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February 02, 2005

Carla-Helen Toth

My friend Carla is dead. She died yesterday when a train hit her wheelchair in West Berkeley. The accident was at 2:30 am. It's being treated as a suicide.

I just thought of Carla last month, wondered what she was up to, thought about giving her a call. I didn't.

Carla used to volunteer for me when I edited Terrain. She'd copyedit stories and then I'd undo about half of her work. She was far less forgiving of writers' idiosyncracies than I was, and would ruthessly carve out unorthodox constructions and idiom. And I'd put them back, and we'd argue.

It was fun.

Carla had a pretty severe case of cerebral palsy, which made arguing with her a rather drawn out process. She was also a maniacal outdoorswoman, taking what seemed like six months out of each year to raft the wild rivers of the West: the Yampa, the Green, the Colorado and Stanislaus. After one Grand Canyon trip, she handed me a bunch of snapshots, smiling sly. In among the usual impressive shots of towering canyon walls and ferny seeps and roiling brown rapids was one of her sitting in a camp chair, sprawled and knees framing the shot, stark sweaty naked with a come-hither look on her face. I'm pretty sure I blushed as red as those canyon walls.

The last issue of Terrain I edited, October 1997, included the only article Carla ever wrote for me. It was the story of her recent trip down the Yampa in Dinosaur National Monument, an eloquent, luminous essay on the idea of wilderness and the continuum of accessibility, written by a woman who had to fight like hell just to get to over-accessed places like Yosemite Valley, and who nonetheless saw more remote wild country in a typical year than most of her able-bodied countrymen do in a lifetime. It was a privilege to publish it as my last act at Terrain, and I wish to hell I could do it again.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 2, 2005 04:48 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Oh, how awful. She sounds like she was a neat person, too. :(

Posted by: Rana at February 2, 2005 05:49 PM
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Oh, Chris.

I'm sorry.

I would love to hear more about Carla. I'd love to hear more about what you're feeling. I'm glad you were able to know her.

And I'm sorry.

Posted by: Siona at February 2, 2005 11:30 PM
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it is a loss for everyone - to lose someone so vital and engaged.

Posted by: Anne at February 3, 2005 08:17 AM
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Chris, I'm sorry. My guess is that Carla did know how you thought about her, and that your respect was a bright spot in her difficult life. She sounds like a terrific and stubborn survivor, and it's always very hard to see those people lose their battles - as if we lose part of our much more feeble ones as well.

Posted by: beth at February 3, 2005 08:56 AM
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Carla came into my office in the CRS department at Cal Berkeley in 1980 or 1981 to inquire about the CRS major. We decided that it was a good fit. When I retired in 1995, Carla was still my advisee.

We were good friends but I know I gained more from our friendship than did Carla. Her good spirits, sense of humor, frankness and guts provided a good moral template for anyone thinking about the meaning of life.

We did so many things. Innumerable office visits. Retreats with our department at Cazadero and other places. Lugging Carla from one building to another. Visits to the gingko tree. Her wonderful talk at the retirement party for Arnold Schultz and me. Noon concerts at Hertz Hall. Our shared love for the Stanislaus river. Her visits to classes when I guest lectured after my retirement. Her head-long tearing across the campus and city in her wheel chair. Discussing her rafting trips on the Stan and her skiing at Bear Valley. Drinking beer at joints on Shattuck. Sadness at the physical difficulties. Joy in all the happy moments of Carla's life.

So very much more. I will miss her. Although I have seen her only occasionally in recent years, my life will be diminished by no longer having Carla as a living reference point for making do with what we have and rejoicing in the good things that makes life meaningful. A brave and tough and good person was Carla. She leaves large and friendly footprints behind her.

Alan Miller

Posted by: Alan Miller at February 3, 2005 08:20 PM
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It is maybe hollow to say this, but it sounds as if she lived a very full and engaging life. A worthy goal for all of us. I'm sorry Chris.

Posted by: susurra at February 3, 2005 10:13 PM
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Condolences on the loss of a friend.

Posted by: Richard at February 4, 2005 08:02 AM
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So sad. I have been unable to post a comment. I remember Carla as a very vibrant person.

Posted by: Rita at February 4, 2005 02:28 PM
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I was so sad to hear about Carla. I believe she could have gotten help when she needed it. May she rest in peace.

Posted by: Ana at February 8, 2005 10:35 PM
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Thank you for providing a place for me to say a short word or two. I haven't seen Carla in maybe 30 years. Our parents are still close friends. My Mom called with the news tonight - we have both been out of town and didn't hear of this in a timely manner. I have the flu and can't sleep and this has probably made me more weepy and emotional than usual. But I had to see if there was anything on-line before I slept tonight.

Carla inspired me at a very young age to have patience. I remember reading her the biography of Helen Keller when we were both 9 or 10. Something perhaps only a child can do. I thought it might inspire her. What a twit I was. Not terribly PC, tho it was years before that sensitivity was triggered at a greater level. As a child tho I knew she was different than me I dragged her along with me into my back yard to play with the other kids. She didn't want to be different - she was frustrated so often. But that mind - oh my. She was something else. If you took the time to listen there was a lot to be shared.

Carla left a lasting impression on me. She was a remarkable soul from the git go. Her parents challenged her to use her body to its physical limits and then go further. Her Dad built a sort of indoor jungle gym for her and made her climb this ladder all the time. It is no wonder she developed such an affinity for the outdoors and had no fears as one might imagine in someone with her range of problems.

As much as my heart grieves her loss for her family and close friends, I suppose I agree with a previous posting that we all have to gauge our own limitations. Carla decided it was time to go and I respect her for that. As always, brave and indomitable to the end.

Posted by: Rachel at February 9, 2005 07:57 PM
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It's Feb. 16 and I just learned that it was Carla who was "the person in a wheelchair" hit by the train. I knew Carla from about 1977 when I was a mechanic in the wheelchair shop at the UC Berkeley Physically Disabled Students Program. I fixed her chair, went to demonstrations with her, went on rafting trips. Everyone loved Carla. I can't imagine that she killed herself. I suppose that appearances can deceive, but Carla always seemed positive and certainly took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life. I continued to see Carla here and there and probably saw her last 6 months ago. I suppose that more than her death, it is that she could be so unhappy as to want to kill herself that makes me the saddest.

Posted by: Marc Krizack at February 16, 2005 11:08 AM
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