When Becky Gonzalez looks into her 15-month-old granddaughter’s eyes, she often sees something reassuringly familiar.
“She has some of the same expressions as her mom, and sometimes it’s like my daughter’s looking back at me through her eyes,” Gonzalez said. “And it just flashes through my mind: I’m thinking, ‘Kasi, is that you?’
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“But of course she has her own personality. She’s a very happy baby. She’s 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 Belcher’s 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, it’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s always the sad tears turn to joy because she’s 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 couldn’t not do it,” she said. “It’s 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: Zoey’s birthday, Kasandra’s birthday.
“And then this. And it feels like now maybe it’s, now that I’ve celebrated, maybe it’s a time that I can try to I think we’re all ready to work on our healing. And this was a good way to start.”
There’s still an unfathomable ways to go, but Gonzalez has found herself able to make some crucial decisions as she tries to recover.
“But it’s a difficult thing,” she added, beginning to cry before catching herself. “Because in a lot of cases somebody’s in prison, so you’re able to take your anger out on someone.
“But there’s no place to place it. So you give it to God. And those aren’t words. Those are the honest truth. You get on your knees, and you ask him to take it. Because it’s too much. And miraculously, he does.”
She could see some of that miracle in the love at the ceremony on Saturday, where Kasi’s 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 Kasi’s 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 wouldn’t want that.”
Not that there aren’t moments that Gonzalez doesn’t 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 hadn’t come home the night before.
“Of course you can’t control what people say,” Gonzalez said. “But some people are just horrible. They try to villainize the victim, and they don’t know my daughter. They don’t know what a joy she was.
“I mean, of course she’d go out and celebrate once in a while. But she was into her health. She wasn’t 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. That’s just not who she was.
“She just wanted her family. She just wanted to raise their daughter and be a family. And that’s 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 University’s 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.
“There’s no question that Belcher’s brain would be one that would be of keen interest,” said Robert Cantu, co-director of the BU institute, adding, “I don’t 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 we’ve seen CTE in individuals as young as high school players, as well as college players, it doesn’t 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, Belcher’s brain tissue wasn’t requested for study by his family, and his mother, Cheryl Shepherd, could not be reached for comment.
At Belcher’s funeral last year, Shepherd’s 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.
“It’s a very difficult line to walk. I want to scream off the mountaintops. I can’t do that, so I’m going to try to serve others who are hurting through the organization that I founded.”
That organization will be known as Kasi’s 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
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 wasn’t a call for Belcher but for her grandfather across the room.
“It used to be Kasandra, always the center of attention,” Gonzalez said. “When someone’s fun, they’re very magnetic. And because everybody loved Kasi so much, they’re automatically just drawn to her daughter.
“And that’s the only part of Kasi we have left.”