My mother was a young teen living in Brooklyn, New York on December 16, 1960 when a United Airlines jet crashed into a TWA plane over Park Slope, killing 128 passengers and crew and seven people on the ground. She saw the mid-air collision followed by the shattered remnants of brownstones and businesses in the aftermath of the disaster. She and my grandmother immediately went to church to pray for the victims, and my mother solemnly swore that she would never, ever set foot in an airplane.
But life has a way of taking the greatest of our fears, and making them seem tiny when compared with a newer, more tangible terror. When my mother was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer four decades after that haunting collision, her fear of dying from disease far surpassed her chances of being the victim of a rare aviation disaster, and so she took to the heavens to find her cure.
Mom made sacred pilgrimages to the healing shrines in Fatima, Portugal with our next-door neighbor, and to Lourdes, France with her best friend from nursing school. She sought solace and a cure from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, certain that God would see her pious expeditions of hope and she would be healed.
Skeptic that I am, it was an act of love coupled with a desperate need for hope that I found myself on a plane with my mother, heading up to Worcester, Massachusetts, in June of 1999. Mom had heard of a girl there who had drowned in the family pool as a child and had been kept alive in a coma for eleven years. Somehow, in the recent past, she began to cry tears of oil. The church determined that this was a miracle because several people who were in poor health when they visited her, found themselves cured shortly thereafter, and attributed it to the oil-tear crying “victim soul.” My mother was willing to try anything to defeat her cancer and so, very dubiously, I agreed to accompany her on this journey.
It was pouring the morning we landed in Providence, Rhode Island. Our compact rental car seemed vulnerable as the rain pelted the windshield, but I felt adventurous, like Thelma and Louise, only Thelma was with her mother and the cliff was religious disbelief.
Neither my mother nor I had much experience with reading maps or with cars for that matter. My mother rarely drove on freeways, choosing to take the surface streets even if it meant an additional half hour of travel time. Growing up, I never realized the closest mall was three exits and less than ten minutes from our house. My mother traversed so many neighborhoods in her self-described “secret express route,” that it usually took us 45 minutes to get to Crabtree Valley Mall. Maybe it was her strategy to keep the children from being materialistic, or from seeing all the things we couldn’t afford, but I think it really had more to do with her fear of freeway driving. Mom had also never pumped her own gas. My father always took care of that. Once, when I was about ten, we were below empty in the Ford LTD and had about 20 more miles of surface streets to cover en route to the local grocery store. We pulled into a gas station and it took the two of us a half-hour of pouring through the owner’s manual before we figured out how to open the gas tank.
So the fact that my mother and I actually found the house where the oil-crying girl lived was already miraculous. Apparently, my mother wasn’t the only one holding out hope for a miracle. As we found a parking spot a block and a half up the tree-lined street, we witnessed an elderly man with a large golf umbrella helping his wife along the sidewalk with her walker, a couple of nuns under identical black umbrellas, and a family carrying a small, frail child who was about to lose one of her lady bug galoshes.
The house was an average 1950s brick ranch with a converted garage. The people ahead of us all headed through the screen door of the garage-room so we followed as quickly as we could, sharing cover under dad’s Bell South umbrella with the one broken spoke. At least mom had thought to stuff it in her purse, considering that we’d not checked the weather forecast before packing.
There was very little room to move in the garage-turned-chapel shrine. There were at least a dozen people milling about in tight clusters and whispering in reverent voices. The walls were covered with pictures of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and a number of other pious-looking people whom I assumed were various saints. Candles burned on every flat surface and spiritual choir music was coming from a cassette player near the TV-tray altar on the back wall where a framed picture of a chubby, smiling girl with long, dark pigtails in a Catholic school uniform sat next to a photo of a similar yet emotionless face with wide, brown eyes and a waterfall of silky back hair cascading across a lacey white pillow. A photograph from before the tragedy next to a more recent picture, similar to those in the newspaper articles that also covered the walls. Indeed, every inch of wall space either had a painting, religious poster, postcard, article or thank-you note plastered to it. A magazine story about statues crying oil at the house and photos of bleeding communion wafers were pinned to a bulletin board along with a hand-written sign offering oil-soaked cotton balls for free, though donations were accepted.
Some might call such a display tacky, but I felt like I was in a time warp of sorts. The room wasn’t much bigger than my college dorm room without the bunk beds. And I had used a similar decorating technique, only my photos were of friends (usually holding cups of beer), my postcards were from Spring Break destinations, and my posters were of The Who, Eagles, Yes, the Grateful Dead and a giant tie-dyed peace sign.
Statues throughout the room had glossy trails from their eyes leading to small oily rings on cloth under their feet. A plastic cup containing a centimeter or so of liquid was tied with a rubber band to the feet of the crucifix hanging above the makeshift altar. Just below the altar was a row of padded kneelers. My mother made her way to one of them within the first 5 minutes. I stood against the wall feeling slightly nauseous from the warmth of the room and the overwhelming sense of “holy shit.”
A guest book on a table by the door was filled with names and addresses from all over the country along with entries from Canada. Mexico. Italy. Bosnia. And quick notes of appreciation to the family for their courage and their dedication to sharing their daughter’s gift with the world.
My mother had read that, once a day, people were invited into the house to witness the miracle first hand or at least to walk by a window in the hallway that looked into the coma girl’s bedroom. Mom was eager to hang around until the invitations were extended, believing that she was more likely to achieve her miracle the closer she got to someone else’s. I guess she never thought about the possibility of getting the SAME miracle and eventually finding herself bed-ridden and crying oil.
Apparently everyone else in the room had a similar hope because no one was leaving, yet people kept entering, the screen door slamming behind them as they wiped their wet feet on the Amish Wilkomen mat and ironically stuffed their umbrellas in the orange, blue and white pool chemicals bucket
I was getting claustrophobic so I knelt down next to my mother and told her I was going back to the car to read. I left her the umbrella and promised to keep an eye on the house, ready to pick her up as soon as she was ready to go.
I could barely read a page of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" as I kept looking toward the door in the hope that my mother would emerge, preferably with a yellow miracle glow around her so this whole odd experience would prove worthwhile. Of course then I’d have to admit that there was some truth to the things my mother so fervently believed. She often told my siblings and me that she was certain God’s purpose in letting her get cancer was to attest to His existence in the miracle we would soon witness. It was His way of bringing her flock back to the church.
I finally immersed myself in Francie Nolan’s struggles when the passenger door opened. My mother ducked in looking dejected. Apparently today wasn’t a good day for personal visits, and the volunteer member of the Apostulate of the Silent Soul asked that pilgrims say a prayer for her and try back again tomorrow. Only the nuns were allowed to enter the main house, and I watched a shadow fall over my mother’s face as her hope collided with reality and she realized today wasn’t her day for a miracle.
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