Thursday night and Friday were rough for Miriam — she was feverish, stuffy, and generally uncomfortable. Friday afternoon, two nurses and a doctor dropped in to check on her, taking her temperature and encouraging rest and fluids.
By Friday evening, she was feeling a bit better. A friendly priest from our team, Fr Luke Millette, came by the room to hear Miriam’s confession so she would be ready for First Communion the next morning, if she was well enough. Bedside confession in pajamas was definitely a Team Wilkens first! And Fr Luke is such a wise, gentle soul, I am certain he was exactly the right person to hear her final confession before the big day. (I waited in the hallway and assured her that I hadn’t been able to hear anything.)
Our friend, my membership sponsor, and Knight of Malta Don Patteson came by the room after dinner bearing get-well gifts. He offered to pray for Miriam, and she shyly said yes. He cradled Miriam’s head in his hands as he asked for her healing, spontaneously and beautifully.
Between the medical and spiritual attention, I felt like she’d gotten to have a little bit of the malade experience in Lourdes. Everyone was so achingly sweet and tender with her, putting her brokenness under the blessing. Each time I left the room to fetch something, five people stopped me to ask after her. Not that being sick is ever a fun experience, but I think all these balms saved her from feeling so keenly the frustration of missing out on the pilgrimage time. She felt loved and missed and cared for.
During Don’s visit, Miriam was downright chatty. She was chipper enough that he asked whether she felt like going out. I was nervous about pushing her too hard too soon, but I was also trying to remember that in Lourdes, it usually pays to just go with the flow and trust that things will unfold like they’re supposed to. She said yes, so I bundled her up in every layer I had packed as protection against the damp, chill night: tights, pants, two shirts, sweater, jacket, three pairs of socks, and wool hat. The three of us walked the few short blocks to the Domain and up one of the “Arms of God” (the large ramps that wrap around both sides of the plaza in front of the basilica) to enjoy a view of the candlelight procession from above.
Saturday was First Communion Day. I dutifully set my alarm for 6:30am, giving us a couple hours to wake up slowly and have a leisurely breakfast while primping and prettying. I plugged my phone in to charge overnight… and it updated the software instead. My alarm did not go off. I woke up to the sound of slamming doors in the hallway at 8:10, and we had to be downstairs ready to leave at 8:45. Miriam, still jet-lagged and never a quick-waking morning person, was deeply asleep.
No one would be showering today. I threw on my own clothes in 45 seconds, flew downstairs for a breakfast tray, then returned and began patting her arm gently. “Miriam, you have to wake up.”
She grunted, rolled over, and pulled her blanket over her head.
I pulled the blanket back. “Honey, it’s your First Communion day! The alarm didn’t go off so we don’t have a lot of time. You need to get up right now or we’ll be late.”
“Mm-mm.” No dice.
“I have hot chocolate.” She pulled the blanket down far enough to peek at me skeptically with one eye. “And chocolate cereal.” She uncovered her whole face. “But you have to get up now if you want time to eat it.”
“Can I listen to my story while I eat?”
“Yes, of course.” She totally undershot. At this point, she could have asked for the moon and I would have tried to make it happen. We had NOT come all this way to miss her First Communion only because we overslept and she refused to get out of bed.
She rolled out of bed, dragging her beloved blankie with her, and settled down at the desk to drink her cocoa. I pretended not to notice when she stirred an entire packet of sugar into the already sweetened drink. We tugged on her dress, tried to do something reasonable with her bedhead, and nearly forgot the lacy gloves. The head nurse for the pilgrimage dropped in to give Miriam one last look-see and officially cleared her to rejoin the group. Whew!
We made it to the procession line-up in the nick of time. Most people didn’t know she was receiving communion (or for that matter, even out of bed!), so she caused quite a stir when she showed up in her poofy white dress and veil instead of a page uniform. Even our friend from the Baltimore hotel, Bishop James Johnston from Kansas City, came over to offer his good wishes. The blue team members gathered around us to share their communion stories, give her a hug, and tell her she was beautiful.
We processed to the grotto but paused in a long line just outside; the mass before ours hadn’t finished yet. This gave ample time for dozens more people in our pilgrimage group, along with several random passers-by, to come and take pictures of our adorable blond angel. Miriam was friendly but calm, even demure, smiling sweetly but not talking as gregariously (read: non-stop) as she usually does when she’s excited. I couldn’t tell whether she was tired, nervous, or still a bit under the weather. Probably all three.
When we left the hotel, Miriam had refused to wear anything but her dress and cardigan, not wanting to spoil the fashionable and striking effect of her white ensemble amid all that black and red. She posed for charming photos with anyone who asked, even random passersby.
By the time we reached the grotto, though, she had asked for her jacket.
We set our belongings down in our front-row, center-aisle seats — a once-in-a-lifetime privilege if ever there was one. Our pilgrimage chaplain, Fr Richard Mullins, came over and asked Miriam to follow him. He explained when her communion would happen — immediately after the celebrant consumed, before everyone else even lined up — and he showed her exactly where to stand. “Don’t be shy, and don’t hesitate. Both of you just walk right up and put your toes here, right up against the pavers at the front. The Archbishop will come down to you first.”
She nodded solemnly at him, then looked at me with eyes as big as saucers as we made our way to our appointed front-row seats. “Do I have to go by myself?”
