- April 6, 2021 in Columnists
A Speck-tacular spirit
Heaven just got a little bit noisier. And more colorful. When Cathy Speck rolled into a room on her scooter covered in all sorts of wacky, zany colorful decorations, and a smile as bright and wide as sunrise, you couldn’t not notice her. Or smile. I’m sure heaven is no different.
I can’t write a maudlin piece about Cathy’s passing today. It wouldn’t do her justice, and wouldn’t be what she’d want. Despite her years of existing despite that monster, ALS, ravaging her body, and then cancer on top of that (Hey Life – ever hear the term “piling on”? Look it up.), she always beamed joy and positivity. And, she also softened the reality of what we will all face some day, some way: Death. She did that with her “gallows humor” and poked fun at death, as if to say “You don’t scare me.” She even created a musical show around it one summer called “Die Laughing.” Because, really, what can you do when life plays such a cruel joke on you — mowing down one family member after another with the most horrifically debilitating, cruel disease imaginable, and then discovering you have it yourself? Amongst the many things ALS stole from her was her beautiful alto singing voice. But one thing it couldn’t steal was her sense of humor — however uncomfortable and yet funny that might be!
One day several years ago, I’d taken Cathy to do a presentation on death and dying in Sacramento, and afterwards, we were talking about how she imagined her memorial service to be. And, bear in mind, I’m totally queasy talking about death, but somehow, Cathy would lure me into that conversation anyway. That day, she told me that at her service, she’d like to put her ashes in a big bowl, and provide a bunch of plastic Easter eggs to all in attendance, so everyone could take a little scoop of her home with them. And! She was carrying her future urn with her to show people — you know, for the “leftovers”! She thought this was super funny.
This was just one instance where all I could respond with was, “Oh, Cathy….” and roll my eyes, and also imagine that this would probably happen, and just hope that I wouldn’t be the one to sneeze when it was my turn to take a scoop.
I “met” Cathy in a very sideways manner. Way back in my early days as an editor, I’d get press releases from her about local Duval Speck performances, the band she made with her partner, Linda Duvall, who is also an amazing songbird. The two of them together were alto angels.
In time, I started receiving her emails about upcoming ALS fundraisers, and explanations of the disease and how Cathy was now dealing with it. However, before getting to the actual information, Cathy would write darkly hilarious, goofy commentary on her situation, and literally seemed to romp with words. As a writer myself, this interested me. One day, I asked her if she’d consider writing opinion columns. I’d just recently co-founded an online commentary website, Ipinion Syndicate, with my friend and fellow columnist David Lacy, and we were looking for new talent.
Cathy immediately responded that she’d love to do this, and later told me it was such a joy to her because ALS had taken so much away from her, and she didn’t know what she would do with herself. Becoming a columnist at that stage of the game was such an emotional boost. And that’s just what she did — she started writing about her life, and it was a laborious process for her because of the way ALS affected her ability to do many things, including type. She’d kid with me about how she didn’t “type” her columns, she “typo-ed” them, and would send them along to me, warts and all, and I’d smooth down the rough edges and cross her t’s and dot her i’s, and would then post the columns for her. She wrote almost exclusively about ALS (except when she wrote about her funny little pooch, Mazie the Monkey Princess). She was a tireless warrior against that dread disease, and singlehandedly raised awareness about it, and money for research as well.
Cathy and I developed quite a relationship, entirely through email, as she was getting started in her writing career, and one day I told her that I thought it was time we actually met in person. She agreed, and so we decided to meet one afternoon on the Davis Co-op patio. I was there waiting for her, and soon she came rolling up, all smiles, and colorful flags and stuffed animals strapped to her scooter. She looked like a traveling one-woman three-ring circus!
As soon as we said “hi there” for the first time in person, Cathy pulled a folded-up square of newspaper from her pocket and handed it to me.
“I carry this everywhere,” she told me.
I opened it, and gasped because it was a column I’d written several years earlier about my friend Jeannie, who died of ALS. I’d never even heard of ALS before, and my first exposure to it was devastating. Cathy told me she’d saved it for all those years because it was the first time she’d found someone who wrote about the cruel heartache of ALS, and the devastation it causes.
ALS is the most vicious of all diseases, in my opinion — worse than cancer, worse than AIDS. Your body dies around you, neuron by neuron, your limbs failing you and wasting away, then your organs, until you’re completely without any ability to move, or speak, or even swallow. Meanwhile, your brain is completely unaffected. It’s alert, and alive, and trapped inside a biological shell that can no longer function. You are painfully aware of your excruciatingly slow decline and ultimate death, and ironically, there’s little actual physical pain as your nerves die. Having ALS is living a horror story in real time.
Cathy’s experience with ALS began with losing her own mother to the disease at the age of 13, something that traumatized her so deeply, it seemed to me that it was a wound that never quite healed. I imagine it’s healing now, though, as we speak. I imagine the two are joyfully reunited in the EverAfter, both are free to dance and sing. Surely no one has ever so deserved an eternity of laughter and light as Cathy Speck.
I don’t know for sure if it was the ALS that ultimately propelled Cathy through the veil, or if it was the cancer. I think Cathy would have a good chuckle over the irony that after so many years of accepting a death from ALS with eyes wide open and a fearless heart that it would be something entirely different that caused her to breathe her last earthly breath. Whichever dread disease it was, it may have ravaged her body, but not that sparkling spirit. Nothing could ever touch that.
I’ll finish with a video of Cathy singing “Sweet Beyond,” which I’d heard her sing in remembrance of her mother. Cathy has flown away from us now, into the sweet beyond. May we all cherish our remembrances of her. I know I will. Once you’ve met Cathy, you can never, ever forget her.