My friend Cathy Seipp died today. It’s hard to write this because I can feel her peering over my shoulder, scolding me, telling me to buck up, stop sniffling, lose the adjectives and just get on with it. Because that’s how she lived her life, long before she became ill and all the way down to the very end.
The fact that we were friends at all is something I cherish, because it’s proof that human beings are more complex and confounding and willing to connect across ideology than we get credit for in this era of militant shouting heads.
Because as Cathy often said, she was politically to the right of Attila the Hun. And I was well, somewhere on the other side. And yet we found common ground, a place that was about writing and family and animals and living on the eastside and the writergrrrl brunches at Kokomo’s in the Farmers Market that Cathy presided over monthly with fierce benevolence.
In recent years Cathy found justified fame in the blogosphere and elsewhere but back in the early 1990s she was my personal hero for daring to take on the Los Angeles Times each month in the Buzz Magazine column she wrote under the pseudonym Margo Magee. We ink-stained wretches at the Times read Cathy’s column with breathless glee to see what pompous edicts and personalities she would skewer next. Here was an audacious young woman who clearly wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind, no matter how many bridges she burned. As the Times was the biggest game in town and she was a freelance writer, this took great chutzpah, something that Cathy never lacked.
And it wasn’t just for show – she was as rigorous and brutally honest with herself as she was with others. Cathy put a lot of store in respect and manners and etiquette. She was MissSeipp online. She thought chewing gum was vulgar. Just several weeks ago, still reeling from chemo, she chided me for setting the table with the wrong forks and not putting out the cloth napkins.
But she was funny and generous and ferociously loyal. Cathy’s the one who told me I had to get disability insurance when I left the Times and started freelancing, then writing novels. And this was years before doctors discovered the lung cancer that would kill her. (She never smoked, by the way). Cathy was just being Cathy, doling out advice where it was needed, making sure everyone was taken care of.
At the free-ranging Kokomo brunches, Cathy would urge all of us freelance writers to demand full kill fees and grow spines so editors wouldn’t walk all over us and she’d tell us we had to learn to resell our stories in different markets. We listened and followed her example. She was indomitable, she had endless energy and a terrifyingly strong will that one associates with Amazons and Valkyries, Joan of Arc and Masada. It started young – Cathy’s wonderful and caring father Harvey said that at age two, she demanded to be allowed to tie her own shoelaces.
But the steely will was hidden inside a very deceptive package. Cathy had an ethereal beauty – large eyes, translucent skin, fine features, high intelligent forehead – that seemed almost from another era to me, like a scallop-edged ingenue from the late 19th century.
When I saw her in the hospital two days ago, Cathy didn’t look like someone who’s been ravaged by lung cancer and chemo and radiation for five and a half years. Sandra Tsing Loh noted this too, but it was truly shocking how radiant she looked, as if the doctors had made a terrible mistake and any minute now she might throw off the oxygen mask, dust her hands off and say, well now, that was quite a fight, but I’ve finally beaten it back for good and taught it quite a lesson. She was only 49, and it seems doubly cruel that she’d be taken from us so young, and in the prime of her writing life.
These last weeks, I’d try to visit on Thursdays, bringing apple pie because Cathy craved sweets. She was so proud of her extraordinary daughter Maia, who’d just started college, and wanted to give her uninterrupted time at school during the week. So Team Cathy made sure that she had lots of company from Monday through Friday. But even as we visited, Cathy fretted about whether we were able to get enough writing done at her house while she napped (for we were all writers of some kind). She’d quiz me anxiously about this because she knew I was on deadline to turn in a book, and I told her that it was quiet and peaceful at her house, unlike mine, where two little boys run around like Tasmanian devils.
Ten days ago I was stunned to arrive and find Cathy in her office, writing a column and asking if we could go for a walk in a bit because she wanted to build up her muscle tone. She was also pleased that the LA Times had called and wanted her to participate on a blogging panel next month at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
“I told them I probably won’t be able to do it unless I start feeling better,” Cathy said.
And then, in her inimitable Cathy way, she started drawing up a list of replacements to suggest to the festival organizers in case her health didn’t improve enough to permit her to attend.
“Don’t you think that’s a good idea?” she asked.
Her eyes were clear, her voice measured. I found it hard to meet her gaze, didn’t trust myself to speak. All I could do was nod.
Rest in peace, Cathy.