A Valentine’s Day Tragedy

After returning to her room and getting dressed, Gayle sat down on her bed and opened her Bible to read and to pray for her day. In her journal she wrote, simply:

Valentine’s Day  Psalm 141:3

“Set a guard over my heart, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.”

Often she would take time to write her prayers in her journal, but on Thursdays this semester she had a 9:30 am class (Intermediate Russian) followed by an hour-and-a-half break for lunch and study, followed by two back-to-back classes in the afternoon. So, after jotting down this scripture, she prayed as she packed her backpack and the red cloth shoulder-bag she used as a purse (she never liked to carry a real purse) and made her way up the stairs to leave for class.

On her way out of the house, one of her roommates stopped her and remarked how pretty and unusually blue her eyes looked that morning. “Did you put on some different eyeliner this morning, Gayle?”

“No,” she responded, thanked her, and wished her roommates a great day. Then she left her roommates and townhouse for what would be the last time.

The Clouds Gather

Roughly forty miles east of DeKalb, at our home in Carol Stream, Illinois, Gayle’s mother, Laurel, and brother, Ryan, and I were enjoying a peaceful Valentine’s Day, never imagining what we would face by the time the day was finished. I drove Ryan to school that morning. Having been laid off from my job three weeks earlier, I returned home to resume my job search, enjoy some time with Laurel, and celebrate the day together.

I spent most of the day exchanging emails with a recruiter and making adjustments to my résumé. After stopping to enjoy lunch together, Laurel and I sat down on the couch and exchanged Valentine’s gifts. I gave her a perfumed lotion and cologne set, and she gave me a CD set by the recording artist Mark Schultz. She told me that she thought I would enjoy a song on the CD called “Walking Her Home,” and she asked me to play it.

The song was about a young man who takes a girl out on her very first date and falls in love with her that night as he was walking her home. It was a very romantic song, and we enjoyed listening to it together.

As we sat on the couch holding each other close and listening to the music, my mind wandered to thoughts about our own romance. I thought back through the twenty-five years we had been together, through all the memories we shared. I remembered our first date, the day I proposed to her, and the births of our two children. I saw us raising them together, and imagined life after they were gone, when once more it would be just the two of us. I dreamed of playing together with our grandchildren someday. And I imagined growing old, patiently enduring each other’s aches and pains, and going into eternity—walking home together.

After the song was over, we kissed and talked for a while, sharing our thoughts and dreams with each other. Then we got back to work: I with my job search, she with her household chores.

Laurel left at around 3 pm to pick Ryan up from school. I noticed that a couple of friends had sent me job leads, and so I stayed in my basement office and answered their emails. I sent off a couple more replies, and then prepared to log off my computer for the day. But before I did, I noticed the subject line of a new email message from the Chicago Tribune: “Tribune Alerts: Shooting Reported at NIU.”

I immediately opened the message and clicked on the link to the Tribune’s website. The story was very fresh, and there was little information—not even a photograph—so I knew it must have just occurred. I wanted to know more.

My initial thought was along the lines of, “I wonder if Gayle knows about this.” I thought of her and the dozen or so students in her campus group with the DeKalb Church of Christ, and hoped that none of them were involved. I decided to run upstairs to turn on the radio and learn more about what had happened. As I began climbing the stairs, the memory of the story of the terrible shooting at Virginia Tech from just ten months earlier came to mind. I uttered a quick prayer that nothing that terrible had happened again.

I turned on the radio in our family room to see if they were reporting the event yet. As I tuned in the station, I heard a young woman—a student from the class where the shooting took place—talking to the host. The caller said that a young man carrying a guitar case entered the lecture hall by way of the stage door just about five or ten minutes before the class was supposed to end. He pulled a shotgun out of the case and began firing it into the class; everyone started yelling and screaming, running to escape from the classroom. She told about running straight to her off-campus apartment and calling the news station to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Listening to her story, I tried to get a feeling for how many casualties there might have been, and tried to learn whether the person doing the shooting was working alone or with someone else. I also wanted to know where the shooting took place. I didn’t remember Gayle’s class schedule, though, and the name of the building did not sound familiar.

