• author
    • Cathy Speck

      Columnist, Photographer
    • June 16, 2013 in Columnists

    Dad keeps ‘perking along’ despite loss and grief

    I don’t think I’m the only person who likes to read obituaries, but am I the only one reads them no matter which newspaper I’m reading, in any city or state? I read the front page first, then look for the obits. Some folks think it’s morbid or just weird, but maybe reading about people who have died is just too spooky.

    family photo

    Family photo, 1967: (front, from left) Dad and Mary Pat, Mary, Grandma Speck (died July 1974), Mom (died Dec 19, 1972) Cathy (me) and Snoopy; (back) Paul, Susan (died Feb. 14, 1997), Pey, Jim and Larry (died June 22, 2008).

    Even though I’m the second of nine children, I’ve been designated the Speck family obituary writer. I was too young to write my mom’s when she died of ALS in 1972 (I was 13), and I wasn’t born until after my brother Stephen died of SIDS when he was only two months old.

    In third grade, I declared that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and my elementary school teachers praised and encouraged me to follow my dreams. My mom frequently told me how creative I was, and that she loved the stories I wrote. Of course, you can imagine that none of those people suggested that I consider penning obituaries, even though my stories often included death and dying subplots. I didn’t even know what a subplot was, but the word “plot” hinted at what might become of my writing…

    When my sister Susan died on Valentines’ Day in 1997, I wrote her obituary on the flight from Denver back to Davis. I wrote the obit for my older brother Larry after he died on June 22, 2008, a month and a half after he was diagnosed with ALS. And my oldest brother Paul died of ALS on May 16, 2011. And family and close friends asked me to write my own obit, so I did — without the “died on ____” part.


    Baby Stephen’s headstone.

    Why am I writing about writing obituaries? Read between the lines, or underneath them: My Dad is still alive at 91 years old. Dad has buried Dorothy, the love of his life; Stephen, his infant son; Susan, his third daughter; Larry, his most gentle son; his first child Paul; and now is fourth daughter, Cathy (me) is also dying of ALS. Happy Father’s Day.

    Doctors and ALS researchers maintain that ALS is probably the most horrific of all human diseases, and Dad still lives with these haunting reminders. But wait, there’s more!  Since the genetic mutation comes from my mom’s line, each one of his surviving offspring has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation that leads to ALS. And Dad also knows that his grandchildren and great grandchildren share the same risk. Happy Father’s Day.

    About a month ago, he and my brother Jim, the only son left, came to visit my wife Linda and I in Davis. He has a walker, which has no decorations at all on it (see photo) and he and I have similar energy levels and abilities. He used to be just over six feet tall, but is now 5′ 8′-ish, and I used to be 5′ 9 and am now also 5′ 8′ depending on how tired I am. It takes energy to stand up straight. When they were getting ready to leave, he handed me a manila envelope and said quietly, “I thought you might like to read this.”

    I didn’t open it up until an hour or so after they left, then I pulled out four single-side, typewritten pages stapled together up in the left hand corner with the title of: “AUTOBIOGRAPHY — EUGENE P. SPECK ”

    Four single-sided pages.

    I guess he wants me to write his obituary, and fill in the blanks with my creativity and knowledge of writing effective obits. It is an art of sorts. Most newspapers request the family or friends to fill out a form with just the facts, but I am a creative writer just like my teachers and mom told me. So to “sum up a life” without too many words (they are expensive in newspapers) I slide down a rainbow onto a lavender unicorn waiting for me to ride and to write. I decided not to ride the unicorn.

    Here are a few photos to add flavor to some of the sentences from my Dad’s brief autobiography:


    Gene and Dorothy Speck, 1952.

    “I was born in Sequim, WA on July 2, 1922. When I was nine months old, my family moved to Hermosa Beach, California where I attended grammar school and two high schools while I also spent many long hours for my father at his garage and service station.

    “In 1941 I studied at UC Berkeley in the College of Engineering with an interest in farm equipment. In 1942 I enlisted in the army, and was selected to go to the Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Belvoir Virginia. While I was in OCS, I met Lieutenant Dorothy Helen Stevenson who was assigned to the US Navy office in Washington DC. We were married on November 11, 1944, and our first child, Paul, was born in December 1945 at Andrews Air Force Base. The most difficult time in my life was my wife Dorothy’s terminal illness and her passing away on December 19, 1972.”

    And here we go again.

    Happy Father’s Day, my wonderful father.

    My dad is my hero, alongside my mom. At 91 he keeps “perking along” (his words) and enjoying his family, his legacy. I could not ask for a better father. I don’t know how he keeps “perking along” as his children die of the devastating ALS. I tell him I love him every time I see him, email him, call him. He doesn’t text and that’s okay.

    I love you Dad.


    Cathy and her dad.


    Mom and Dad, with a family feast in 1969.


    Mom and Dad at Larry’s graduation from UC Davis.


    ALS Walk 2009: (front, from left) Cathy and Dad; (back) Barb, Mary Speck, Peg Speck Grady, Jim and Paul (deceased).


    A family with funny faces, 2007: Dad and (back, from left) Cathy and her sisters, Barb and Peggy.

    • Love your stories Cathy as you know. Another great one but so much sadness for your Dad and family.

    • Wow, Cathy, your dad has lived through so much. Of all of you, he may be suffering the most. Beautiful column. I hope you show it to him.

      • Maya North

      • June 16, 2013 at 5:27 pm
      • Reply

      My dad was born June 12, 1922. My brother was taken by AIDS at age 35 in 1994 and my mother died 5 years and 1 day later from melanoma in her brain. I think my dad would get your dad’s pain, but what my dad needs to learn from yours is how to continue to reach for joy. I think a lot of people need to learn from your dad… <3

    • Aha Maya! This helps explain your inherent ability to reach out with compassion, and exuberance. After we suffer so sorrowfully,, the “the little things” in life, perhaps a regal monarch butterfly, shine brightly enough to guide us out of the darkness. Thank you for your life.

        • Joan Callaway

        • June 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm
        • Reply

        Another great one, Cathy.

      • Katie

      • June 17, 2013 at 8:42 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks for sharing. I love your dad and all the stories he has to tell.

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