In my last post, I mentioned that I developed some friends during my second grade year, the first school year I spent at Christ the King School in Richland, Washington. One of those friends was Gail Elizabeth Sullivan.
Gail was a bubbly little girl. She was smart (in the A reading group with me). She was not a bad athlete, though she was small (she was the second shortest girl in the class, and I barely topped her at third shortest). She was a cheerful, friendly type, who got along with everyone.
Our last names weren’t close in the alphabet, so we didn’t sit next to each other in class. But when we were lined up by height, as we were for First Communion and other formal class processions, she and I stood next to each other. (The girls, of course, had separate lines from the boys.)
Gail became one of my better friends in the second grade, a good enough friend to make the cut for my 7th birthday party in April 1963. We poked along as friends through the third grade as well. In third grade, the girls became very cliquish, and Gail was one of the few who could defy the chasms between the groups. She got along with everyone.
In the spring of my third grade year, I heard one girl whispering in the girls’ bathroom after recess one day, “Gail isn’t coming to school any more. She has cancer.” The whisper came in that ghoulish tone that kids use when they want to impress their peers with their knowledge of an awful fact.
“She does not,” I said.
It couldn’t be true. Kids didn’t get cancer. I’d never known anyone who had cancer. Gail had been sick a lot that past winter. But lots of kids got colds and bronchitis and such. That’s all Gail had. That’s why she’d been gone so long.
But it was true. Gail had cancer. She missed most of the last couple months of third grade.
And then came summer.
I was absent on the first day of fourth grade, September 8, 1964, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was sick that day, mostly due to nerves over another school year starting.
That was the only day of fourth grade Gail attended. She probably was quite ill, attending class solely for the opportunity to see her friends. And I missed her. Just a few days later, Gail died, on September 17, 1964.
The reason the date of her death sticks in my mind so well is that my sister was born the next day, September 18, 1964. As our family rejoiced, Gail’s family grieved.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD! Job 1:21 (NAB)
I’ve written before about another death I experienced in childhood—that of my infant sister, Susan Elizabeth, who died two days after her birth in 1960. I was too young to understand death then—I was not quite four.
But when Gail Elizabeth Sullivan died, I was eight and a half. I understood, and I mourned the loss of my friend.
I didn’t attend Gail’s funeral a few days later, because our family was preoccupied with a new baby, and my parents didn’t think it appropriate for young children to go to funerals. But every year about this time, I think of Gail. What might she have become? Would we have remained friends? Would she have continued to bridge the divides between our little girl cliques? I think she might have made a difference in the world—at least in my world.
What do you remember as your first experience with death?