Becky Gonzalez can still smell the leather jacket her daughter Kasandra Perkins was wearing when she hugged her goodbye for the last time.
Gonzalez vividly remembers her own eyes watering up, just like they always did when Kasi was leaving to fly back to Kansas City.
This time, her daughter had flown home to Texas after asking her mother to arrange a five-generation photo with Kasi’s great grandmother, her grandmother, her mother, herself and her then months-old daughter, Zoey.
“At the time, I thought it was because her great grandmother was in her 90s,” Becky Gonzalez said. “But after her death, I know it was something that was placed in her spirit.”
Two weeks later, five years ago Friday, 22-year-old Kasandra was murdered by Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who then committed suicide in the parking lot of the Chiefs training facility near Arrowhead Stadium.
Gonzalez has learned since then that there is no healing, really, just coping with the loss of her lovely and lively daughter — someone whose name should forever be remembered in Kansas City, both for who she was and as a testament to the ravages of domestic violence that need to be addressed every day with shelters typically full all over the region.
Early on, Gonzalez thought there might be some kind of checklist she could follow, steps that would eventually make it easier. But … no.
Every day is a struggle in the volatile cycle of grief, which can overwhelm her in an unexpected moment or barely show up at an anticipated milestone.
Friday, though, was certain to be piercing after she’d driven from North Texas to Capital Parks Cemetery in Pflugerville to change out Kasandra’s birthday decorations for Christmas ones.
“The thought actually makes my stomach queasy,” said Gonzalez, who corresponded by e-mail because it’s so agonizing for her to speak about.
Some days are better than others, though, and some things help.
Now 5, Zoey is being raised by Kasandra’s cousin Sophie. She is a sustaining force in Gonzalez’s life, cherished by family much the way she was symbolically celebrated at a one-year memorial service attended by The Star in the Memorial Chapel at Cook-Walden Funeral Home in Pflugerville:
That day, the LoneStar Cheer Dance group to which Kasi had belonged and later helped coach performed one of her favorite songs, “Lean On Me.” They walked around the pews encouraging the intimate group of 50 or so to follow them.
Next thing you know, Kasandra’s sister, Angela Moore, cradled Zoey at the front of the line and held her aloft to an admiring audience as a photo presentation of Kasi Perkins began.
Zoey was the apple of all the eyes around her, Gonzalez said that day, noting how Zoey’s smile was so similar to her mother’s that it sometimes flashed in her mind, “Kasi, is that you?”
To protect Zoey’s privacy and well-being, Gonzalez quite understandably prefers now not to reveal too much about her but says she “is a happy and active 5-year-old. She is very smart and is into all things girly. We enjoy baking together when she visits.”
But it’s excruciating knowing that Zoey is the last living connection to Kasandra, who is as much a part of her daily thoughts as she ever was … yet with the knowledge of the void always lurking.
She hears her voice inside her head. She expects a text or a call from her at any given time.
“Sometimes I see something that I know she would like and for a moment I think ‘I need to get that for Kas,’ but then I remember,” she said.
Plenty of memories can make her smile, though, including some to which she even attached a happy emoji.
Like the way even as an adult Kasi would still ask her to make her a sandwich, or “steal” shoes from her closet when she visited or call her from Kansas City to ask “how do you cook this?”
“Because even though she was growing up,” Gonzalez said, “she still needed me.”
Like her smile itself, so engraved in her mind that it can bring a warm feeling to her heart.
“She was such a real and down-to-earth person that could adapt to any situation; it’s that realness that made so many feel drawn to her,” she said. “She had a warm, casual and silly personality that made her charming and endearing. Once she flashed that smile she knew she had you, but her siblings could see right through her charm. LOL.”
Gonzalez was proud of who she was inside and who she was becoming through her schooling and volunteer work and learning to be a mother … and all that portended.
“I loved to hear her plans for the future,” she said, later adding, “The world was a better place with her and kind-hearted people like her in it.”
It’s a challenge to cordon that off in her mind from her murder by Belcher, 25, her boyfriend and the father of her child.
(In 2014, The Star reported that analysis of Belcher’s brain after he’d been exhumed revealed a key signature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, best known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease found to cause dementia, confusion, depression and aggression).
“When I think of Kasi, it takes a conscious effort to separate out the trauma and horrific violence that ended her life from infiltrating the good memories,” she said. “I don’t want bitterness to take over who my ‘new normal’ is becoming.”
So she seeks consolation where she can find it, fleeting as it might be.
KasisKids.org was formed to help children who have lost parent(s) to domestic violence — “in memory of Kasandra M. Perkins, murdered by a pro football player on December 1, 2012,” as it says on its Twitter page.
They’ve been “honored to help several families” through the organization, she said, but she often feels like she’s opening a wound and wonders what the future holds for that.
Her religious faith, an extremely supportive family and determination that this won’t destroy her have helped her the most.
So does the thought that Kasi would not want to see her in despair.
She’s also found some solace in an unexpected place, because, alas, the sheer number of people who belong to the culture of having a murdered child is astounding.
“Believe it or not, at this point a tool that helps me a lot is my Facebook group: TCF — Loss of a Child By Homicide,” she said. “If I am awake at 2 a.m., I can express my thoughts and feelings with people who understand exactly how I feel.
“They’re very encouraging and sometimes offer very practical advice. We are very supportive of each other. Most are experiencing the horrific nature of a murder trial. I was spared from that experience.”
Through all of this, she has learned so much she could say to those who have lost a child that she probably could write a book about it.
“There is so much practical advice, like taking care of yourself,” she said. “Healthy food choices, getting enough sleep, because grief is a huge stress on the human body. It’s exhausting even when you’re not consciously thinking about it.”
She can also tell you what doesn’t help.
“The biggest hurdle we have is to navigate emotions from people who think they’re helping but really are not,” she said. “The last thing a person in this situation needs is well-meaning advice from people who couldn’t possibly understand.
“The outside world doesn’t know it but inside it enrages us. It cuts us to the bone to hear the standard cliches. This has to be the number one issue I hear from people going through the situation.”
So take a moment to think of Kasi herself, who she was, what she meant to so many.
And remember why working to prevent domestic violence has to remain a relentless cause.
“Losing a child is like no other loss,” she said. “It devastates marriages, robs you of your joy, causes depression, wreaks havoc on your health, pushes you beyond pain limits for months and years at a time with little or no breaks of relief.
“It rips families apart and turns people to addictions just for some relief. The never-ending pain that hurts literally into your bones.”
But at least it can’t erase the memories.
Like that smile and all the warmth and charm and silliness and thoughtfulness.
And like the smell of a leather jacket and eyes watering up at goodbye.