Ten years ago I was in Paris.
Sonny and I had traveled there with Mama, Daddy, and Brother. I can’t really remember now how we all came to make that Spring Break trip together. They had already been to Paris multiple times, but Sonny and I had never had the chance to go. The reason we went doesn’t much matter now. What matters is that we made the journey as a family.
Everyone says that spring is the best time to be in Paris. I can’t argue with that. There are flower shops on every corner it seems, with buckets and buckets and buckets of blooms lining the sidewalk. The parks are erupting with budding green trees and plants. The sun seems to shine a little brighter. The sky is a deep blue you’ve never seen before, and probably never will again.
We did all the usual things — saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre with a million other people, explored the Musée d’Orsay, climbed the Eiffel Tower, walked around the Arc de Triomphe. We ate crepes and escargot and steak-frites. We went to tea and drank out of fancy china cups and poked our pinkie fingers out. And because Sonny was still a little boy, we spent a great amount time in the playground at the Tuileries Garden, which was near our hotel, just enjoying the city and feeling generally too cosmopolitan for our britches.
And of course we went to Notre-Dame.
Earlier that day, we had strolled down the Rue de Rivoli so that we could walk across the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge crossing the Seine, to the Île de la Cité, the island where Notre-Dame stands. We stopped for lunch in a bright little cafe. We had a glass of wine (at least the grown-ups did) and omelettes and fancy desserts. Then we strolled, full and happy, down to Notre-Dame.
When you first catch a glimpse of it, it is a lot bigger than you imagined it would be. You get closer and begin to notice all the intricate design work around the entrances, above the entrances, climbing up the twin bell towers. You think that if you came to Notre-Dame every single day for the rest of your life, you’d never see all that there was to see in the carvings. And you’re not even inside yet.
Tourists are pushing by you to get in the door, to see the rose windows from the inside out. We’ve got to see the rose windows. The rose windows. The windows. We’ve got to see the windows. People are everywhere and you’re swept along with them trying to see as much as you can before the crowd moves you along and you miss something important.
You find a quiet corner out of the fray. There’s a statue. Another statue. There are so many statues. You look up at this one expecting the beatific face of some saint or the other to gaze back down upon you. But it’s a skull beneath a hood. A bony hand snakes out of the sleeve holding up some sort of vessel. It’s cold all of a sudden. You take this as your cue to venture back out among the rabble.
Now my parents don’t really like crowds, but they do like naps. So once we’d seen the inside of the cathedral, they were ready to head on back to the hotel for a rest. Brother decided to go too. And Sonny Boy, being a little fellow and all, was fairly tired from all the walking and wanted to go with them as well.
Me? I figured I could nap when I’m dead. I’d never been to Paris before and wanted to soak up every last lavender-scented, beret-wearing minute of it. Even if I was by myself. Even if I didn’t speak a word of French except for bonjour and merci and où sont les toilettes.
They headed to the hotel. I carried on.
I managed to find the stairs that take you inside the North bell tower. Of course I had to go up. Up up up 240 some-odd narrow stone stairs until you exit out about two-thirds of the way up. That’s when you can walk out along the connector between the two bell towers. This is where you can see the gargoyles and the striges and the chimera. It strikes you as odd that this holiest of holy places, consecrated to the mother of our Lord, is festooned with horrifying mythological creatures.
Beyond the creatures is all of Paris. There’s the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur. There are the rooftops and parks. You think about all the artists, authors, and expats who walked the streets that stretch out before you. You think about people who might have stood right where you are more than 800 years ago. You feel the weight of history and the bygone.
But only for a fleeting minute because there are people behind you who want to take their pictures and have their moment, so you move on.
Now I have studied a lot of art history in my life, and in nearly every class there is always a reference to flying buttresses — a Gothic architectural invention that allowed cathedrals to be built taller and with more windows. These giant ribs push in and down to somehow mysteriously support stone walls so that they can climb closer to the heavens. The picture in every text book that exemplifies this feat of engineering is of Notre-Dame. And when you’re walking across the roof, you come to the spot where you can gaze down on the flying buttresses and see the same birds-eye view you’ve only ever seen in the pages of a book. And you see that they are real and strong and delicate and massive. You see what a marvel they really are.
Before you know it, you’ve spiraled down the South Tower stairs and you’re back on earth, gazing up to where you’ve been. It all happens so fast you wonder if it really happened at all.
That day at Notre-Dame stands out as one of the best days of my life. I’m glad I was brave enough that day to go it alone even though I was way out of my comfort zone in a foreign country where I didn’t even speak the language. For the life of me, I don’t know what compelled me to stay behind that day. Maybe that little bit of courage was divine intervention from the Blessed Mother her ownself. Her way of saying, Seize the day, sister! You may never have another chance.
And as I recently watched Notre-Dame engulfed in flames, smoke billowing from the roof, as I saw the spire fall, I knew I’d made the right choice that day. I knew I’d never have another chance. And I knew I’d never let another opportunity to experience something so spectacular, so important pass me by because even our most beloved monuments can’t last forever. But my memories can.