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The Unsung 2

7 Jul

Tom and Kathy

Kathy and Tom Speros

Robert and Tom

Robert Brown and Tom Speros

My friend Tom Speros was a connoisseur of the unsung–Jeff Bridges (“You [non-actors] have no idea how good he is.”), the responsible reporting of minority news by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the burgeoning politics of his left-leaning niece Gwen, and the well-crafted detective fiction of Elmore Leonard. He had an artist’s eye for talent that did not draw attention to itself and an unabashed fondness for liberal politics and those who practiced them. When my restaurant in Edina tried to unionize, he participated in the sit-down and sang the solidarity song. He was in his element!

The product of an Oregon T.B. doctor and a mother who shot herself, Tom inherited both his father’s IQ and compassion and his mother’s propensity for depression. He spoke in perfectly parsed paragraphs interspersed with epithets about his lack of serotonin and the two chief tragedies of his life–his mother’s death (“in her Sunday best”) and his son’s head injury from a motorcycle accident. He had days so bleak he wasn’t sure how he got through them.
In April of 2001, Tom began coming to our Minneapolis screenwriting group with hopeful accounts of an operation that had previously been used on anorexics. It involved the insertion of an object inside the body that would help increase the production of serotonin, and he was hopeful that it would allay his depression. The only problem he said was the play Wit that he planned to direct in Ely, Minnesota, where he and his ex-wife Nancy managed a resort. His sister Lis was to star in this play about ovarian cancer, and as desperate as he was to have the operation, he wanted to put the play first. Before he left for the resort at the end of the month, he elicited a promise from me that I would come north to see the production.

Once May came around I received an email; he was going to miss the last two shows in June because of his surgery, “but I’m having so much trouble with my depression that I’d do almost anything to get rid of it (Sigh!).” He talked about one of his diversions at the resort, which involved taking the trash to the dump where he would commune with the crows: “Haven’t seen many crows lately. Since fishing just started this weekend (so there were no guts for them to dine on) I suspect they went to someplace where they could get grains. They’re opportunistic and omnivores, so they don’t mind traveling to forage. I’ll be seeing them soon.” Tom always identified with crows; like him they were considered to be brighter than their peers, but they were also underachievers.

Considered to be remarkable by friends and family, Tom had always worked but under the radar. He had taught drama therapy to alcoholics, filmed documentaries, led political protests, and acted in commercials–all to very little acclaim. He had auditioned unsuccessfully for the original movie version of Fargo, and commented ruefully about the one time where he was memorialized in celluloid–in the film, Trauma, where he was crushed in the doors of an elevator.

When June arrived, my friend Robert and I made the six-hour trip to Ely to see the play. Tom greeted us in his white dinner jacket, an outfit he had worn to a Guthrie production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the preceding winter. He was all atwitter with the news that the play had received positive reviews from the town’s two papers, but also indignant that one of the papers had said he was “perpetrating a fraud” because he was actually a professional shepherding an amateur production. He was very proud of the cast, especially his sister.

At dinner before the play the three of us ordered N.Y. Steaks. Robert and I, famished from our long trip, dug in, but Tom merely moved his food around his plate. Smiling brightly, he preceded to tell us about the previous night’s performance.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” I asked.
“No, I’ll eat later. I’m too excited about tonight.”
“But you need to eat something,” I persisted.
“I have just found out I have esophageal cancer,” he said. “I can take it home.”
As we left the restaurant later, Robert turned to me and said, “Kathy, he didn’t eat the steak because he’s not able to.”

The next morning Tom showed us the town–I had trouble connecting the man before us, who bragged about playing what he thought of as a Coyote (of Indian legend) trick on an unsuspecting Ely editor, with the news of the night before. He chortled when he regaled us with the tale of how he had sent in a letter to an advice column, purportedly from a jilted woman, and managed to get it published. However, at breakfast there was no pretense of eating on his part.
Like his friends and family, Tom had no time to adjust from an attitude of hopefulness that somehow his depression would be alleviated to the realization that he had an illness from which he might not recover. Even when he found out that an operation to remove the cancer would replace the other expected operation, he continued to hold onto the hope that he would one day be able to have the experimental surgery. For a time, the depression weighed more heavily than the cancer news. He mused that perhaps “Wit had desensitized him.”

Tom’s death or “ice out,” as we say in Minnesota when referring to the final thaw, occurred July 14, 2001 in a hospital in Duluth. Every time I see a movie with Jeff Bridges or read one of George Bush’s numerous malapropisms (Tom kept track of them), I smile. I like to remember Tom’s air of expectation in an email when he first returned to Ely a couple months earlier in May of 2001: “We’ve had a lot of rain, but some glorious warm and sunny ones [days] too. Last Monday–the day the ice went out on most of the other lakes in the region–the temps reached 80! So the crows and I have plenty of time tor renew our friendship.”