The Early Years
Casey’s life and death, soon to be released in my book, The Girl Behind The Door, is the entire motivation behind this blog.
She was born on May 3, 1990 in Giżycko (pronounced Gih-ZHITZ-ko) in northeastern Poland near the border of Byelarus, a repressive dictatorship in the mold of the old Soviet Russia. Her birth sign was Taurus the Bull which described her to a T – tough exterior but a warm heart, the most loyal of friends, but also stubborn and inflexible. She was six weeks premature weighing only three pounds, a dangerously low birth weight for a preemie in Poland at the time.
She was likely delivered first followed by a twin sister who was stillborn. Because her lungs hadn’t fully matured she probably went straight from the delivery room to an incubator, where she stayed for two months. She was then sent to a state orphanage in nearby Mrągowo where she lived for the first year of her life before we received her. I don’t know if her mother even touched her; she relinquished her parental rights. Casey was given the name Joanna – by who I don’t know – her surname was Niełacna.
Though we had seen a fair amount of the countryside in a cramped, five-hour car ride from Warsaw to pick her up at the orphanage, it wasn’t until after Casey’s death that I Googled Giżycko and was amazed at what I found. I pictured a poor, rural backwater, but it’s a lovely resort town of 30,000 (nearly four times the size of my town in the San Francisco Bay Area!) in Poland’s Mazurian Lake District, also known as the “Summer Capital of Poland.”
I can understand why.
The orphanage in Mrągowo was pleasant enough; it looked like a boarding school for an estimated 100 children cared for by a staff I estimated at about a dozen. The caretakers were unfailingly polite and friendly, perhaps also nervous at the sight of the two American visitors. When they brought Casey in to the visitation room she was quiet, weak, lethargic and, oddly enough, she wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I think she’d seen few if any men in her short life, just women in white lab coats.
We tried testing her motor skills but she failed everything – couldn’t sit, stand, walk or do much of anything a 14 month old should do. She was more at the level of a six month old. But to Erika and me she was perfect!
What was so astounding about Casey was that in a few short days in our hotel room in Warsaw, she was sitting up, alert and engaged with us. By the time Erika brought her home to the U.S., a few weeks later, Casey was walking the furniture – a miracle! Everything would be fine. But there were other disturbing moments – her uncontrollable crying and screaming fits, her rocking on all fours to settle herself down. The rocking went away but everything else plagued her and baffled us for the rest of her life.
That first night in Warsaw was a foreshadowing event for what was to come.
The Middle Years
Casey’s middle years were pretty normal. In fact, when I interviewed her last psychiatrist after her death, he reported that Casey told him, in effect, they were pretty good years. She was into Legos, Beenie Babies, Pokémon, video games, Harry Potter, fashion, music and lots of TV. Thank god she wasn’t bullied. She had plenty of friends, but she always wanted a best friend all to herself, and her friends kept getting stolen away by other girls, leaving Casey angry and lonely, crying it out in her room.
When she was ten, she begged us for a dog, a loyal friend who would never betray her, a right of passage I suppose for most kids.
“Dad, I’ll feed him. I’ll walk him. I’ll pick up after him. I’ll do anything. Puh-leez!!”
Erika, and I stalled for time. We let Casey satisfy herself with a pet rat named Banjo that didn’t live very long, a Tomagotchi digital pet, online dog sites and books on breeds. We set parameters – the dog couldn’t be too big, too furry or too loud, he could be athletic but not aggressive, he couldn’t dig up the yard and had to be good with our cat, Grimsby. She devoured those books, falling in love with one breed after another – the Cavalier, the Shelty, the Tibetan Terrier. She nearly ran through the alphabet before landing on the Whippet.
Often mistaken for small-ish Greyhounds, Whippets are sighthounds from England. Because of their size they were unsuitable for racing or hunting, so they were used to catch rats and rabbits. Whereas Greyhounds are track runners, Whippets are sprinters, yet they have all of the couch potato attributes so beloved in Greyhounds.
It was through Casey that Igor came into our lives. He was a striking, brindle colored puppy born to two champions. With his long snout, deep brown eyes and flappy ears, he resembled a friendly deer, attracting attention and confusion wherever we went.
As for Casey’s promise to “do anything?” As if. She appeared to ignore Igor much of the time, leaving the dirty work to Erika and me. He followed her everywhere, prancing behind her to her room almost as if he was floating. He kept her company when she was sad, angry or lonely, sleeping under the covers – her foot warmer – ambrosia for a Whippet.
Casey and Igor were in love.
Like so many kids, Casey had a rough time navigating through high school but eventually found a sense of equilibrium. Redwood High was roughly five times the size of her middle school and, like most kids, she struggled to find her social slot among the crowd while keeping her grades (historically consistent A’s) from wobbling.
The screaming, crying jags and defiance continued, so much so that we were afraid the neighbors would call Child Protective Services on us. We took her to therapist after therapist – all of who knew about her infancy – yet they treated her as they would any teenager acting out. They focused on her behavior and lectured us on parenting.
“You need to set boundaries.”
“Don’t let her sass you lack that.”
“You need to be tougher with her.”
Right. Thanks for nothing…
She joined up with the musicians and artists, people her last therapist labeled with disdain, “THAT crowd.” But in fact, since Casey’s death, we’ve gotten to know that crowd intimately, and they are anything but a “bad” influence. They are warm, sensitive, caring, authentic and mature beyond their years.
After Casey’s death, that crowd was essential to keeping us alive.
Her Facebook page was an illuminating look into her life.
Political Views: Very liberal.
Religious Views: Atheist without the negative connotation that comes with it
Favorite Bands: Grateful Dead, Radiohead, Beatles, Eek-a-Mouse, Cunninlynguists, Andre Nickatina
Favorite TV Shows: Would claim she doesn’t watch tv, except for: Nip Tuck, Family Guy, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, CSI, South Park, American Dad.
Favorite Movies: Every Disney animated movie, Garden State, Fight Club, Scanner Darkly, i ♥ huckabees, Anchorman, Zoolander, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Cruel Intentions, Sin City and anything starring Will Ferrel or Johnny Depp.
Favorite Exercise: Dance Dance Revolution
Random: Acts paradoxically, was a lefty (i.e. left handed and left leaning), could out-sarcastic you, hugged trees, could not decline to party if she tried.
Astrological summary: Casey was born a Taurus (Earth sign) with her moon in Leo (Fire sign). Thus, easy going yet very goal oriented, steady, forceful, independent, go getter, insightful, sees opportunities and has perseverance to achieve them. Inherent conflict in their expressions; especially between what they need and want and what they think and feel. Such conflict can provide great strength and motivation. Often resents authority of any kind.
Famous Taurus/Leo’s: Barbara Streisand.
I was particularly worried about Casey’s college applications. She was a gifted writer but didn’t show nearly as well on paper – so-so GPAs, grades and extra-curriculars. But she knew herself very well, applying to tiny, prestigious Bennington College in Vermont for early acceptance. She got in! We figured soon she’d be off on a whole new adventure, one she’d always dreamed of.
But as her friend Julian astutely pointed out, “I don’t think Casey had any intention of going to Bennington. She just wanted to prove to everyone that she could get in. She was somebody.”
As I was to learn later and too late, how right he was.