The Death of Weinberg
It astounds me still: the empty, insidious way in which death supersedes the life it devours. But this is old news, too sophomoric to dwell upon and yet I feel the need to mention it because I can’t stop thinking about it. It overwhelms me, all of it, perhaps in a different way than once it did but, regardless, my mind relentlessly veers in this direction ever since Weinberg died and I just don’t have the wherewithal to alter the course of my thoughts. A man dies, his death is noted, he is mourned, he is mythologized and forgotten. Simply stated, his death overtakes him. It is left to a sorry band of survivors to make sense of it, find order in it, cull meaning out of it and celebrate the premise and theme of that lost life.
But we may not be up to the task. We may not be strong or interested enough to take on the burden and, in fact, we may be too disabled by the passing itself to engage in the aftermath. We may be just strong enough to usher the dead man to the cemetery, rush from the gravesite and confine ourselves to a cell of our own making. We vow to reside there, isolated, shocked, sad, absorbed and silent. We may hide behind the curtain, engage in the fantasy of undoing that which is irrevocable, whisper, cry, look down, look up and fix our gaze upon some crack in the wall that stares at us until, finally, after fruitless attempts to understand the unfathomable, we begin to reacquire our consciousness and begin to see some meaning apparent in the decedent’s life, something to latch onto, something we can carry with us. We may, for example, rejoice in his constancy or, perhaps, applaud his flight from constancy but, in any event, we may feel within us disparate pieces of his character coalesce. In that way, we may experience him once more albeit from a different vantage point, feel his presence and discover, perhaps, parallel beauty in lives of our own. When we arrive at that point and that jewel, that medallion, that life is unearthed and set upon the mantle, we polish it with vigor and devotion. We see to it that it shines until it scintillates with the meaning of the man and we keep at it for years through the course of one or two or many generations. Ultimately, however, our collective commitment wanes. The veneer fails, the jewel tarnishes, cracks emerge, fissures deepen and, in the aftermath of death, the decedent dies a second time. It is sad but unavoidable, a painful reality, tragic and draining. Time passes and life goes on. For those who hardly knew him, his death is of no consequence and is, perhaps, a distraction. But I know this: death endows every man with a particular form of dignity and reveals, in most cases, a connection, perhaps imperfect but real, through which he touched others at some point, in some way. Each of us affects another, however oblique or subtle our touch may be. We mourn the dead and, in time, we are remembered. Death breaks hearts and there are thousands strewn about the graveyard: they scatter like leaves in the wind, gather against headstones or align themselves in a sad path that leads from a dead man’s plot to your front door. He died, she died and his death and her death envelope us: each death chokes us like some nebulous, holy ligature and stings us like the cold air that blows across the pier upon which we stand while azure breakers, capped white, swell and roll senseless in front of us. It is cold now and you are freezing. All that you want right now and all that you will ever want, or so you believe, is to be warm again. Standing at the gravesite or sitting at your desk, in the heat of summer or prison of winter, you stare at his picture or imagine his image and realize in a sudden that you are cold. You feel the need to reach for a sweater that isn’t there. You would happily grab that sweater, any sweater, if you were lucky enough to find it hanging from a doorknob or hanger or branch of a nearby tree and you wouldn’t care in the least how old it is or the style of it or the size of it. You would gratefully accept it whether tattered or intact, whether heavy with threads of wool or threadbare. Death has brushed up against you and you silently vow that if you were somehow granted a single wish by some providential power, you would plead for warmth and, were you to find it, you would be forever grateful and assuaged. And if that sweater were to fall from an angel’s lair high above the earth straight into your outstretched arms, you would be saved: you would frantically thrust your head through the top of it and push your arms through its sleeves and you would be set, all will have been made right, at least for the moment. You would feel the comfort of your body’s warmth trapped within its channels and occlusions: the