Advocate Craig McCulloh uses comedy to raise spirits and funds
Just six months out of college in fall 1981, Craig McCulloh was attending his first Little People of America Regional Conference when he locked eyes with Linda, a fellow attendee. He admits “it was pretty much love at first sight,” and they were married the next year.
Linda graduated from Santa Clara University Law School and went on to work as an attorney for the State of California, responsible for policies for accommodating people with disabilities in the California court system. Craig became a patients’ rights advocate and then staffed the San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities for many years. He knew advocacy was his calling.
“As a person with a disability, being able to get paid to be an advocate for people in your community is a pretty good deal.” Being an advocate “is who I am,” he says – and he has demonstrated that repeatedly.
Craig retired when the COVID lockdown began in April 2020, giving him more time for something he’d dabbled in – standup comedy. Using his stage name “Tut” (his college nickname), he dove right in with Zoom comedy shows (something he describes as “performing in front of a vacuum cleaner”).
By starting with gigs on the east coast and working his way west as the day progressed, he managed to do 45 shows in a two-month period, gaining experience and connections.
But in July 2020, Linda was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, and her oncologist told her she had 4-6 months.
“Linda wanted to fight it.” says Craig, and she did. Over the next 16 months, she tried immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and more. Despite the treatments, the melanoma kept growing, and by October 2021, she was in Stanford Hospital.
Craig became her stalwart patient advocate. “I told everybody at Stanford that I had a career as an advocate, that I was damn good at it, and that I was going to utilize every bit of what I know to get the best care for Linda.”
When her oncologist recommended Mission House, Craig said they knew it was right. “It was just a godsend that we found Mission House. It was a totally different environment than the hospital – so peaceful and tranquil. When Linda arrived there, it was the first time that either one of us could really take a deep breath. We were so grateful.”
Craig recalls the thoughtfulness, care, and accommodations provided by the entire Mission House team, with particularly fond memories of Dr. Gary Pasternak and volunteer Paul Smith. During the weeks that Linda and Craig were in Mission House, they formed some deep bonds. Craig says that a few staff members even stopped by on their days off to visit Linda.
While Linda was at Mission House, she realized that she wanted to have a “living memorial,” giving her a chance to say goodbye to her family, friends, and colleagues. Undeterred by the house COVID protocols that limited visitors, Craig arranged for visitors to arrive in shifts. About 30 people visited that day to spend time with Linda.
Throughout Linda’s stay in the house, Craig was by her side 24/7. Her two sisters and two nephews also spent time with them. The day after everyone but Craig had returned home, Linda became unresponsive, and on the morning of November 5, 2021, she passed away at the age of 62.
After that, Craig said everything changed for him. “I was miserable. I didn’t know what my future held.” He benefited from individual grief counseling provided by Mission Hospice as well as our grief support groups, including our partner loss support group led by Social Worker Tracie Pyers.
Eventually, Craig decided to take charge of his new life by immersing himself in his comedy and the community he found with his fellow comedians. As much as his new vocation offered him companionship, Craig was keenly aware of the approaching one-year anniversary of Linda’s death, and he didn’t want to be alone that day.
He solved that problem by planning a comedy showcase on November 5, 2022 as a fundraiser – an event to honor Linda and to support future patients at Mission House. He knew that Linda would have approved as she supported his initial venture into comedy, hence the title of the show, “Smiles from Heaven.”
He booked a venue for the event and reached out to his community, who supported him wholeheartedly. A comic friend who runs a catering business donated baked goods. His fellow musicians volunteered to play music as people arrived. And while he offered to pay the comedians he’d invited to perform at the show, most of them volunteered their time.
The audience was full of so many people who had been part of Linda’s journey – staff and volunteers from Mission House, members of his grief support group, and social worker Tracie, who says “I woke up the next morning and felt chemically changed following two hours of straight laughter.”
Craig covered all of the expenses for the show, which raised $2,000 for Mission House. He feels empowered by the success and sees more fundraisers in his future – including an annual event each November 5. “It all worked out,” he says. “This is the way to spend every anniversary.”
Tracie says the comedy showcase was a key part of Craig’s grieving process. “Each person comes to terms with their loss over time. Honoring the legacy of the relationship by acknowledging the anniversary is a milestone along this sacred process. Craig chose to honor his love for Linda with laughter. It was amazing to see the many parts of his support system come together with the Mission Hospice community to honor Linda, their amazing love story, and the last days of her life at Mission House.”