Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of our friend Cathy Seipp. I say "our" because she so impacted her core group of friends, of which Matt Welch wrote on this date last year, "[Cathy] deserves all the credit in the world for creating this community of unlike-minded weirdoes around her." Indeed, Cathy had put me in touch with Matt and his wife Emmanuelle Richard three years earlier, when I had some questions about health insurance. Cathy radically disagreed with Matt and Emmanuelle's semi-positive position on socialized medicine (Emmanuelle is from France), a view I shared, and I think she threw us together with the idea that we might talk some sense into each other; that, or give her the opportunity to sit us down as a group and scold us, something we all would have thoroughly enjoyed. Cathy also was my initial liaison to Jackie Danicki; they'd met through blogging; had some face-time in London, face-time I admired and wanted to emulate, and did.
I'd actually met Cathy many years earlier, when I was still reading scripts for a living. I desperately wanted to be a journalist, and so, would type out articles at home, and fax them cold to publications around LA. No one ever answered me, but one.
"This is Catherine Seipp," the woman on the phone said. "I got your article. It's good. Now, what do you want me to do with it?"
Cathy was at Buzz at the time, and I told her, I wanted her to publish it, whereupon she gently but pointedly told me, that's not the way it worked; you sell the idea, and then write it. "This way, you get paid -- or at least get a kill fee."
I didn't know what a kill fee was, but she'd given me a strategy.
Within the year, I was a columnist at Buzz, where Cathy was both a columnist and a contributing writer. She also scared the hell out of me. She had an opinion about everything: the LA Times (which she notoriously skewered each month, under the byline Margo Magee); writing for Hustler (yay); same-sex marriage (nay); the texture of the chicken at our monthly contributers' lunches at Maple Drive. I remember mentioning at one such lunch in 1995 that the magazine was sending Hillary Johnson and me and our two small children to Las Vegas, to write about how the city was becoming kid-friendly.
"That's a sin," Cathy said from across the table. I thought she was kidding. When she repeated it, I knew she was not.
During the next five years, Cathy and I became friends, then good friends. We met for monthly breakfasts at Kokomo at the Farmers Market, a group that included Hillary, Cathy, Amy Alkon, Jill Stewart, Sandra Tsing Loh, Denise Hamilton, Monica Corcoran, Kerry Madden, Emmanuelle, other writers in town for a reading or a story. We called it the Writer Girls breakfast, though I don't think there was any edict about men coming or not coming; I do recall seeing Ross Johnson there once; also, David Rensin and Luke Ford. Though perhaps there was an edict, as I can't imagine Cathy not having one.
To say Cathy was the center of this group is to state the obvious; she was the one who sent the email invites, to which she expected an RSVP. I remember more than once someone showing up who had not, and Cathy disapprovingly raising her eyebrows, and then gently if pointedly remarking that it really is better if you RSVP, so that we know how many tables we need. Really, it's out of courtesy for the servers.
Cathy and I knew each other as colleagues, as friends; as mothers. We both had daughters born in 1989, and before I met my husband in 1997, had for the most part raised them ourselves, on what we earned as freelancers. We didn't need to beat this point, but a point it was. I don't know if it contributed to my being one of the handful of writer girls whom Amy called, in June of 2002, to say Cathy had lung cancer.
"She only wants a few people to know," Amy told me, and that the surgery would be at Cedars. I called Cathy. She told me, she'd found out really as a fluke: she had asthma, and had not been able to shake a cough, and the doctor had decided to do a chest x-ray, which he looked at and then, promptly walked her down the hall to oncology. I do recall Cathy telling me, "The doctor said, if the surgery takes 30 minutes, it means he couldn't get it. If it takes an hour, he could."
Cathy said that when she came out of the anesthesia, she'd asked the nurse, "How long did it take?"
"Forty-five minutes," the nurse told her.
"Which you can imagine, was very frustrating." This was Cathy, the day after surgery, in her hospital bed, surrounded by her family. I'd walked into the room holding a poundcake, whereupon Cathy said, "That's so kind of you, and Nancy, do you remember my mother?"
