Wednesday, June 06, 2001

Teen's death a lesson in living

He 'graduated ahead of his class'

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Garrett Christian's picture sits on a chair at what would have been his eighth-grade graduation.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        LIBERTY TOWNSHIP — Garrett Christian desperately wanted to attend his eighth-grade graduation at St. Susanna School in Mason on Tuesday night. He attended the rehearsals and promised to be there.

        He almost made it.

        Garrett, 14, died at home Sunday of a brain tumor, two days before he was to graduate.

        Since Sunday, his mom, Michelle Spillane, had been wondering how to handle the graduation ceremony.

        By Tuesday afternoon, she had made up her mind.

        “I don't want to take away from the ceremonies,” she said. “I just want to sneak in before Mass. I sent them a chair with a 5-by-7 picture of Garrett on it. When they say his name, I'll walk in and pick up his diploma — and then I'll walk straight out the door.

        “I owe it to him. Graduation was important to him. Last Friday, he went to the practice. When he went in, the whole school sang "Lean On Me.' The girls brought their cameras. It was nice. He felt so complete.”

        Garrett's 18-month battle with cancer involved more than doctors and hospitals and bad news. It touched the core of the human spirit in Mason, and in nearby Liberty Township, where Garrett lived.

        Garrett Christian knew what he wanted to do in his life — be a priest. Class members took him seriously. They said he would be the first American pope.

        “He had a tremendous impact on the staff, the students and the community,” said his principal, Kenneth Beiser. “He fought hard and in the process taught us a great deal about courage.”

        His battle started on Dec. 22, 1999, when he learned he had a brain tumor. He had no headaches or obvious symptoms.

   Besides his parents, Garrett is survived by three sisters, Holly Doll, of Western Hills; Claire Christian and Meagan Spillane, at home; and three brothers, Alex and Spencer Christian and Michael Spillane, at home. Mass of Christian burial will be 2 p.m. today at St. Susanna Church, 35 Fourth Ave., Mason. Visitation will be noon until Mass at the church. Burial will be in Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Montgomery.
   Memorials may be made to the Fenwick High School Building Fund, 3800 Manchester Road, Middletown, 45042; the St. Susanna Building Fund, 305 Fourth Ave., Mason, 45040; or the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, 315 Ridgefield Court, Asheville, NC, 28806.
   The Shorten & Ryan Funeral Home, 400 Reading Road, Mason, is in charge of arrangements.
        “But I knew something was wrong,” Mrs. Spillane said. “It was like he wasn't with us. He couldn't focus on things.”

        Each time the illness kicked him down, he fought back. His mother and stepfather, Don Spillane, cared for him every minute. (He also leaves his father, Larry Christian.) When the doctors said Garrett would die soon, he surprised them.

        “He said God had picked him special,” Mrs. Spillane said. “It was a gift and Garrett never, ever complained. ... The eighth-grade class is a great group of kids but they had to learn a hard lesson in life pretty young.”

        The lesson was also one of sharing. Church members fed the family seven days a week. Church mothers cared for the Spillanes' other children. Kids at church held fund raisers. One church woman, Kathy Lupidi, cared for Garrett so long that he came to call her “Mom 2.”

        “Some parents were here when he passed away,” Mrs. Spillane said. “That's how close we had become. His best friend, Matt McLaughlin, sat with Garrett and helped take care of him. ... Matt knows Garrett is at peace now. They said goodbye.”

[photo] Michelle Spillane and her husband, Don, leave after she accepted her son Garrett's diploma.
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        St. Susanna will retire Garrett's number and basketball jersey and display it in the gymnasium. Appropriately, the Christian Spirit Award in his memory will be given each year to the student who demonstrates courage, spirit and leadership.

        Garrett Christian turned 14 on April 23. His death on June 3 came at the end of Pentecost.

        “Good came out of this tragedy — the love, the overwhelming love,” his mother said.

        In his homily Tuesday at Mass before graduation ceremonies, Father Harry Meyer said Garrett “graduated ahead of his class.

        “I would ask him. Are you afraid? I think he heard the message of God — have no fear. He would always say "no.'”


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