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Senior year is supposed to be a transformative time — but not like this

Heavynle Ceasar figured something was wrong when her cellphone rang at school. Her sister was on the line, sounding panicked and scared: “Come home! Something bad has happened,” she said.

Home was across the street from Lawndale’s Leuzinger High. Heavynle reached the condo in minutes. But it didn’t matter. Her parents had been shot to death.

The bodies were in their bedroom, behind a locked door. Heavynle jimmied it open and peeked inside. “It smelled like firecrackers,” she said. She closed the door and waited for police to arrive.

The next few hours were surreal for the 17-year-old and her teenage sister, Gloria, who’d been adopted by her parents after several years as their foster child. Police questioned the girls, tested their hands for gunshot residue and kept them in the back seat of a patrol car while curious schoolmates and neighbors gawked.

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“Then my grandmother came and she started crying. And I knew something really bad had happened,” Heavynle recalled.

The job of breaking the news fell to officers. “They said, ‘Are you sure you’re ready to hear this? Your dad shot your mom and then himself.’ ”

She wasn’t ready. How could she be?

It was May 4, the week before her senior prom; seven weeks away from high school graduation. And the honor student and cheerleader had just become an orphan.

::

I hadn’t heard of the case until a Leuzinger parent sent me an email about Heavynle — pronounced heavenly. The family’s tragedy got lost, I guess, in the swirl of murder-suicides that made headlines in the last few months: Three in San Diego alone; others in Whittier, East Los Angeles, Westminster, Sherman Oaks.

Heavynle said the death of her parents “seemed pretty random to me then.” But the couple had recently separated, and there were whispers of financial ills.

She is now living with her aunt; her sister is with their grandmother. Heavynle said it still seems unreal, like something that’s happening to somebody else.

She’s gone from pampered child to stunned adult; from anticipating the prom party her mother promised to trying to figure out how to pay for college.

Her mom had approved of the short black prom dress Heavynle found at a Melrose shop. She added silver ribbons to make it stand out, but her mom never saw that.

Her funeral was the day before the prom.

Heavynle looks dazzling in her prom-night photographs. “I think my mom would have liked it,” she said. “I tried not to cry while I got dressed.”

And I tried not to cry while listening to the teenager talk about her mother.

“She was really outgoing and funny … she could get along with anybody,” Heavynle said. Her mother worked with disabled adults, “and loved her job, like she loved her kids.” Lisa Brown was “the perfect mom,” the kind who brought small gifts home on a whim “just because she saw something she knew I’d like.

“She was seriously like my best friend … the first person I wanted to talk to about my day. I could tell her anything.”

We sat in silence for a while. Her eyes filled up, but she didn’t cry.

“Everybody always asks me if I’m mad at my dad,” she said. “I’m not. I just want to do what they wanted me to … to see me graduate and go to college.”

::

The news traveled quickly through Leuzinger High; her home had been a gathering spot for friends, and Heavynle was popular with classmates and teachers.

It has put things in perspective for the grown-ups.

“We get upset if the coffee maker is out or the copy machine broke down,” principal Ryan Smith told me. “And here’s a young lady dealing with a tragedy of epic proportions — something it’s hard for us to even imagine.”

The school community has rallied around Heavynle, but the attention has been uncomfortable. She was allowed to finish the semester at home because it was too hard to be on campus. “Everybody was always asking me if I was OK. After a while, it got annoying … I stayed away, stopped answering my phone.”

She understands that people mean well; that this is awkward for everyone. But as she swings between anger and forgiveness, she’s forced to wrestle with existential issues that high school hasn’t prepared her for.

“I wonder sometimes,” she admitted, “why would he do this?” Her father, Carlton Ceasar, was a good parent, she said. “He knows I had prom, and graduation … that this was supposed to be my best time, something I could look back on.”

She’s a child, trying to accept that parents — like life — can disappoint.

But she’s also a generous young woman, willing to talk about uncomfortable feelings, “because I don’t know anybody who’s been through this. And maybe I can help someone.”

At graduation on Thursday night, reminders of her loss were everywhere: in the bleachers filled with moms and dads, and in classmates’ tributes to their own parents. But Heavynle drew comfort from little things, like the string of flowers from her ceramics teacher. She hugged Brian Yoshi and shouted with glee as he slipped the purple lei over her mortarboard and onto her shoulders.

Her teachers and friends’ parents believe that Heavynle will be alright; she is self-assured and uncommonly mature. She will not allow herself to think otherwise.

Heavynle doesn’t know yet how she’ll pay for college, but she knows that she will earn a college degree. She was accepted to all five universities she applied to; she’ll head to St. John’s University in New York City in August.

Heavynle has never been to New York, and she would be staying here for school if her mother were alive. “I wanted to go to back East, but I wouldn’t because I knew I’d miss her too much.”

She’s learning now “to go with the flow. Because you never know what will happen next.”

I stifle my impulse to offer comfort. Heavynle has had enough of cliches: Everything happens for a reason. Suffering just makes you stronger. God never gives you more than you can handle.

She’s so over that, she told me, rolling her eyes like the teenager she still is.

“People say ‘Good things are going to happen for you!’ But I’d take my parents over any good thing.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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