Picture this scene: a room full of shellshocked people who know the surgeon could not get the cancer; that the prognosis is bad. And Cathy, making introductions, making sure the older folks have seats, sending someone down the hall for ice. Her composure was surreal. I think of it often, especially when I am being a weakling. I think of Hillary walking in with the gift of a peignoir, so that Cathy might look beautiful as she convelesced, and Cathy -- still covered in mecurichrome or whatever that yellow stuff is they paint on you during surgery -- holding it up to her chest, commenting on how pretty it was, and how thoughtful. I think of Jill Stewart, with Cathy when she was wheeled to her room post-surgery, telling the nurse, "You need to get her some painkillers," and when the nurses dillydallied, Jill charging after them down the hall, saying, "YOU NEED TO GET HER PAINKILLERS, NOW!"
And how do I know this story? Because Cathy told it to me; she told all the cancer stories; the funny ones, the terrible ones. Cancer was now part of the narrative, and we were not going to be namby-pamby about it; we were not going to wear pink ribbons and tiptoe around. As she famously announced at a party, “I just want to let everyone know having cancer hasn’t made me a better person.”
I have written previously about this woman's courage.
I think of her rather as a dance mistress in this. Her friends who knew about the cancer reacted with varying degrees of emotional spasticity: to ask or not to ask about the new chemo? Is bringing over more food annoying or nice? Oh my god, Maia? How much crying is not okay? But whether in person or psychically, one sensed Cathy clapping her hands, and saying, "None of this. We are not going to freak out; we are not going to lie on the floor and throw a tantrum. We are going to do this dance this way."
And we did. We nearly always did what Cathy wanted us to do.
This became a difficult toward the end of her life. She was very sick; some of us questioned the rationality of continuing treatment -- she was on her third round of chemo, plus radiation to shrink the tumors simply so she would not be in such unbearable pain. Maybe we should look into a visiting nurse? Hospice? But Cathy did not want that, and as Sandra so wisely said, who were we to question Cathy on decisions concerning Cathy? And so Amy took her to chemo, as did Emmanuelle, who also created a Google schedule called Team Cathy, so that people could drive, bring food, pick up Maia from the train. If you die in your 40s, and if you were, as Cathy was, the centerpiece of your group, you are surrounded by robust, capable people who are going to do everything they can to save your life, though we all knew, there would be no saving. There would only be attempts at comfort. I flew in from Portland for a week last Feburary to be with Cathy, to basically drink milkshakes with her and dish the dirt and take naps. Jackie came from London the following week and did the same.
In the weeks leading to Cathy's death, it was as though we -- the weirdoes, the writer girls, Cathy's myriad other friends, and the masses teeming over at Cathy's World, a veritable clusterfuck of folks posting 200, 300, 968 comments on whatever Mistress Cathy wrote -- became a buzzing hive. Thouands of phone calls and emails and blog posts passed in the days leading up to her death. Maybe this is the way it always is, but I -- and many of Cathy's friends, most of us in our 30s and 40s -- had not experienced the protracted death of a friend; we did not know how to sit on our hands; we had to keep trying, just as Cathy was.
On March 21 2007, just after 2 pm, I was at the public library when my cell phone rang. It was Emmanuelle, the third time we'd spoken that day, this time to tell me, Cathy had died. I sank down in a nook between the wall and a bookcase; asked Emmanuelle if she were okay; she said yes, but there were still things that needed to be done. Of course.
These things included to continue talking about Cathy, a conversation that reached such a din by the next day, Technorati listed "Cathy Seipp" as its #1 search, a fact we cheered and which certainly Cathy would have loved, though I also imagine her saying, "Well, yes."
Sandra was recently in Portland, and we spent time together, including a few hours at Ristretto talking about work, kids, and of course, Cathy. Sandra was at the hospital during the days preceding Cathy's death, a time that was -- no suprise -- attended, with various degrees of decorum, by the unlike-minded weirdoes and others. There are few people in the world who can tell a story like Sandra; the grand accents; the sweeping mannerisms; the spot-on caricatures were all there, and as I sat there listening, I realized, I had cried, but I was also laughing. And you might think, what a terrible thing, laughing at the narrative of your friend's death. And maybe it is a terrible thing, but it didn't feel terrible; it felt like a continuation of Cathy, and in truth I think she would only want; would most certainly demand that we continue the narration of her life, which includes her death.
I spoke yesterday to Amy, who said, "I find myself mentioning her as often as I can. I just want her here, and for people to know about her." Me, too.