It was around this time that Laurel returned with Ryan. I quickly briefed them on the news and turned on the TV. Laurel and Ryan suggested calling Gayle to see if she was okay, so I tried to reach her on her cell phone. She did not pick up the call, so I left a brief message asking her to return my call as soon as she got my message. In case she was in a class or somewhere she could not talk, I asked Ryan to text her, which he did. Though no reply came to us from Gayle, we reasoned that she might have left her phone charging in her bedroom, or might have forgotten to turn it on that morning, rather than think there could be a possible connection between her and the news we were hearing.

As we made these calls to Gayle, the helicopter from the TV station arrived on the scene, training its camera on the visitors’ parking lot in the heart of the campus where police cars, fire equipment and ambulances were stationed outside Cole Hall.

Not remembering Gayle’s class schedule for the spring term, I tried to remember what kind of classes Cole Hall held. While I tried to find where I had written down Gayle’s schedule, Laurel began preparing to leave for the studio where she taught piano on Thursday nights, as she had done for some seventeen years. As she did, friends and relatives watching or listening to the news began to call us to find out if we had heard about the shooting, and to find out if Gayle was okay. All three of us began answering calls and reassuring people that it was unlikely, with a campus that size, that Gayle was involved in any way, and promised to let everyone know Gayle was okay when we heard from her.

Meanwhile, I remembered the map of the NIU campus we received during freshman orientation. I found the map in a folder we kept in our pantry and located Cole Hall—right in the middle of the campus, less than two blocks from Gayle’s townhouse. I felt a pang of concern as I thought that Gayle might have passed by the hall on the way home from class, or even heard shots fired as far away as her apartment. Still, I had no idea what classes Gayle had that afternoon, nor did I know if any of her classes were taught there. So, I quickly chased away my anxiety in favor of the odds against our daughter’s being in any immediate danger. I said good-bye to Laurel and told her I would let her know the minute I heard anything from Gayle.

About a half hour after Laurel left for work, Chris Zillman—the minister for the church in DeKalb that Gayle belonged to—called us. “Have you heard from Gayle?” he asked.

“No, Chris. Not yet,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “We left a voice message for her, and Ryan texted her, but no word yet. Have you heard from her? Is everyone accounted for out there?”

“So far we have heard from everyone but Gayle and one other girl. Do you know whether she had classes this afternoon, and where they were?” Chris asked.

“No. I was just looking for her class schedule, and haven’t found it yet,” I said. “Sometimes she turns her phone off and forgets about it, or leaves it back in the apartment. So I’m not really worried that she hasn’t returned my call.”

Chris said, “I’m going over to the girls’ apartment to see if she’s there and just not picking up her phone. I’ll call you back in a few minutes,” and hung up. (Gayle and her four roommates were members of the same church.)

Learning the location of the building where the shooting took place followed closely by receiving Chris’s call didn’t reassure me that Gayle was all right. Pacing back and forth in the dining and family rooms—listening to the TV echoing the story with the paucity of information the reporters had over and over again—made me anxious to hear from her.

Finally I remembered writing down in my planner the times and classes that Gayle had sent me. Finding it, I read Gayle’s class schedule:

Gayle’s S2:      MWF   1300-1350       World Regnl Geog

                        MW      1600-1715       Classical Myth.

                        T Th     0930-1045       Intermediate Russian

                                    1230-1345       Intro Cultur. Anthro.

                                    1400-1515       Intro Ocean Science

Decoding my shorthand and abbreviations, I found that Gayle had a class that matched—time-wise—the description I had heard on the radio. Intro to Ocean Science ended at 3:15, the time the class where the shooting occurred was supposed to have ended. Then I remembered one of the people interviewed on the radio saying that the class where the shooting occurred was an oceanography class.

As I digested this information, Chris called a second time from DeKalb. This time, he sounded more concerned and apologetic. “Joe, I’m at Gayle’s townhouse now, and I’ve spoken to her roommates. We found a copy of her schedule in her room. Joe—I’m sorry, but I think that Gayle was in that class.”

Excerpted from Cartwheels in the Rain (ISBN 13:978-1-57782-258-5). Copyright © 2010 by DPI Books.

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