This morning I woke up at 4:30 am and looked outside. Heavy snow, still falling. Life perfect and quiet and beautiful, no humans awake. Even my dog was asleep.
And as I looked at our perfect world, our beautiful Universe, I realized I could write and write and write and still never have the words to describe Casey.
My friend Casey died night before last in her home in Northern California. Her sister-in-law messaged me that she hadn’t been feeling well (Casey was my age but suffered from diabetes and an autoimmune disease). Her husband hooked up her IV. When he went to check on her she had stopped breathing. He couldn’t revive her; neither could the paramedics he called.
The grief I went through yesterday was a deep one. In the middle of canceling my debit card because someone in Colombia was watching Smash Mouth on my dime, I got a message which read in part:
Casey died in her sleep…
I couldn’t understand.
I met Casey Toney in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We were both volunteers for the Red Cross. She was the nurse for our shelter, and five others in the area. We were in an area called the 6th Ward. Klan country. Our shelter was about a 50/50 mix of black and white clients; it was lost on us at the time how miraculous it was that everyone got along so well.
During our time together in this disaster response, I am not at all sure Casey ever slept. She seemed always to have been up for 24 hours. There were about 70 clients in our shelter, some of whom arrived soaking wet with absolutely nothing, including their medications. We had one man in renal failure who wasn’t quite near death enough to be taken seriously by paramedics. There was a woman with an open wound the size of a quarter on her leg. She’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider. It grew in size daily.
There was no pharmacy that was open. There were no doctors available. As she was a Nurse Practitioner and could write scripts, Casey was it. She was assisted by another nurse, Joe. One day he got very ill and the next day I did as well; she told me later she was worried it was an outbreak of typhus and was very relieved when we snapped out of it. At one of the shelters in her charge, there were two newborns under two weeks old. Then there was the time one of the National Guardsman got what we thought were chicken pox. The CDC drove up in a car the next day to possibly quarantine us. Miraculously and correctly, Casey determined that he had shingles, thus saving us two more weeks of time in a shelter.
Now this is the thing about Casey. She was one of those rare humans who understood what the problem was, and she knew how to fix it. There was just nothing to fix it with.
It’s hard to imagine an area in America like this, but there we were. There was nothing available that you and I are taking for granted right this instant. There was no IV tubing, there were no antibiotics, and there were definitely no pain meds. There was no insulin, and we kept getting readings of people that were over 300. Thankfully that turned out to be a piece of faulty equipment; but no one knew the importance of insulin more than Casey, who had childhood diabetes.
Casey took the time to speak to each of our clients to find out how they were. She had a remarkable capacity for listening. She listened actively, head bent, shock of brown hair on top of her pretty face without a trace of make-up. I remember there was a sheriff’s deputy, a woman, who was ill with some kind of rare disease, and often I’d see her talking to Casey.
When I think of Casey from that time, she is always listening to someone. Not talking. Her heart was as big as a barn door, and she had the capacity to take in another’s pain. What a nurse.
I think the first time I saw her she said something snarky to me, which was completely uncharacteristic. She apologized, telling me she hadn’t been asleep in several days. I remember her trying to sort out exactly which medications she needed to get. And then I remember her coming up to me with a handful of paper prescriptions.
She asked me if I would be willing to go to a pharmacy about a half hour away that had opened. I certainly was. Then she told me it would be dangerous. It was actually dangerous to have access to medication. You could be knocked over the head for it. Well, I love an adventure, and she knew that about me, so off I was, with my own National Guard driver. We went and got everything she needed. On the way, the nice young Guardsman told me he’d done two tours of Iraq, and the situation here was definitely worse than Iraq.
I was the last manager and the next to the last person to leave. We’d gotten Casey in a shipment of Red Cross workers from California. Casey, Joe, and Michael, the computer guy. There were two in that bunch, a couple, who had to be dismissed. They thought their skill set was above the basic tasks we’d asked them to do. It was easy to let them go, because I have to tell you, the least attractive quality in a disaster responder is I’m smarter than the work you’ve given me.
Before Casey left, she asked me a favor, without exactly asking.
There was a group of people, that were not at the shelter, nearby. They weren’t eligible for some money that everyone else was eligible for, but it was on a technicality. One of the endless, stupid technicalities that plagued so many residents affected by the storm.
For example, people could get $2000 immediate relief from FEMA. All they had to do was apply online.
It never occurred to FEMA, I guess, that the innumerable number of people still without power may need that money as well-with no way to get it. There’s no going online without electricity.
Anyway, so Casey presented another situation, and let it sit there.
Ohhh, I said.
I had the means to help them, but only if I broke the law.
There were a whole lot of laws that needed breaking down there. I was happy to make an attempt on their behalves, and I did. It worked. As soon as I pulled it off I let her know. She was delighted.
I’m not trying to be cute about it. I just don’t want to implicate anyone else.
The thing is, if it weren’t for Casey, that none-too-small detail would have gone right over my head. Those people were too proud and too honest to have asked any such thing of me. Casey and I both knew, also, that lives had been lost during Katrina because of red tape. She wasn’t having it. And although too obtuse to notice initially, neither was I.
I cannot stand that she won’t be here to go over what I have written about Katrina, to clear up mysteries and help with details. There was more than one secret that she and I shared there. I am left with a few of them and I have no idea whether or not they should ever see the light of day. In a way, we were each other’s conscience.
We were messaging each other a lot during the Camp Fire in California. She lived in Redding. She had to evacuate twice. She, her husband, her mother, who was in her nineties and had Alzheimer’s, and her dog; all of them in one RV for the endless days that followed their first evacuation. She told me they were safe, and parked in a lot of a drugstore. They returned home once to have the Sheriff knock on their door and tell them they had to leave again. She was never separated from her sense of humor. I got this message from her one day:
We got some higher quality air masks for particulate matter. We did have to modify Granny’s, though. After making a small incision into it, she is able to fit her non-filtered cigs into it just fine.
During the fires, I kept asking her if she needed anything. It seemed so awful; the woman who helped everyone now in this dire situation. She always demurred. When a friend of hers, though, or the child of a friend needed something, she would send me their name and ask if I could help, or as she put it:
Please prayerfully consider if you can help.
Our last message exchange was on Valentine’s Day. She sent me a recipe for Cannabis Prosecco Popsicles.
I’m frustrated because I have been writing for the last 24 hours since I found out Casey died and I can’t write well enough to describe her. I am not that talented.
Writing about Casey shouldn’t be hard. The writing would be simple and elegant and it would resonate with the power of a human at her best. Seeing all the beauty and all the foibles of mankind. Admiring a friend who took life as it came, and took the people who came with it as well. Total acceptance of our situation. Grace. That’s what the writing should be like. That’s how she should be described.
Casey was the snow falling this morning at 4:30, whispering to me that her death didn’t mean life wasn’t still beautiful.