On my way to the dentist (yes. Again), my phone rings.
On the other end of the line, my daughter dives straight into the reason for her call: “mom, did you hear the news?” — Hmm. No, I have not. Somehow I have a feeling these may not be such happy news. I wait. “Notre Dame” she continues. “Notre Dame is on fire.”
My answer to her non-question is immediate: No. No, Notre Dame is not on fire. The same response she had given me when she was 4 years old and I had told her that I thought that little pimple on her chest might mean that she had chicken pox. She was instantly adamant. No. No, she did not have chicken pox and no, Notre Dame was not burning. Period. End of conversation.
Except, well… she did have a big bad case of chicken pox and Notre Dame was indeed burning.
Seconds after she and I hang up and before I can wrap my head around the idea, a text arrives from a friend. With a link. Then another call. Then more texts.
I put my phone on silence as I get on the freeway.
I decide that I am not going to listen to the news. And then I decide that I am going to stop at the next rest stop and listen to the news.
By the time I park my car in a little spot by the doggie pooping area and am able to connect with live news from France, right there in front of my face, I watch the spire collapse. Live. At that very second. Inside of my body, I feel the strange mix of raw gratitude for the timing (there is so much I have missed over the years, I am awed to “be there” for this) and growing nausea. As the iconic structure disintegrates before my eyes, I feel as though a piece of my childhood is being erased from some secret book of records. I feel as though my mom and dad are leaving the planet again. I am reminded once more that nothing lasts.
It’s all so weird:
I am no longer Catholic if I ever was at all.
I actually relate much more easily to Roman architecture than Gothic.
My relationship with Notre Dame has never been as close as my relationship to the Eiffel Tower.
But my soul is crushed.
And I have to keep driving if I am going to get my stitches out. So I get back on the road, this new visual now added to my collection of “Defining Moments” images.
Nothing like the dentist chair when your heart hurts. Then on to more news-watching during a quick tear-soaked lunch. I felt embarrassed to be blubbering in public while aware of a sudden yearning to drive to the airport and board a plane to Paris. I could make it there by morning. I could make my way to the Cathedral and just … I don’t know.
When the Bataclan was attacked in November of 2015, I wanted to be there so badly. Be there with the people, my people. Suffer with them, cry with them.
I contemplate the possibility and for a short while, it looks like the airport may win. But it doesn’t. Because I need to work, I need to focus, and I can’t really afford such an impulsive move.
Back on the road to get home, I have to make multiple stops to ground myself. I am alternately sleepy and angry. Confused. Grieving, mostly. Like my friend Al Turtle said to me once: “When you open the Grief Box, there are usually a bunch of not fully grieved things waiting for you in there.” Yup. There you go. A bunch of not fully grieved things.
Three years ago to the day, I had been there. In front of this mammoth beauty, inside of its walls, in its silence. Now that I think about it, it had always said to me: “I’ll be here. You just do your thing and I’ll be here.” So I did my thing… I ate cotton candy in front of Her doors when I was little, I kissed boyfriends on Her benches when I was a teenager, I moved across the world and kept postcards of Her around, introduced Her to my kids and to their dad, cried at the glimpse of Her in movies when I had been gone way too long, brought one of my dearest friends to meet Her and also introduced Her to the man who now shares my heart. All along, She said she would always be there. And there She was, burning.
But then came the news that She did not burn to the ground and that a whole lot of Her was still standing. Then the images of thousands of people sitting vigil right by her in her time of need. My heart got goosebumps reading about Ave Maria wafting up in the late night Parisian air. It still does as I write this.
By the time I went to bed, Gratitude had managed to make its way back to my cells, and the next morning, it was still here and getting stronger.
This is what I am grateful for:
#1 — That my mom was not here to see it. She would have been glued to the news and who knows what that could have done to her.
#2 — That this was an accident. An accident. The kind where we get to come together and cry, sing and hold each other without anywhere or anyone towards whom to point a finger. Throughout the day, I held that thought at the forefront of my mind.
#3 — That people left their jobs, their homes, their evening plans and made their way to “the parvis,” to grieve, to gasp, to witness — and to hope together.
#4 — That the fire was stopped before more damage was done and that none of the buildings near the Cathedral caught on fire. Having learned about the fire of 1917 in Thessaloniki, Greece I am in awe of how contained this one was.
#5 — That She is still standing and that one day, I will take my grandchildren over there and introduce them to Her.
Even though I did not get on that plane, I was able to take a 30-minute visit to Paris before going to sleep as I continued to read “Waking Up in Paris” by Sonia Choquette. It felt like a huge blessing.
Then last night, for his 21st birthday, my son asked if I wanted to watch the movie Paris Je T’aime with him. You bed I did.
Today, as I sit deeply with the awareness of both impermanence and some sense of celebration, I invite you to be fully alive. Fully open to your heart breaking at the site of something that is heartbreaking to YOU. Whether it makes sense to others or not. I also invite you to sing when life would be better with a song in it. To reach out to others, even if they are strangers. I also invite you to recognize the places on this earth that are important to you and to quietly let them know that they are.