Cave of Candles
Notre Dame Legends and Lore / by Dorothy V. Corson

Author's Own Grotto Story

In early 1980, our family of three faced a serious medical emergency we could only begin to comprehend after the crisis was over. In looking back on it now, I shiver at what a close call it was.

In a routine physical examination, my husband received the news that he had a large abdominal aortic aneurysm. He entered the hospital the same day where he was given an arteriogram, a requirement for his surgical procedure. An ominous flurry of activity surrounded him when he was returned to his room. The aneurysm, which was larger than they had anticipated, was punctured during the test. His vital signs plunged dangerously low. Though he was conscious and joking about it, we were both silently aware of the seriousness of his situation. By evening his vital signs returned to normal, the puncture had sealed itself, and the high risk surgery was to proceed as scheduled early the next morning. The odds of his survival were uncertain.

My son and I were lost in thought as we headed home that evening. I tried to imagine what the next day and its six hour operation would bring for our family. An image of the Notre Dame Grotto flashed before my eyes. A sudden yearning overtook my thoughts. Sixteen years had passed since my then six-year-old son and I lit candles there for my father in 1964. (He died of a heart attack shortly after building a replica of the Notre Dame Grotto for the St. Stanislaus Church in South Bend. Our son had asked to see the Grotto at Notre Dame that had inspired the one his grandfather built.) Though I had visited it in memory many times since that first visit, I had never had the occasion to return, until that evening.

It was February. Snowflakes were falling gently in the crisp night air. Impulsively, I turned to my son and asked him if he would mind stopping at the Notre Dame Grotto on our way home. That I just felt the need to light a candle someplace special. He readily agreed. As we walked down the snow covered path the nightly rosary was just ending. Greg, now grown-up and working on his own, picked a votive candle for each of us as he had done on our first visit. We lit them with a prayer in our hearts, smiled at each other in memory, placed them in a candle rack and returned to the car. I do not know what prompted the sudden urge to return years later. Something inside just seemed to will me to go there.

With the events of the day and the upcoming surgery closing in on us, I didn't expect to sleep a wink. My son came in to say good night. I thanked him for being there for me, squeezed his hand and kiddingly told him he'd just have to sing me a lullaby to put me to sleep as I used to do when he was a little boy. He smiled, returned my hand squeeze and turned out the light. Then to my surprise, our 22-year-old son, silhouetted in the doorway, quietly began to sing -- word for word -- the lengthy eight stanza lullaby I sang nightly to him when he was a toddler. Not a word was missed, while I wasn't sure I could remember all of it myself. He was usually asleep by the time I had whispered the last line:

. . . all the trees are alive
where the wild creatures play,
and the moon disappears
and the whole world . . . is still.

When he came to that last line, tears stung my eyes and all the anxiety flowed out of me. Too moved to comment, I thanked him, rolled over and went fast asleep.

The next morning the image in my mind of him singing that lullaby kept returning. Suddenly, I knew why his gesture had touched me so deeply. It had triggered a long forgotten memory of scenes from a old western movie. A little boy is stolen from the arms of his mother by the Indians. For years, without a glimmer of hope to guide her, she searched Indian villages for him in vain. He would be grown up now, the chances grew slim that she would be able to recognize her own son, but still she would not give up the search.

Hearing of a white boy traveling with a passing Indian tribe she made one last weary attempt to inquire about him. The young Indian brave stood before her, she felt an instinctive recognition but the young man immediately shied away from her denying any remembrance of his former life. She turned to go, once again to be disappointed, when an old memory flashed into her mind mobilizing her thoughts. She turned back to the Indian boy now defiantly studying her and began to sing the lullaby she had sung to her son as a small child. The defiant look slowly melted away and tears rolled down his cheeks. His mother's lullaby of long ago had left an indelible impression on the young man's childhood memories. The mother had found her son!

To this day, my eyes still glisten when I think of that story and our son's spontaneous gesture of comfort and consolation at a time when I sorely needed it. I'm sure -- like our lighting candles at the Grotto -- he could not have known then how reassuring it was and how much it meant to me.

Our son was with me throughout the long six hour operation -- like a rock to lean on -- calmly reading a favorite Sci-Fi book. He glanced over at me once, grinned, and reminded me that the book I was reading was upside down. My husband came through his ordeal without the need of a respirator almost always used in such cases. His doctor said it was a massive aneurysm -- with a bubble on the top of it, like the ruptured inner tube of a tire ready to burst. There was also another smaller one on the other branch of the aorta. He told us my husband's last words to him before he went under were: "Doc, if I don't come out of this alive I'm gonna be mighty disappointed." He praised his upbeat and resilient attitude and said it would make all the difference in his recovery. After a long and often difficult six months recuperation -- his aorta repaired with a piece of Dacron -- like a new rubber band, he snapped back to his former good health which he retains to this day. Our fervent prayers were answered! In more ways than one a remembrance of that moonlit night at the Notre Dame Grotto will be etched in our memories forever.

It seemed an insignificant detail at the time that the evening we lit candles for my husband at the Grotto was also our 27th wedding anniversary. In the rush of the events engulfing us, his hoped for survival was gift enough to mark the occasion. Little did I know then that sixteen years later in researching the story behind the Notre Dame Grotto I would learn that our wedding day, February 11, is also Lourdes Day the anniversary of Bernadette's first vision of Mary at the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France.


Lighting a candle of hope at the Grotto
Is giving wings to our wishes and prayers.
It's saying . . . I've done all I can
The rest I leave in God's hands.

Dorothy V. Corson
Lourdes Day

Dear Reader:

If you have a fond remembrance of the Notre Dame Grotto, or have had someone share theirs with you, I would appreciate hearing about it. Just jot it down in a letter, in your own words, be it serious, humorous, uplifting or inspiring and it will be added to the others in the Grotto Stories Collection which is being preserved in the University of Notre Dame Archives for future generations of Notre Dame Fans, Friends and Alumni to enjoy.

Comments and questions are always welcome. I would also be pleased to receive any information on the stories behind the three Favor Granted plaques now attached to the Grotto, which I have been unable to identify. The first one, because of the date and the two sets of initials, I feel may be associated with World War I. By date, they read:

Favor Requested and Granted, February 26, 1918,
Honor and Glory to the Blessed Virgin Mary,
G.F. -- A.M.

In Thanksgiving
For Favor Received
Jan 28, 1951

In Thanksgiving
For Favor Received
Aug. 3, 1954

Please include your name, address, telephone number, and email address with your Notre Dame Grotto Remembrance, if you wish, or none, if you'd prefer to remain anonymous.

As a new millennium dawns over St. Mary's Lake on the campus of Notre Dame, I leave you with Father Jan's favorite blessing:

God Love You and Bless You Always . . . Now and Forever.

Direct to:
Dorothy Corson
c/o University of Notre Dame Archives
607 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Or email:

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