heat of it would collect and recirculate in and around your freezing skin and your arms would absorb that heat as if they had long been thirsty for it and, yes, you will have been delivered, heaven will have clothed you in a bulwark that will shield yourself from death’s malignant air. And days or months or years later, while walking along the road or, while seated at the kitchen table, suddenly, without warning, you will feel the onslaught of that same despicable cold as it claims your skin once more, relentless and unmoved by your protests and the tremulations of your shivering body. Someday, no doubt, you will find yourself, once again, unbearably cold. The matter will take on urgency and you will twist in its grasp and scream in silent desperation, driven by the force of its cruelty and you will realize, at that moment, that the only thing that stands between your life and the end of it is a simple woolen sweater, red, grey, old, new, it makes no difference: you will be saved if only it were to fall within your outstretched arms. When these moments come (and they undoubtedly will arrive) you will stand, then as now, in cold despondency. Of course, this form of suffering comes without warning as when, for example, one of the partners calls and stammers in slow and confidential tone as if providing a stock tip: “Did you hear . . . about Weinberg . . . he died . . . Weinberg died on Tuesday” and it is now Thursday and, having just learned that your business partner, Weinberg, has died, you sit at the table, startled, unsure, unnerved for a long moment. It takes a few seconds for you to react, to get back to who you are or, rather, who you thought you were prior to Weinberg’s demise. But you snap back, you proceed forth in the very same manner in which you undertake projects and formulate responses: you seek information, you ask about funeral arrangements, you wonder aloud about shiva, you consider the suit you typically wear to funerals and you ask how long the decedent suffered. In the course of your inquiry, you are suddenly thrown off course: you remember your own prior commitments and you are disturbed. An image of your day planner takes form in your consciousness and, at this juncture, you begin the process of prioritizing business calls and scripting appropriate replies to rely upon when rescheduling your appointments. You are sad, you had known Weinberg forever, you had worked with him for years but, if truth be told, you weren’t overly fond of him. You enjoyed his company on most days but he was a horror when things didn’t go his way. He was a good lawyer, charismatic, a real rainmaker but was often loud, self-consumed and abrasive. He would talk incessantly about his cases and drone on about subjects that interested only him and an arrogant smile would erupt upon his face when it was apparent that he was well versed in matters of which you were ignorant. He could be witty and interesting but, in truth, you couldn’t say he was a friend.
In the days that follow his death, you begin to resent his imposition upon your time and upon your life. You feel anger, though tempered, at the sudden necessity to rearrange your priorities but, intertwined in the jumble of your thoughts and feelings, an unadulterated sadness rises out of your depths and rushes through your core like hot exhaust from a jet engine. You are confounded by the fact that Weinberg was alive on Monday, died on Tuesday and it is now Thursday and it shocks you that Weinberg, the Weinberg you know, has been dead for two days during which time you went about the vagaries and minor dramas of your life. Now, in a sudden, you miss him, you wish to see him, you want to invite him to lunch, you want to apologize for liking him less than you could have and you begin to feel a hurt of the sort that you felt when you first learned that your father died: it stung then and it stings now, it throbs like a toothache, it unfurls itself like an ill-defined bruise upon your skin, it stares at you in random and unjust ways, it speaks to you in the private language of your own old hurt and you feel the callous inequity and permanence of it. It feels oddly similar though not as deep or cutting as the way it felt so long ago. You feel defrauded, victimized, robbed of some valuable, necessary thing. Weinberg was a fixture of sorts, everyone knew him, everyone wound up liking him despite the coarseness of his nature and he knew everyone you know and he was a part of the collective life in which you are invested and now, suddenly, he isn’t alive. Weinberg shouldn’t have died and people like him shouldn’t die and memories of Weinberg come to you in in bits and flashes and you are now cold, very cold, and you long for warmth and you wait for it in vain.
