Lourdes: The Book Club, by Hinda Gonchor

The women in my book club, all in the Medicare stage of life, are planning our yearly trip. Grand Canyon? Paris? A posh resort where we can experience the life of the rich and famous? No. After much contemplation, we’ve agreed on Lourdes, site of the most famous healing shrine in the world. It’s practically an emergency. The group is falling apart.

Claire has a breathing issue. Mary has a knee thing. Dorothy is close to deafness — at meetings, a tiny microphone that enhances her hearing aid is passed to whoever is speaking; a hindrance, in my opinion, because we need constant reminding to talk into it, thus forgetting what we’re talking about. But when it comes to falling apart, Miriam was the champ. She just up and died. Right when it was her turn to host.

At Lourdes, we will be renewed, as was St. Bernadette before she was a saint. Her story is simple yet miraculous: While at the site, visions appeared that enhanced her well-being, in particular the healing of her paralyzed arm. A shrine was built to mark the site of the occurrence so others could come and try their luck. Why not us?

Note #1. There are three rules for declaring a miracle, and they are not complicated. First, you cannot be a crackpot. Second, you must be diagnosed with a legitimate affliction; something’s really got to be wrong with you. Third, after all medical science and home remedies, including green tea and the like, have been exhausted and one is declared incurable by any worldly potion, not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put you together again. But then, hopeless as it seems, all suffering due to said affliction vanishes. Miracle!

Note #2. One does not need to have inclinations to sainthood to achieve results. All are welcome to plead their case at the shrine and wait for an outcome. Usually instantaneous. You’re fixed or you’re not. No excuses given if it’s the latter. You can return at will. Maybe the first time you really weren’t in the mood, went along for the walk, didn’t want to be miracle-deprived. Now you’ll be a little more respectful.

Note #3. There are two Catholics in our group, so we assume we can get in on their coattails. It is a Catholic shrine, after all.

We will return from Lourdes with our faculties in order. Our wrinkles smoothed over. We will dispense with the part of our book club known as the Organ Recital, wherein we discuss our organs — those that work and those that don’t. A depressing preamble to the discussion, but important because it offers opportunity for comparison: What our doctors say — fats okay, fats not okay; red wine okay but, according to Adele’s doctor, no more than four glasses a night. Finally, a doctor who knows what he’s talking about.

Exercise, which most doctors say is vital to good health, is getting on my nerves. When I get to Lourdes I will pray that exercise moves over to the “will kill you” list. Much deterioration of our knees and elbows is caused by exercising beyond a certain age (again my opinion).

Case in point: In my youth and still I blast rock ’n’ roll music through the earbuds of my iPod (formerly my Walkman), transforming myself into a power-walker! Still power-walking now, but a bit deaf, it’s hard to hear the cars whizzing by and honking for me to get out of the way. (Just one of many hidden examples of how exercise can kill you.)

What to wear: In the old photos, most people approaching the shrine are in rags, presumably thinking little about wardrobe, concentrating on the mission, throwing away the crutches and going for a run — a short one, of course, they’ve only just begun. Blind eyes seeing where before they could not. So we too will wear rags. Whatever it takes.

But now I’m feeling a little angst. What if only some of us are cured? Will there be resentment? What if nobody has a miracle — all that time trudging uphill to the shrine for nothing, maybe even falling and breaking a hip? And what if by some miracle we are all cured? What will we talk about? The book? Please.

The book discussion is a substitute for companionship; companionship includes complaints. But if all goes well we will be free of complaints. Talk about the world situation? That eliminates fun. Family troubles: also too depressing. A joke, shortened version: Two moms talking. First mom: “Oy!” Second mom: “Oy oy.” First mom: “Okay. Enough about the children.”

Nobody wants crying on a night out. What then?

I’m coming up empty. Maybe the book club is the real problem. Somebody picks a book, may not be our style, but we’re committed. Much preparation and maybe even missing a new “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on book club night.

So now I’m thinking when I get to Lourdes I’ll pray for the end of the book club. If things go bad for us, it’s back to the organ recital (really boring unless it’s my turn, then it gets good).

But wait. I don’t need a miracle to end the book club. I can just quit. Now I’m not sure I want to go to Lourdes. Probably they won’t want me. I haven’t been that good — although my last new year’s resolution was to do one good thing a day, to make up for past infractions; I posted it on stickies so I don’t forget. Yesterday I helped a wheelchair person up an incline. This morning I talked to my doorman about his family instead of hot outside/cold outside.

And then it happens! Last night’s meeting. Claire practically danced on the table. Pacemaker was all she needed. Dorothy announced the recovery of her hearing through a cochlear implant — you could tell she had it because of the little light that blinked through her hair signaling low battery. Mary’s knees kicked in.

Am I fantasizing? Did the miracle come to us? Yes. Believe it. The mystery of life all over again. I accept. So I don’t need to make the trip. Life just keeps getting better.


Hinda Gonchor’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Gannett newspapers, and previously in The Star. She lives part time in East Hampton.