PFLUGERVILLE, Texas — When Becky Gonzalez looks into her 15-month-old granddaughters eyes, she often sees something reassuringly familiar.
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
She has some of the same expressions as her mom, and sometimes its like my daughters looking back at me through her eyes, Gonzalez said. And it just flashes through my mind: Im thinking, Kasi, is that you?
But of course she has her own personality. Shes a very happy baby. Shes just delightful.
No wonder the baby, Zoey Michelle, was at the center of a celebration of the life of her mother, Kasandra Perkins, who a year ago Sunday was the victim of the murder-suicide committed by Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher that remains largely unexplained.
The rampage left then-3-month-old Zoey orphaned and the most piercing surviving symbol of Belchers actions.
Zoey then was the object of a custody battle between the maternal and paternal side, ultimately settled in Kansas City last summer when Perkins cousin Sophie was awarded guardianship of Zoey.
Now Zoey is the apple of all the eyes around her, Gonzalez said after the upbeat, intimate service attended by about 50 people Saturday.
And while what befell her remains deeply disturbing and her parents can never be replaced, its clear that not only is she doted on but also that she now is more a symbol of love and hope than anything else.
It wasnt scripted this way, but it was most visible during one element of the ceremony:
When the LoneStar Cheer & Dance group that Kasi used to participate in and help coach performed to one of her favorite songs, Lean On Me, the group walked around the pews of the Memorial Chapel at Cook-Walden Funeral Home engaging those in attendance to follow them.
Suddenly, Kasi Perkins sister, Angela Moore, was cradling Zoey at the front of the line. She then held her aloft to an admiring audience just as a photo presentation of Kasi Perkins began to roll.
The slide show ended with juxtaposed pictures of Kasi and Zoey, each making similarly scrunched faces at the camera, and then the words, Until we see you again
When I look at her sometimes, of course it makes me cry, Gonzalez said. But its always the sad tears turn to joy because shes just delightful.
Even 364 days later, of course, conducting such a ceremony was difficult for Gonzalez.
I had to come to terms with a lot of things, but I couldnt not do it, she said. Its like a milestone. I mean, after her death, we went straight into of the legalities of Zoey. And that took up more than half a year. And then we had other milestones: Zoeys birthday, Kasandras birthday.
And then this. And it feels like now maybe its, now that Ive celebrated, maybe its a time that I can try to I think were all ready to work on our healing. And this was a good way to start.
Theres still an unfathomable ways to go, but Gonzalez has found herself able to make some crucial decisions as she tries to recover.
But its a difficult thing, she added, beginning to cry before catching herself. Because in a lot of cases somebodys in prison, so youre able to take your anger out on someone.
But theres no place to place it. So you give it to God. And those arent words. Those are the honest truth. You get on your knees, and you ask him to take it. Because its too much. And miraculously, he does.
She could see some of that miracle in the love at the ceremony on Saturday, where Kasis smile was the most shimmering theme and her mischievous sense of humor and fascination with dance came up again and again.
Many, including Zoey, were clad in at least some purple, in honor of Kasis favorite color. Others wore various shirts commemorating her, including one that on the back read, We smile because she did and we were (a part) of it.
All of this in some way explains how Gonzalez and the rest of their family have been coping.
And bitterness will destroy you. And it could have easily taken me down. It could have destroyed me, she said, pausing to clear her throat and adding, and Kasi wouldnt want that.
Not that there arent moments that Gonzalez doesnt struggle to manage, including things she has read and heard said about her daughter that implied somehow her behavior was a catalyst.
For instance, a person who suggested he or she was close to Belcher emailed the website Deadspin that Belcher had developed severe issues with drinking and prescription drugs and was reeling from head injuries. But the friend also seemed to be seeking to absolve Belcher to some degree, referring to Perkins behavior.
Former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel told police that Belcher had missed a team meeting a few weeks earlier and that Belcher had blamed it on Perkins for leaving him to watch the baby when she hadnt come home the night before.
Of course you cant control what people say, Gonzalez said. But some people are just horrible. They try to villainize the victim, and they dont know my daughter. They dont know what a joy she was.
I mean, of course shed go out and celebrate once in a while. But she was into her health. She wasnt into partying and drinking and all this stuff that they try to make her look like she was doing to try to give him a reason. Thats just not who she was.
She just wanted her family. She just wanted to raise their daughter and be a family. And thats what she was about.
Gonzalez has tried to compartmentalize what happened especially because there has been no public explanation that fully adds up.
Some believe, for instance, that there is reason to suspect Belcher was afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a form of degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma concussive and, importantly, subconcussive that has been found in 45 of 46 former NFL players brains studied by Boston Universitys Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
And among athletes later linked to CTE who committed suicide in recent years were former NFL players Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and Andre Waters.
Theres no question that Belchers brain would be one that would be of keen interest, said Robert Cantu, co-director of the BU institute, adding, I dont know in any way, shape or form if it did contribute, but it could have if he had incipient CTE in his brain.
And since weve seen CTE in individuals as young as high school players, as well as college players, it doesnt necessarily mean you have to play 10 years in the NFL to get it. You could have had it when you entered the NFL.
But by all indications, Belchers brain tissue wasnt requested for study by his family, and his mother, Cheryl Shepherd, could not be reached for comment.
At Belchers funeral last year, Shepherds words in the program suggested her family was seeking answers as well. The $9,992 headstone commissioned for his grave at North Babylon Cemetery on Long Island, N.Y., was ordered to read, in part, Dearly Loved Father and Only God Can Judge Me.
Such thoughts are incomprehensible and even infuriating to some. But they are part of the way a despondent immediate family desperate for a shred of peace or reconciliation tries to frame Belcher, whose child hardly could know him, now or ever, as a dearly loved father.
Gonzalez acknowledges that she sometimes struggles with anger.
We feel we were cheated; something very precious was taken from us, she said, later adding, The mother in me wants to scream injustice. The grandmother in me wants to protect my granddaughter.
Its a very difficult line to walk. I want to scream off the mountaintops. I cant do that, so Im going to try to serve others who are hurting through the organization that I founded.
That organization will be known as Kasis Kids, a nonprofit that will be dedicated to children who have been orphaned by domestic homicide.
Gonzalez stressed that the organization is in startup mode, but those interested in more information can visit the website kasiskids.org.
As for this child orphaned by domestic homicide, she is walking and smiling and fidgeting and being held and talking and making people laugh.
On Saturday, Gonzalez could only laugh herself at the only audible words Zoey could be heard saying during the ceremony.
Da-da, she said, which wasnt a call for Belcher but for her grandfather across the room.
It used to be Kasandra, always the center of attention, Gonzalez said. When someones fun, theyre very magnetic. And because everybody loved Kasi so much, theyre automatically just drawn to her daughter.
And thats the only part of Kasi we have left.