“Yes, honey, you’ll be first, before the rest of the crowd. But I’ll be right behind you.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You won’t be alone. I’ll be right there. It will be fine.” I changed the subject quickly. “Look over there! I see Oscar’s podparent from last year, Kim!” I tried to catch Kim’s eye but she was busily engaged taking care of her own malades. I figured she wouldn’t miss us once Miriam stepped forward to receive.
As we waited for Mass to begin, Miriam began complaining, loudly, about the cold. Don Patteson and John Sauder, my two membership sponsors, had (illegally) snagged a seat in the row behind us, among all the overflow priests, in order to have a good view; Don now offered Miriam his own coat to add to hers. Even so, by the first reading, she was buried inside her own coat, his coat, and both layers of my heavy, flannel-lined cloak, still complaining about the cold. “My toes are frozen. I can’t feel them,” she whisper-whined.
As Mass continued, Miriam’s mood and tone deteriorated. Never one to sit peacefully through Mass even on a good day, now she was cold, nervous, and still not feeling a hundred percent. A creeping dread began to gather around me, and I wondered whether we would actually be able to pull this off.
By the time of the Eucharistic prayer, she was keeping up a more-or-less constant background whimper and kicking her legs in agitation, trying to bring back the feeling. At the Agnus Dei, I made my play.
“Okay, time to get ready. Let’s take off your coat.”
She looked up at me with sheer, abject terror all over her face. “No. I can’t, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can,” I replied calmly, trying not to let her see my own rising panic — after all this preparation, would she really refuse to walk up for communion at the last second? It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. I unzipped her coat and made one last ditch effort to refasten her veil. I watched the celebrant closely for The Moment. After he put the host in his mouth, I stood up and pulled Miriam along with me. With my hands on her shoulders, we turned to face the aisle, and I walked a step forward, nudging her in front of me. To my immense relief, her feet began moving toward the altar.
She lined up her toes exactly as instructed. I was cognizant that die-hard friends and family back home were trying to watch the Mass at 3am via live webcam, but I wasn’t exactly sure where the cameras were. I took a few steps back, hoping it would be enough for the superfans to catch a glimpse.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron stepped around the altar and came forward to meet Miriam. She was now perfectly steady and composed.
He held the host before her eyes. Her hands were folded, her chin was high, and she met the gaze of her Beloved directly and simply.
“The Body of Christ.”
Her Beloved came to dwell within her.
At the end of Mass, Kim, Oscar’s team member from the previous year, came sailing across the front of the pews and we swept each other into an enormous, long-awaited hug. “Hi, Miriam, I’m Kim,” she introduced herself, barely pausing before grabbing Miriam up into a hug of her own. “I know we’ve never met, but I know your brother Oscar, and your mom has told me all about you. Congratulations on your First Communion!”
“Thank you,” Miriam answered her sweetly and evenly. If she was still cold, she was perfectly indifferent to it now, behaving like a princess in a receiving line.
We snapped some photos and headed back to the hotel for lunch. After we arrived, we met up with Don and Cynthia Wilkinson, the Austin region’s hospitaller (chairperson). “The malades and companions have a special lunchtime program,” Cynthia told us. “Why don’t we head out and get lunch on the town instead to celebrate?”
We settled into a corner table at a cafe down the street and had a quintessentially French lunch: salad, moules frites (mussels and french fries), pizza (a concession to the guest of honor), wine, and a bottle of 7-Up, with a decidedly risqué giraffe on its label. (Miriam firmly and decidedly turned the label to face out the window toward the street.) It was a glorious meal, like a shore leave or a tiny vacation, just delicious, carefully prepared food with good friends in a charming French mountain village. Miriam left most of her pizza untouched in favor of devouring half my mussels, sopping up every drop of the broth with crusty bread once her initial skepticism passed.
After lunch, Don offered to take Miriam shopping. She had received a charm bracelet as a First Communion gift from my aunt and godmother, and she wanted to find some charms to adorn it. He spent the rest of the day showering her with affection, gifts, and as much ice cream and candy as he could sneak past me. “One of the priests asked me and John if that was our granddaughter receiving communion. I looked at John and joked, ‘It kinda feels like it, doesn’t it?’” By the end of the pilgrimage, Don had adopted Miriam as an honorary granddaughter and she was calling him (at his request) by the name his own grandkids use for him, Dandy.
I was reminded of Oscar the previous year, how the mere presence of a baby on the pilgrimage had caused faces everywhere around him to break into smiles. He radiated joy from one end of Lourdes to the other like a lantern glow. Miriam’s First Communion had a similar effect on our pilgrimage group. Everyone, everyone was full of joy to see her. Many came to share stories of their own kids and grandkids back home, who had either just received First Communion or were about to. After two days of healing and relaxation, anointing and confession, the blessing of another sharing another sacrament had an exhilarating effect on many people, far beyond the two of us.
And for Miriam, much as we missed the rest of our family, it was momentous to have that special day in a place where she was truly special, without distracting or jealous siblings, without naptime schedules or logistical issues to manage. She was positively radiant all day, not only from the presents and the attention but from sheer love. The gaze of the beloved, the transforming power of living under love and blessing — all the magic of Lourdes was working full strength that day. It was the closest thing to living in a fairytale she had ever experienced, and we are grateful for the gift.