The people I've loved and lost since March of 2020 did not die of covid; they died of long cancers
and sudden heart attacks. From my many experiences with death, I know that we're not really supposed to talk about it. I'm not saying anything new, and not speaking for
everyone. But by and large, talk of death makes those who aren't immediately affected feel uncomfortable, casts a pall over gatherings of people who already have enough to
worry about. The result is that people who are in shock and grieving are too often isolated, bearing not only their loss but also not wanting to impose their misery on others.
And why should they. There is always the risk that friends and family whom the grieving have trusted will disappoint—that is, turn out not to have the emotional resources
to provide the deep consolation that could make a difference. Grieving in tandem, even intimates hitherto unfailingly of one mind may suddenly not recognize each other.
The most useful thing I ever heard about grieving is that it doesn't progress in a straight line, but rather a spiral. Its path moves
upward, and just when a modicum of healing seems imminent, the grief comes back around, unexpected and with full force, to have its way again. I think many who have grieved will
recognize this pattern of healing and not-healing that circles around endlessly, without warning or logic, not lessening but rather wearing down over the years, until it
dwindles to an ever-present hum of sadness that we stop expecting to go away. There are people around us every day—everywhere, going about their business—who are
listening to that hum.
There are also people around us who have never seen a dead body, and people who have, and they are different.
This beautiful young man, DANIEL "CASEY" LEAPER, born on December 20, 1994, was hit by a
car on July 20, 2021, and killed.
When people who knew and loved him in different ways described him, the
light each remark shed on Casey made a kind of hologram of him, restoring a treasured glimpse of him to us:
... [I]mpish and quick witted… a way of finding […] exciting, artsy, and
original things [to do]… that twinkle in his eyes, his trickster and kind personality… his openness, welcoming, gentle and vibrant spirit… a fun guy,
a great teammate… friendly, funny, smart and full of light—always a smile
on his face… a well-rounded academic, social, and creative person… bright personality and witty humor… a mischievous smile and his eyes would
twinkle… animals were always drawn to him… that boy could light up a room…this calming beautiful soul…
At the July 31 funeral, Casey's father, Jerry McDaniel, gave a spare, blasted,
heartbroken eulogy for Casey—something you hope someone you love never has to do. He talked about Casey's wisdom, his athleticism, his strength of
character—and added to funny and smart: artistic, charming, and headstrong; he described a bit of a daredevil and an impressively ravenous
eater. Here is Jerry on Casey at the University of San Francisco (USF) "as a freshman studying the basics with a heavy bent on mathematics, physics,
girls—maybe astrophysics—and always with the literature. He always seemed to have some books around—poetry, religion, the classics. And music…"
Casey was like a big brother to me, which doesn't make any sense since he
was almost 40 years younger than I am. Nevertheless: he was always protective of me, concerned for me, wanting to be helpful. I knew Casey
through his father over the twelve or so years before Casey's undeserved death. In that time, he had some injuries, and surgeries with hospital stays,
and periods of rehabilitation. Here Casey showed his real fortitude, and although his charm was definitely intact, his famous twinkle was perhaps a
bit subdued: increasingly, he had a distracted quality, a shadow in his smile.
Casey and I always seemed to stand very close to each other. That's it. If we
were chatting, whether sitting or standing, we just stayed close, like twins do after birth.
Once he and his father came over for dinner with my son, Kiril, and me—a
pretty low-key occasion. I was preparing in the kitchen, Kiril chatted with them for a bit in the living room then joined me, and Jerry ended up with a
few minutes to himself in the living room when Casey came into the kitchen, too. Soon enough, we were standing very close around the cutting board and
Casey was both lead conversationalist and head chef, keeping the chit-chat aloft while chopping and mixing. It was then that he altered my food
thinking forever: he proposed that everything tasted better with bacon. No matter what Kiril and I held up as foods that couldn't possibly go with
bacon—peanut butter, ice cream, fish—Casey insisted, friendly but firm in his conviction: they would all taste better with bacon. Yes, he said, of course
bacon could be wrapped around a banana. And soon enough we were seeing his point. He was like that—one wanted to join in his enthusiasms. – But not
so fast: thinking back on it now, I have to wonder whether he was pulling our leg. I'll always have that question as my companion going forth.
One time his father Jerry took me to visit Casey in the hospital after his jaw
had been broken. He got off his bed and came and sat very close to me on a little couch and showed me the rubber bands in his mouth that he was
supposed to exercise with. Another of those uncanny moments of closeness, with no shyness between us.
One of Casey's most spectacular moments in my life was when he came to
help me at my family's home in Berkeley. After my mother died, intentional obstacles emerged to my hanging onto the house where four generations of
my family had been, and the house was being sold. Jerry, a brilliant actor, was also general contractor for preparing the house for sale. At a juncture
when I was especially distraught, Casey arrived to do some painting around the windows in the living room, some general moving and carrying of heavy
things. But without my saying anything, he also took charge of advertising large and beloved furniture for sale online. Photographing, labeling, pricing,
posting, fielding messages—these were tasks that had paralyzed me, and Casey handled them, gently, as the world's best big brother would. Then he
jumped on his bike and raced to his job at the pizza joint, where I hope he had plenty of free food: from the things in the house, I'd offered him a lamp
that he liked, but it turned out not to work. I like to say that I have no regrets, but in fact I regret that that lamp didn't work for Casey.
Once, on a forlorn day years ago, I spotted an impressive ceramic vase in a
thrift shop. It was a lovely shade of yellow, and had an unusual rectangular shape and rough texture. Best of all, it had a moving poem pressed into it in
beautiful lettering. It was heavy but I carried it home, spoils from the war with my day.
I'm too shy to say how long it was before it dawned on me what this heavy
ceramic vase was: an urn, that must have held the ashes of the man named at the bottom after the poem. What I'd thought at a glance was the name of
the poet (which I've never found), wasn't that at all, but the name of someone who was born on April 3, 1954 and died on October 7, 1974. A young man gone too soon.
To think that
life must have
and ten years
is to forget
that God may
need a life in
its fire rather
than the glow
of its embers
The urn lives in my garden, where I see it from my window every day,
throughout the day, just between the rosebush and the scented geranium. As if in Casey's honor, a nasturtium volunteered to grow out of it—bright,
lovely, both delicate and hardy. But it's gone for now… The flowers of the nasturtium are edible, did you know? And delicious with bacon.
There are more photos and memories of Casey here:
"Melancholy," by sculptor Albert György;
located in Geneva, Switzerland