The French Connection
By Petra Perkins
Sometimes a mother and daughter need to get away – without husbands, kids, and without reserve. My daughter Sue and I took such a vacation. It would be our last trip together – but not our last journey.
“Let’s go to France,” I said, weeks after Sue’s diagnosis of MS., Multiple Sclerosis. A doctor told us his certainty, but we didn’t believe it until a second opinion. Maybe we didn’t really believe it then. She’d been having some weird bodily sensations – headaches, fatigue, dropping things – but felt well enough to travel. I thought I was doing a good thing by buying one big duffle bag, jazzy with a zillion pockets. Not one to travel light, I filled it to the brim and then it was too heavy and ungainly to carry. Sue named it The Monkey, because she ended up strapping it on her back.
This isn’t a story of Sue contracting a brain/nerve disease that would steal her mobility and her memory. This isn’t about me, her mother, who couldn’t stop the insidious onslaught. This is the story of our pilgrimage to France, where we discovered Roundabouts. You know – those circus circles that replace traffic lights? (Suddenly you’re in them, you stay on the fast left side, round and round, dizzy until you decide when to exit and then scream as you cut to the right.) We flew through countless roundabouts with me at the wheel of a stick shift and Sue navigating by an old-fashioned map. I would just keep circling like a clown until she said: ‘EXIT NOW!” Two madcap American ladies in a teeny orange car stuffed with us and The Monkey.
In the stage of quasi-denial after the cruel diagnosis I decided we should go to Lourdes, the place of healing waters. Lourdes is a village near the Pyrenees where sick people arrive – six million a year – on their pilgrimage to dip into holy water for a divine cure. Occasional miracle cures have been documented by the Catholic Church since 1858 when the Blessed Lady of Lourdes (the Virgin Mary) was seen there. M.S. has no cure, yet, so I thought we should try everything, no matter how far or bizarre. I would have taken her to the moon if a holy spring had turned up.
Neither of us is Catholic, but we share fascination with the French language – I’d studied it for years and Sue had taken it in high school. We constantly joked, in French/English (our version of Franglais) telling “Yo Mama” jokes. Yo maman est sooo tres gros (fat) she has her own zeep code. If our jokes weren’t classy, our esteem for fine wine was, with Bordeaux at the top of our lists.
So, there we were, off to wine tastings, to eat our way through the country’s delicacies, sip café au laits in boulangeries, and seek a miracle.
After an airplane, bus, taxi and car trek to Lourdes, we finally arrived at the grounds of the Grotto, lush with iconic statues, green lawns and shade trees. Its walkways were lined with pilgrims speaking many languages, pushed in wheelchairs or carried on stretchers. A kind, elderly nun greeted us.
“I must tell you straightaway,” she said in perfect English as we queued up. “You cannot be cured unless you change your lifestyle. ARE you prepared to change your lifestyle?” I was stunned by this admonition because she knew nothing about Sue’s life; Sue could have been a nun for all she knew. But the truth was, she did have a stressful lifestyle: a devoted mother as well as a workaholic, raising two kids and a demanding medical transcription business.
More stunning was when Sue shook her head. “No,” she said, flatly, “I won’t change my lifestyle.” Wait, I thought. We’re here only five minutes and she’s saying ‘No’? I took Sue aside, persuading her to listen to me, her omniscient mother. “Listen, girl, we’ve come halfway across the world for this… maybe you could go the last steps, okay? See what happens… who knows, maybe The Lady of Lourdes is handing out miracles today.” Sue rolled tear-filled eyes and shrugged. I continued: “I know, I know… but if you don’t believe, then how about putting an intent out there in the universe… to be open to suggestion? Maybe intent is not so far from belief.” I was persuading myself, too.
We were immediately directed to bathing stalls near the shrine, alight with soft candles. Nuns handed us plastic sheets and asked us to remove all our clothes after which they would lead us into the spring. Sue refused to go au natural, but again I persuaded. We became nudists stepping into freezing-cold holy water. I fervently prayed she wouldn’t do a “Yo Mama” joke.
“Holy shit!” my sweet daughter gasped. The nuns didn’t miss a beat of their prayers to the Virgin Mary. I concentrated hard on that moment so I’d remember it forever as I floated a mother’s entreaty – as intent – into the universe.
Sue whispered: “Should we ‘tip’ the nuns?”
The next day we turned in our car, hopped a fast train to Paris, and that’s when a second pilgrimage started. Sue led us to the famous Printemps clothing store, where she found a green and gold brocade designer gown. I bought a sultry black diamondback sundress that I doubted I’d ever wear in my hometown. Next stop: a Parisian fashion show where sleek models glided the runway. Sue fell hard for an Italian male model, giggling when he walked by. At every change in outfit he stopped to strut his stuff and wink at her.
From our hotel we toured on foot to mingle with locals and by Metro to all things Parisienne. At a jazz restaurant, we dined on lamb served with sparklers standing in heaps of cous-cous. Sue called it “coo-coo”. The food, wine and music did make us a little coo-coo. No matter where we went, Sue attracted attention with her striking azure eyes, Cleopatra hair, and her unbridled delight in everything French.
We were only months away from her worst M.S. attack, one that left her temporarily blind, deaf, paralyzed, and hysterical. But on our trip we gave no time to imagining any worst-case scenarios. How inconceivable it was, the impending horror… how her life would be in a mere five years… where going to the bathroom would be an epic event, where she would need diapers, and, later, a permanent catheter. Right now, however, we occupied France! Right now we were in the ‘now’, we lived in the moment. We were together, enjoying the sensuousness of all things French. We spoke in our funny Franglais, flirted with oh-so-serious waiters, took a boat ride on the Seine. In the dark, from one bed to the other, we wondered about nuns and virgins, and traded secrets that mothers and daughters usually don’t. I told her why and how I fell in love with her dad when I was a girl. Sue divulged some details of her first romantic encounter. She told me how sorry she was for rude behavior when she was 16; I apologized for my angry reaction to it. We resolved issues from our past, making them right, hugging them away daily, oblivious of what the future held.
We wouldn’t know that in her mid-thirties, she would lose almost everything a normal person takes for granted: good vision; her short-term memory (early on sending me the same frantic email twenty times a day); her mind/finger dexterity, struggling to do very basic things with her hands; most of her cognitive abilities – to think beyond simplicities, to reason in solving problems. Or that after another attack she would, strangely, speak for days only in French. Very good French. The brain is a mysterious thing.
We would not foresee her overdose on pain medication, and then be rushed to the ER. We didn’t worry too much about M.S., because at that moment we were in paradise, together, in the City of Love and Light, distracted by divine wine and coffee, culture and cuisine. I washed her hair with holy water brought from Lourdes. She massaged my tired aching feet with it. We snapped pictures of each other in our new French clothes.
It made the future a little easier to bear that we’d had this trip. Something to remember with happiness. In subsequent years, Sue had to give up her career, her oversight of home and family, driving, walking, reading, cooking, and finally, her independence. Sue – a dynamo, a force to be reckoned with, a mover and shaker, a generous helper to all who knew her – would become dependent on others for almost her every need.
We still look at photos which I sometimes use to reconnect us with those two weeks. Flipping through the album she made, we laugh at her carrying the giant Monkey on her back. And another photo – the two of us in matching berets, toasting glasses of Bordeaux – at the sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees. We are so happy, in those moments when we occupied France, or rather, when we were occupied by France.
The photos bring it back and she remembers, in a roundabout way.
Petra Perkins, a Colorado author, writes and publishes memoir, fiction, poetry (2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal winner), humor and interviews. See more of her work at www.petrapetra.com