For those who outlive the decedent, the aftermath of a man’s life is the flux in which we swim. It flows forth, it overcomes us and subsumes us. It is a psychic body bag in which we wrestle but are unable to claw our way out. And it is the aftermath, not the death of the man, that is the problem for me, at least, at this particular moment. Weinberg’s death is a fait accompli but the long, tedious aftermath of his life has just begun. I am frozen within it, I am but a component in the massive, wide glacier that comprises it as it inches forward imperceptibly, oblivious to the demands of human time. This glacier doesn’t know or care about me. It is a construct premised upon ancient human formulations and protocols that never vary but thread through the fabric of life and the rise and demise of untold generations: it is ignorant of our daily struggles and is unmoved by the weight of obligation that the living must bear. It stands aloof and refuses to acknowledge my various needs which are abundant: I need to arrange a funeral, I need to write an obituary, I need to find Weinberg’s will and I need to open an estate. The aftermath of Weinberg’s life is blind to the urgency of my plight and ignores the fact that I have myriad clients, all strangers, to reassure and I have hundreds of new files to examine, judges and lawyers to inform, accounts to settle, a safety deposit box to open, a key to locate in order to unlock that box, papers to sort through, court appearances to cover, a trove of additional bills to pay and a thousand phone calls to make. I thought of the way in which our law firm letterhead would need to be updated and my heart sank at the realization that this was but the first drop in a sea of tasks, details, obligations, filings, telephone calls, letters, forms, claims, appointments and projects that I would now need to attend to and oversee. Some of these tasks would be daunting and some would be routine but, collectively, they would be exasperating and time consuming. It would begin with letterhead and would multiply exponentially with each passing minute. Somehow, I had been chosen to sort it all out and I had been made accountable on his behalf. What transpired is that I had become his sole and permanent pallbearer: I carry Weinberg upon my back, long after he left us, through the aftermath of his life. I am one with it and I am driven by it and dragged along with it and I am overcome by the weight and extent of it. It is an edifice in itself and, at this juncture, I remain unsure of its length and depth. It takes wide turns and I’m not sure how wide those turns may turn out to be but I understand, quite clearly, that its substance and direction are rooted in him, in his time, in his history and character. It reaches back to the moment he entered the world and has traveled with him ever since. It meanders through his relationships and his victories and disputes and losses and it ambles along the streets he crossed and inhabits the homes in which he lived and the towns through which he passed. It runs through his disappointments, his accomplishments, his fears and ambitions, his demands, his fits of anger and spasms of jealousy and it lingers in his pettiness and it permeates the array of minor resentments he collected. It rises out of his generosity and it rides the back of his sense of humor. The trail of it reaches back through law school and runs forward through the course of his marriage and the saga of his divorce and the intricate latticework of his broken promises and it lurches from one altercation to the next. It finds him consumed with pity and compassion for the vulnerable, abject people he represented. It follows him through the corridors of the courthouse and his countless entries and exits through our own office door. It drifts through languid clouds of cigarette smoke that perpetually hung from his office ceiling and it seeps into the floorboards. It underlies the words he read in law books, newspapers and treatises and it settles in the dust that fell upon his tattered sofa and old chairs. It is caught in the frames that embraced faded paintings that hung askew from his walls and it is ground into the worn carpet. It runs through the dank corners of our suite of offices, across aged papers and unanswered letters and unpaid bills and old law books that have sat for years upon chairs intended for the convenience of clients. It runs along the electric cord that connected his old coffee maker to the wall. And it saturates the words he spoke, words I heard, words that can never again be spoken or heard, words borne of an adroit mind, confident words, understandable words, meaningful words, words quoted from his memory of old cases, stories, jokes, intimate depictions of old judges and remembrances of cases won and rueful accounts of cases he wished he had won, theories comprised of brilliant words, wonderful in their simplicity, words of advice directed toward me in careful cadence, keen assessments of fact and law and risk, warm words, kind words, spirited words, gruff words, all said and now done. The life in him streams toward me through his kind bright eyes and runs like tears across his puffy cheeks and creased jowls and falls upon his heavy arms and torso. It runs through his silver hair and the back of his pink neck and across broad shoulders. It lingers over mottled skin and rings the finger that he would raise to the ceiling to emphasize a point. It clings to his arms as they fall and slap in unison upon his thighs as a way to punctuate a story and it loops around his wide throat, rises with his voice that rings in our ears as he launched laughter that leapt high across bookshelves and into the ceiling. It reveals itself in the open embrace of his empathetic, kind heart. This was, and is, his aftermath. It has a life of its own and it radiates in all directions.
In the initial days that followed his death, I didn’t quite know what to do. My mind was unsettled and my thoughts were warped like beams of light that gravity bends around the waist of a massive planet. I attended his funeral and I offered a eulogy and, through the course of my tribute, I felt miserably cold.
It is only recently that I have begun to collect my bearings but I see what lies ahead. I have a sense of my mission which will, undoubtedly, go on for quite some time. I realize, however, that it will someday end: the aftermath of Weinberg’s life, as immeasurable as it now seems, will itself die in the course of time. Its waves will subside, its currents will ebb and, eventually, its ripples will lap the shore and seep into the sand. And when my death comes, the word will spread, perhaps slowly, perhaps quietly. In response to the few who inquire, others may answer: “he was a lawyer, he worked with Weinberg.”