• author
    • Cathy Speck

      Columnist, Photographer
    • June 10, 2013 in Columnists

    Death, dying, and lessons on eyebrow management

    I remember in elementary school (I think it was 5th grade at North Davis) when we learned what epidermis was (skin). We’d go around teasing the younger kids saying, “I can see your epidermis! Neener neener neener.” The intimidated ones thought “epidermis” was something embarrassing like “underwear” or butt or pimple or bra.

    In 9th grade, the day before school pictures were taken, I didn’t know how to tweeze my eyebrows and I was too embarrassed to ask any of my sisters. Mom had died the previous year. (Thanks a lot Mom, for dying before teaching me how to tame the growling bears on my forehead.)

    The wavering caterpillars above my eyes threatened to take over the rest of the photo, so I tried to shave them into less werewolf-like shapes, but I went way too far and there was no turning back. I didn’t have time to come up with a better option, so a used a Bic pen to fill in all the bald spots.

    I was in a hurry, getting kinda panicky and didn’t have time to review my artistry until I ran into the girls’ restroom right before the photo shoot. Oops. The pen I used was blue. Yes, I used a blue ink pen to draw on my eyebrows. Sometimes, when you tell stories years after the fact, then they’re funny, even hilarious. We can laugh now…

    Last Tuesday, I went to Emerson Jr. High for the 9th grade graduation ceremony because they’d asked me to be the guest speaker or whatever you call it. I felt honored to be asked, but I was rather confused why they asked me. I guessed it could be because I’ve been talking to classes there for three years about ALS/death/dying/having a wife/and blue eyebrows.

    Each year, those students raised an amazing amount of money and awareness, and they even walked in the Walk to Defeat ALS as members of The Specktaculars team. That is huge. Think about it: When you were in junior high, I bet you weren’t hanging around on a Saturday afternoon talking about death and dying, emotions, and what do you say when your classmate’s dad was just diagnosed with a fatal illness.

    These teenagers continue to blow me away with their eager willingness and compassion to help people they don’t even know. They only knew about ALS because I came to talk with them, and more importantly, I encouraged them to ask me questions about… anything. And ask they did: “Are you afraid to die? How does it feel to know you’re dying? What do you think is gonna happen after you die? ? How do you stay so positive? Why do you put all that stuff on your walker? My grandma died last year and it was really hard, and nobody really talked about it and I didn’t know what to do. What can I do to live a more meaningful, happy life? Are you going to be cremated or buried? What will you do with your ashes,” and on and on. I answered every question truthfully and tenderly, if I don’t say so myself. (I just did.)

    Last year and the year before, I talked to many Emerson classes and a whole assembly — the hall was packed. They thought it was pretty cool that I actually went to Emerson (in the olden days) and they asked what I was like in junior high. You can imagine all the stories I didn’t tell. Ha! I did say that I was the yearbook editor and feature editor of the school newspaper, “The Wasp, ” and I was a jock, and I had made a group lifelong friends. The time has come — we are seriously “life-long” friends.

    I also spoke of the devastation of my entire life when my mom got ALS and over two years became paralyzed, then died in the hospital of respiratory failure. Wanna see junior high kids get absolutely still and quiet? There you go. Well , maybe not since lying doesn’t set a very good example.

    I’m getting even closer to the point of this story — keep breathing, and drinking wine if that helps.

    I asked Jennifer Terra, who’s been teaching there for 25 years, what she thought the students wanted to hear, and she gave me a vague answer. She did say, however, that I should talk for about five minutes or so. Me?! Five minutes?! It takes me five minutes to open my mouth! Ha! I decided to wear an ALS Walk T- shirt in case I couldn’t think of what to say, which of course is highly unlikely.

    I was sitting at the end of the very back row so I could keep thinking about what to say. Jennifer tapped me on the shoulder: “Okay you’re up after Jennifer Wolfe (the journalism teacher) speaks. Do you need help?” At that moment, my mind was multitasking until l heard the teacher say, “…and this year we voted to dedicate the yearbook to Cathy Speck who…”

    I don’t even remember what she said after I realized that she was calling up me to the stage. I was shocked, totally surprised, but I was careful not to drop the F-bomb out loud.

    After sitting on one of those old metal chairs for half an hour I needed help standing up and then it took three people to boost me up on the stage. That was quite entertaining itself. They presented the beautiful yearbook to me, and I was still speechless. Speechless, me? Well, after Jennifer Wolfe handed me the microphone, my speechlessness was immediately cured, of course.

    I wasn’t prepared to give an “acceptance speech” so I kinda fumbled around saying words, some kind of words, I honestly don’t remember the first five minutes.

    Oh no! I’m not gonna finish this story because… I honestly forgot the “tie it all together” punchline. Dang it!  I don’t want you to walk away without something to hold on to, so I’ll offer you a booby prize. Whose booby are we talking about here? Sure as shootin’ not mine. My ladies hang like wet socks all the way down to my belly button. If you push the button, the ladies will twirl around like an old Dutch windmill to create a nice breeze for us in the sweltering 103 degree Sacramento Valley oven.

    emerson yearbook

    This page in the 2013 Emerson Junior High yearbook in Davis, California is dedicated to Cathy Speck.

    Oh yes, I forgot to tell you: Remember the true story about shaving my eyebrows and using blue ink to fill in the bare spots? Well, here’s your chance to take a peek — but’s in black and white, so all you can is see that my eyebrows are pen(cil) thin. Check out the caption: “This yearbook is dedicated to Cathy Speck.” Below that is a color photo of me and my wife Linda, and down and just a little bit the right, is the small photo of my “penmanship.”

    The bigger-sized school photos to hand out were in color, which explains why I didn’t send them out to any relatives, nor to my Catholic Godparents, Beecher and Vicky Crampton. I didn’t even keep any for myself.

    By now I’m over that “true blue” embarrassment, and I’m actually inviting you to see how my eyebrows have evolved in their natural color. So the next time you see me in person or in a recent photo — take a look at my eyebrows and tell me what you think they look like: baby squirrels, the Blue Danube, or Holy Batman, maybe we finally caught Bigfoot but he lost a ton of weight!

    You know, I didn’t forget about giving you a “booby prize,” it’s just that I want it to be bigger than a booby. How about this: If you want me to come speak with your class, group, church, prison, 12-Step group, just ask me, then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

    Cheers & chuckles,



    Cathy Speck visited with these Emerson Junior High students in 2013 to talk about ALS, and death and dying.


    • Funny stuff. I remember sucking on a bic pen when all the ink went into my mouth and it was dyed blue for a long time. Not to mention inhaling the ink through my throat.

    • ,,,,did that leave you singing the blues?

      • Maya North

      • June 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm
      • Reply

      I plucked my eyebrows — once — in my 20s. I looked like an alien and scared the tar out of myself and that was the end of that. Someone’s gotta say it — even though we’ve never met in person, I am going to miss you with all my heart forever when your body says it’s done.

    • Maya, thank you for saying it and for saying it with direct language and feeling. Life is so full of love–it’s ever-flowing everywhere…Somewhere along the way we put up barriers, keep it all to ourselves, or forget all about it after coming home from work still fuming at co-worker. Where is the love.? It’s here waiting for us to recognize it. I could tell you’re a love bug the first time you commented on a FB post of mine.
      Thank you….

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