“In the middle of all that was happening, that’s what she was focused on,” Case recalls of her daughter, Brandi Christine Case-Wallace. “She was amazing.”
If we fast-forward that 7-year-old girl’s life to one day several months ago, this becomes clear: It began with difficulty, and it ended the same way.
Brandi Christine Case-Wallace died on July 21 at the age of 33. She was eight months pregnant and didn’t get to meet the son who passed away shortly after he was born, her family says.
Recently, Case and her former wife, Chris Colburn, stood on the edge of the Potomac River and watched as the water steadily swept away the ashes of both Brandi and that baby. The circumstances around their deaths are complicated, but Case feels certain of this: They are two of the more than 1 million people across the world who have died so far as a result of covid-19.
“It felt so unexpected that this is what happened,” she says in a quiet voice steadied with effort. “And at the same time, expected.”
Case is a disability rights advocate in the nation’s capital, so she knows better than most just how cruel the novel coronavirus has been to the most vulnerable.
When concerns bubble in the Washington region about people with disabilities — such as the inadequate supply of protective equipment provided to home health aides or the need for more of those aides to help people avoid ending up in assisted-living facilities — her name appears in the emails that zip between D.C. residents who consistently show up at city council meetings, write to lawmakers and speak up for those who sometimes can’t speak at all.
But the worries Case holds right now about the high toll the coronavirus is taking on the most vulnerable — and she has many — are not just those of a concerned advocate who uses a wheelchair to get around.
They are also those of a grieving mother.
As we talk on a recent afternoon, she speaks about her daughter’s struggles. “Demons,” she calls them, as she describes how they placed Brandi smack in the middle of several high-risk categories for the virus, including homelessness.
As Case tells it, she and Colburn were living in Dallas when they began fostering Brandi and her younger brother. They were chosen because they had already taken in another child with a disability and Case knew some sign language through her work as a special-education teacher.
Case says Brandi had been a victim of child sex trafficking, but in those early days of living with them, there were also signs that she had endured other types of abuse. She would sneak food and save it, unsure that there would be a next meal. She tucked it away under cushions and other places where it would later be found rotting. Then came the first bulk trash day. Brandi went outside and dragged to the family’s driveway furniture that she thought was still good enough to use.
“She was a tiny 7-year-old, and she dragged a corner table,” Case recalls.
Colburn, who is the chief operations officer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also shared that story at a virtual memorial service the family held for Brandi at the end of August. About 70 people attended and listened as Colburn described a child who possessed a “fearlessness” and “an undeniable life force.”
“For a deaf person in a hearing world, Brandi lived her life OUT LOUD!” she said. She described how Brandi would laugh at her “awkward attempts” to learn sign language, before helping her figure out how to convey what she was trying to say.
Brandi was hungry to communicate and easily grew her vocabulary in sign language, Case says. She points to Brandi as the reason the family eventually moved to the Washington region. They were drawn by the quality of schools for the deaf and hard of hearing. At different points in her life, Brandi attended the Maryland School for the Deaf at its Columbia campus and Kendall Demonstration Elementary School on the campus of Gallaudet University.
But she struggled with that past trauma, Case says, and eventually developed a substance abuse problem that landed her in jail several times and cost her custody of three children. It also led her, at times, to choose homelessness over a warm bed in her mother’s home.
Case says she hadn’t heard from her daughter in months when she received a call on July 22 from a Washington-area hospital saying Brandi and her son, who was delivered at 8 months through an emergency C-section, had died the day before. Brandi, she was told, had tested positive for the coronavirus and cocaine.
Brandi, she learned, had been hanging out near a park in the Ivy City neighborhood and told people, “I don’t feel well. I’m sick. I’m hot.” She then passed out and was taken to the hospital.
After Brandi’s death, Case and Colburn went to the park and placed flowers and a sign bearing Brandi’s name and the words “Feisty-Deaf- Force of Nature.” It was one of the few ways the pandemic had left them to mourn.
“You don’t get to go to the hospital,” Case says. “You don’t get to go to the morgue. And we needed something concrete to say, ‘She was here.’ ”
On Thursday and Friday, Case plans to gather with other disability rights activists in a spot between the U.S. Capitol building and the Supreme Court to hold a “people’s hearing.” The aim is to show how the loss of the Affordable Care Act would especially hurt people with preexisting medical conditions and to call for more relief to help people with disabilities get through the pandemic.
That 1 million milestone of lives lost to the virus, which the world reached Monday, might feel like a moment of mutual mourning. But so many — too many — of those deaths belong to people who struggled in life with physical and intellectual disabilities and mental illness. The most vulnerable among us are dying, and it’s on us to figure out whether we care enough to do anything about it.
At Brandi’s memorial service, a soloist used sign language to sing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The next day, Case and Colburn held their private Potomac goodbye for her and their grandson.
He was born without a name, so for his birth certificate, they picked one that hinted at how, if given the chance, he might have shared the persistence of his mother and the activism of the civil rights leader whose death preceded his by just days.
They named him after John Lewis.
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