The next few days were a blur for the Cassells as the media, relatives and friends flocked to the house. During a television interview, Steve spoke directly through the camera in a grief-stricken daze to the man who hit his son.
“I said, ‘We know this wasn’t your fault and we forgive you and we love you,’ ” he recalls. “I did not have the thought in my head before it came out. It was something spiritual that happened.”
Steve didn’t know it at the time, but the driver lives in the same neighborhood as the Cassells, and a mutual friend arranged a meeting between the man and his wife (who have a young child of their own) and Steve and Jennifer at a church a week after the accident.
“They came in with tears rolling down their faces,” Steve says. “They were shaking. They just ran to us and we just held each other and cried. The first thing that his wife said was, ‘We want to know all about Jake.’ What a beautiful thing to say. We told them, ‘We don’t want you to carry the weight of this for your whole life. We forgive you and we want to set you free from any feeling of guilt.’ They’re really good people.”
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, thoughts turned to a memorial for Jake. “You don’t ever spend any time thinking, what would I do if my kid died?” Steve says. “Jake was very certain in who he was, so we said we’re going to celebrate his life, and we’re going to worship.”
McLean Bible couldn’t accommodate the number of people who were expected to attend, so the family approached Heckert about staging it at Churchill. “This school was such an important part of Jake’s life,” the principal says. “He was at every event because his family was so supportive. It just made the most sense to honor Jake in this facility that he loved and he was so proud to be a part of.”
The celebration of life was hosted by Mike Kelsey, campus pastor at McLean Bible. Shortly after it began, he asked the people in the auditorium to look around at each other. “What you see here today is not just evidence of a tragic death,” he said. “What you see here today is evidence of a life well lived…a life filled with love and contagious enthusiasm.”
Heckert was among the speakers. “For those of you who have ever heard me speak about my daughter, Kennedy, she’s 4,” she said. “I talk a lot about our car rides home from school. …I ask her some important questions. What made you happy? Who made you smile? And who did you make smile today? [For me], on any given day, Jake could be the answer to all three.”
Photos of Jake flashed across a screen on the stage. He was always very physical in his affection. In nearly every shot his head was resting on a shoulder, his arm wrapped around a waist, his cheek pressed against another.
A band played his favorite worship songs in the upbeat style he liked. Some people sang along; others stood and swayed. Jake loved singing, playing, and listening to music, but his relationship with it was complicated. He had an auditory sensitivity that manifested itself through asynchronous sounds.
“If he heard a Jimmy Page guitar solo or free-form jazz like Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis, it was like an ice pick on the side of his head,” his dad says. “Crocodile tears would start flowing. ‘Pray with me,’ he’d say, ‘and have God take it away.’ But he really loved music that had a melody, songs that had structure. He liked classic rock a lot, stuff like John Mellencamp and the Eagles. His favorite all-time band was the Beatles.”
Former Scout Master Mike Schecter spoke, as did teachers, family members and friends. About a half hour in, Kelsey asked people to slide to the middle of their rows so the crowd waiting outside could get in.
Finally, at the end of the nearly two-hour event, Steve Cassell approached the dais. In the days before the memorial, he knew that he would speak, but he didn’t know how he’d find the strength. When he sat down to outline the magnificence of his son’s life, the speech wrote itself, he says.
The audience sat transfixed as he delivered a raw display of love and grief that was at times uplifting, painful, amusing, sweet, discomforting and heartwarming.
“What comes with being a special-needs parent, especially on the front end, is anger, denial, sorrow, embarrassment, disappointment and loss,” he said. “I felt all of these. We had to completely recalibrate our life. It became a life of sacrifice for our child. The endless therapies, the time, the money, the vulnerability of our child—he was never safe.
“We had to learn to focus on a different type of achievement. Speech, fine motor skills, original thoughts, appropriate responses, subtlety, irony, basic everyday tasks and self-care. All of those things became very hard for Jake and took a long time to develop. But somehow through all of this we learned to enjoy every small milestone. Every small victory brought us so much joy.”
Toward the end, Steve asked God to allow Jake to see the outpouring of love for him in the auditorium. “He would be beyond himself to see all of his friends and family gathered here at Churchill celebrating his life,” he said. “What a testament to the wonderful young man he was and the beautiful life he lived. Thank you, God, for Jake. Amen.”
As Steve walked off the stage, fighting back tears, the audience rose for a 36-second standing ovation, the kind you see at a concert or a ballgame, not at a funeral.