finally empty. I had reached the absolute, utter end of my strength. There was no more struggle to wrest control from God. In surrendering to one of the most awkward, uncomfortable, even disappointing experiences of my life, I surrendered a lot more. It has taken weeks to start to realize how much more.
The bright eyes and the calm demeanor that Kim spotted instantly in Oscar have not left him since that day. In my next post, I get to tell you all the
amazing miraculous changes we have witnessed this month. Is he a neurotypical 18 month old? No.
Is he changed?
Want more of the story? Read my other Lourdes 2017 posts here:
I’m a Catholic wife, mother of six, and writer who wrestles with the problem of pain. What does faith look like in times of adversity and struggle? I’m so glad to have you here, joining the conversation. Learn more about me 🠖
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